Schrödinger’s Elephant

Al’s coffee shop sits right between the Astronomy and Physics buildings, which is good because he’s a big Science fan.  He and Jeremy are in an excited discussion when Anne and I walk in.  “Two croissants, Al, and two coffees, black.”

“Comin’ up, Sy.  Hey, you see the news?  Big days for gravitational astronomy.”

Jeremy breaks in.  “There’s a Nobel Prize been announced —”

“Kip Thorne the theorist and Barry Barish the management guy —”

“and Rainer Weiss the instrumentation wizard —”

“shared the Physics prize for getting LIGO to work —”

“and it saw the first signal of a black hole collision in 2015 —”

“and two more since —”

“and confirmed more predictions from relativity theory —”

“and Italy’s got their Virgo gravitational wave detector up and running —”

“And Virgo and our two LIGOs, —”

“Well, they’re both aLIGOs now, being upgraded and all —”

“all three saw the same new wave —”

“and it’s another collision between black holes with weird masses that we can’t account for.  Who’s the lady?”

“Al, this is Anne.  Jeremy, close your mouth, you’ll catch a fly.”  (Jeremy blushes, Anne twinkles.)  “Anne and I are chasing an elephant.”

“Pleased to meetcha, Anne.  But no livestock in here, Sy, the Health Department would throw a fit!”

I grin.  “That’s exactly what Eddie said.  It’s an abstract elephant, Al.  We’ve been discussing entropy. Which is an elephant because it’s got so many aspects no-one can agree on what it is.  It’s got something to do with heat capacity, something to do with possibilities you can’t rule out, something to do with signals and information.  And Hawking showed that entropy also has something to do with black holes.”

“Which I don’t know much about, fellows, so someone will have to explain.”

Jeremy leaps in.  “I can help with that, Miss Anne, I just wrote a paper on them.”

“Just give us the short version, son, she can ask questions if she wants a detail.”

“Yessir.  OK, suppose you took all the Sun’s mass and squeezed it into a ball just a few miles across.  Its density would be so high that escape velocity is faster than the speed of light so an outbound photon just falls back inward and that’s why it’s black.  Is that a good summary, Mr Moire?”

“Well, it might be good enough for an Internet blog but it wouldn’t pass inspection for a respectable science journal.  Photons don’t have mass so the whole notion of escape velocity doesn’t apply.  You do have some essential elements right, though.  Black holes are regions of extreme mass density, we think more dense than anywhere else in the Universe.  A black hole’s mass bends space so tightly around itself that nearby light waves are forced to orbit its region or even spiral inward.  The orbiting happens right at the black hole’s event horizon, its thin shell that encloses the space where things get really weird.  And Anne, the elephant stands on that shell.”white satin and black hole“Wait, Mr Moire, we said that the event horizon’s just a mathematical construct, not something I could stand on.”

“And that’s true, Jeremy.  But the elephant’s an abstract construct, too.  So abstract we’re still trying to figure out what’s under the abstraction.”

“I’m trying to figure out why you said the elephant’s standing there.”

“Anne, it goes back to the event horizon’s being a mathematical object, not a real one.  Its spherical surface marks the boundary of the ultimate terra incognita.  Lightwaves can’t pass outward from it, nor can anything material, not even any kind of a signal.  For at least some kinds of black hole, physicists have proven that the only things we can know about one are its mass, spin and charge.  From those we can calculate some other things like its temperature, but black holes are actually pretty simple.”


“So there’s a collision with Quantum Theory.  One of QT’s fundamental assumptions is that in principle we can use a particle’s current wave function to predict probabilities for its future.  But the wave function information disappears if the particle encounters an event horizon.  Things are even worse if the particle’s entangled with another one.”

“Information, entropy, elephant … it’s starting to come together.”

“That’s what he said.”

~~ Rich Olcott


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