Friday, August 1, 2014

What happens when two eminent Physicists argue?


"The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics" by Leonard Susskind (2008)

After putting a comment about a recent book I had read on the Book of Face, my pal Clayton Counts offered a suggestion that I should pick up this book by Leonard Susskind.  In it he discusses the development of his black hole theories as they relate to Stephen Hawking’s, and specifically about a wager placed between the two physicists regarding whether information is lost irrevocably once it enters a black hole.

This is what it looks like when cartoon physicists argue

             Hawkins was certain that info was lost permanently (meaning that once a particle went into a black hole, there was no way for anyone outside the black hole to know what had gone in).  Susskind was of the opinion that there must be a quantum property of matter that allows info to “escape” the black hole.  This wager was made in the early 80’s and it took over a decade of research and theoretical work to come up with a definitive answer.
            I love physics and I knew already how the wager turned out (Susskind was right and Hawking was forced to pay up), but the book is not about a simple answer on a bet.  It details the process by which theoretical physicists determine whether an idea is right or wrong, and how, no matter how smart, learned, or prestigious you may be, the correct answer is the correct answer, even if it flies in the face of everything you ever worked to prove.
            That is the beauty of the scientific method.  It is self-correcting.  So many ignorant people denigrate science because it has been wrong before about something.  These morons do not understand that being wrong is integral to learning!  You must be wrong before you can be right.  Ideas must be tested, and if the testing capabilities are not yet available, then the ideas must wait for the technology/engineering to catch up, so it can be tested.  The whole of our human civilization is built upon the acceptance of what works and the accumulation of that knowledge. 
            Most researchers spend much of their time devising ways and tools to test out their theories.  In theoretical physics that tool is usually mathematics.  Susskind shows how, when faced with the math that showed his hypothesis to be incorrect, Stephen Hawking did what good scientists do.  He accepted he was incorrect and that was that.  The pigheaded among us who assume they are “correct” and everyone else is wrong should take Mr. Hawking’s example and open their minds to the possibility that they may be wrong.

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