Black holes and academic walls

Falling into a black hole used to be simple: you wouldn’t notice. But could there be a wall in your way?

According to Einstein you wouldn’t notice crossing a black hole horizon. But now researchers argue that a firewall or brickwall would be in your way. Have they entirely lost their collective minds?

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Image credits: Paul Terry Sutton

Tl;dr: Yes.

It is hard, sometimes, to understand why anyone would waste time on a problem as academic as black hole information loss. And I say that as someone who has spent a significant part of the last decade pushing black holes around in my head. Don’t physicists have anything better to do, in a world that is suffering from war and disease, bad grammar even? What drives these researchers, other than the hope to make headlines for solving a 40 years old conundrum?

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Image credit: P. Marenfeld/NOAO/AURA/NSF, via Gemini Observatory at

Many physicists today work on topics that, like black hole information loss, seem entirely detached from reality. Black holes only succeed in destroying information once they entirely evaporate, and that won’t happen for the next 100 billion years or so. It is not tangible use of their insights that motivates these scientists, but the recognition that someone today has to pave way for the science that will become relevant in a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years from now. And as I scan the human mess in my news feed, the unearthly cleanliness of the argument and the seemingly inescapable logic leading to a paradox admittedly only adds to its appeal.

You can also trap me with wire puzzles.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Matěj Baťha.

If black hole information loss was a cosmic whodunit, then quantum theory would be the victim. Stephen Hawking demonstrated in the early 1970s that when one combines quantum theory with gravity, one finds that black holes must emit thermal radiation. This “Hawking radiation” is composed of particles that besides their temperature do not contain any information. And so, when a black hole entirely evaporates all the information about what fell inside must ultimately be destroyed. But such destruction of information is incompatible with the very quantum theory one used to arrive at this conclusion. In quantum theory all processes can happen both forward and backward in time, but black hole evaporation, it seems, cannot be reversed.

This presented physicists with a major conundrum because it demonstrated that gravity and quantum theory refused to combine. It didn’t help either to try to explain away the problem alluding to the unknown theory of quantum gravity. Hawking radiation is not a quantum gravitational process, and while quantum gravity does eventually become important in the very late stages of a black hole’s evaporation, the argument goes that by this time, it is too late to get all the information out.

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Image credit: XMM-Newton, ESA, NASA.

The situation changed dramatically in the late 1990s, when Maldacena proposed that certain gravitational theories are equivalent to gauge theories. Discovered in string theory, this famed “gauge-gravity correspondence,” though still mathematically unproven, does away with the black hole information problem because whatever happens when a black hole evaporates is equivalently described in the gauge theory. And the gauge theory is known to not be capable of murdering information, thereby implying that the problem doesn’t exist.

While the gauge-gravity correspondence convinced many physicists, including Stephen Hawking himself, that black holes do not destroy information, it did not shed much light on just exactly how the information escapes the black hole. Research continued, but complacency spread through the ranks of theoretical physicists. String theory, it seemed, had resolved the paradox, and it was only a matter of time until details would be understood.

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Image credit: NASA / Dana Berry / Skyworks Digital.

But that wasn’t how things panned out. Instead, in 2012, a group of four physicist, Almheiri, Marolf, Polchinski, and Sully (AMPS) demonstrated that what was thought to be a solution was actually itself inconsistent. They showed that four assumptions, all generally believed by most string theorists to be correct, cannot in fact be simultaneously true. These four assumptions are that:

1.) Black holes don’t destroy information.

2.) The Standard Model of particle physics and General Relativity remain valid close by the black hole horizon.

3.) The amount of information stored inside a black hole is proportional to its surface area.

4.) An observer crossing the black hole horizon will not notice it.

The second assumption rephrases the statement that Hawking radiation is not a quantum gravitational effect. The third assumption is a conclusion drawn from calculations of the black hole microstates in string theory. The fourth assumption is Einstein’s equivalence principle. In a nutshell, AMPS say that at least one of these assumptions must be wrong. One of the witnesses is lying, but which?

In their paper, AMPS suggested, maybe not quite seriously, giving up on the least contested of these assumptions: the fourth one. Giving up on 4.), the other three assumptions then imply that an observer falling into the black hole would encounter a “firewall” and be burnt to ashes. The equivalence principle however is the central tenet of general relativity and giving it up really is the last resort.

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Image credit: Nature, via

For the uninitiated observer, the lying witness seems obviously 3). In contrast to the other assumptions, which are consequences of theories we already know and have tested to high precision, number 3 comes from a so-far untested theory. So if one assumption has to be dropped, then maybe it is the assumption that string theory is right about the information content of black holes. Needless to say, that option isn’t very popular with string theorists.

And so within a matter of months the hep-th category of the arxiv was cluttered with attempts to reconcile the disagreeable assumptions with one another. Proposed solutions included everything from just accepting the black hole firewall, to the multiverse, to elaborated thought-experiments meant to demonstrate that an observer wouldn’t actually notice being burnt. Yes, that’s modern physics for you.

I too of course have an egg in the basket. I found the witnesses were all convincing, and none of them seemed to be lying. Taking them at face value it finally occurred to me that what made the assumptions seemingly incompatible was an unstated fifth assumption that was used in the proof. Like seemingly incompatible testimonies might suddenly all make sense once you realize the victim wasn’t killed at the same place the body was found, the four assumptions suddenly all make sense when you do not require the information to be saved in a particular way (that the final state is “typical” state). Instead, the requirement that energy must be locally conserved near the horizon makes the firewall impossible, and at the same time also reveals exactly how the black hole evaporation remains compatible with quantum theory.

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Image credit: Cosmos: A space-time odyssey; © 1996–2015 National Geographic Channel.

I think nobody really liked my paper. That might be because it has an admittedly rather incomprehensible figure. Or maybe it’s because the conclusion is that somewhere near the horizon there must be a boundary which alters quantum theory, yet does so in a way that isn’t noticeable for any observer nearby the black hole. It is possible to measure the boundary’s effects, but only in the far distance.

While my proposal did resolve the firewall conundrum, it didn’t do anything about the black hole information loss problem. I mentioned in a side-note that in principle one could use this boundary to hand information into the outgoing radiation, but that would still not explain how the information would get into the boundary to begin with.

After publishing this paper, I vowed once again to never think about black hole evaporation again. But then last week, an arxiv preprint appeared by ‘t Hooft. One of the first to dabble in black hole thermodynamics, in his new paper ‘t Hooft proposes that the black hole horizon acts like a boundary that reflects information, a “brick wall” as New Scientist wants it. This new idea has been inspired by Stephen Hawking’s recent suggestion that much of the information falling into black holes continues to be stored on the horizon. If that is so, then giving the horizon a chance to act can allow the information to leave again.

Needless to say, I don’t think that bricks are much of an improvement over fire, and I’m pretty sure that this idea won’t hold up. But after all the confusion, it might eventually allow us to better understand just exactly how the horizon interacts with the Hawking radiation and how it might manage to encode information in it.

Fast forward a thousand years. At the end of the road there is a theory of quantum gravity that will allow us to understand the behavior of space and time on shortest distances and, so many hope, the origin of quantum theory itself, possible even that of matter too. Progress might seem incremental, and sometimes history leads us in circles, but what keeps physicists going is the knowledge that there must be a solution and that the murderer of information will eventually be identified. There’s no cheating by checking the last page of the book — it has yet to be written.

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