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Beyond the infinity of black holes

As noted previously, quantum physics has struggled with infinities. A recent Space.com article on black holes reminded me of another part of that saga. Black holes serve as touchstones in several ways.

Wiki: … there are some theoretical circumstances where the end result is infinity. One example is the singularity in the description of black holes.

First, it’s amazing that we’re talking about black holes at all. It wasn’t long ago — maybe a 100 years or so, that our view of the cosmos was much more circumscribed. Those who studied cosmology — physicists, astronomers, et al, viewed our cosmos in a much different way, at a much different scale — basically an island universe: Earth, the solar system and the Milky Way. We existed in a galaxy, but a singular one.

Now, almost one hundred years later, it is difficult to fully appreciate how much our picture of the universe has changed in the span of a single human lifetime. As far as the scientific community in 1917 was concerned, the universe was static and eternal, and consisted of a single galaxy, our Milky Way, surrounded by a vast, infinite, dark, and empty space. This is, after all, what you would guess by looking up at the night sky with your eyes, or with a small telescope, and at the time there was little reason to suspect otherwise. — Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (pp. 1-2). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

The radical change is cosmic perspective has consequences. Certainly in origin theories. But also regarding philosophies which predate modern knowledge. The situation goes beyond just a revisionist approach to the “God of the gaps” argument. As Lawrence Krause points out:

Science is compatible with some basic form of deism … But having said that, science is not compatible with all the strict doctrines of all the world’s major religions, and that includes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, as well as some of the minor ones, like Mormonism and Buddhism. And there is good reason for this: The doctrines were written down by people who didn’t know how the world worked. Except for Mormonism, which is recent, they were written down when we didn’t know that the Earth orbited the Sun! — Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (p. 192). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

Secondly, there was even no real consensus on the existence of black holes. Witness the famous bet between Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking:

Wiki: In 1975, cosmologist Stephen Hawking bet fellow cosmologist Kip Thorne … that Cygnus X-1 would turn out to not be a black hole. In 1990, Hawking acknowledged that he had lost the bet. Hawking’s explanation for his position was that if black holes didn’t actually exist much of his research would be incorrect, but at least he’d have the consolation of winning the bet.

Decades ago I heard terms like quasars, which were sources of mysterious intense cosmic radiation. We now know these sources contain black holes. And we realize that likely every one of the billions of galaxies contains near its core one or more black holes. Even our Milky Way. And all black holes are not created equal. And there’s even debate about the role of black holes in galactic evolution — which came first — black hole as galactic seed or evolved core.

So, that Space.com article is a useful summary of the state of things, not just our view of black holes themselves but of the cosmic landscape1 and theories in physics.2 How the scale of things works, at 10^n and 10^-n. Mind-boggling stuff indeed.

 

[1] Science has discovered new “dots” to connect for our world view. Does a philosophy based on the notion that the Earth is the center of the universe (or is only a few thousand years old) retain any credibility? Or a perspective based on the universe being less than billions of years old?

[2] That word — infinite — is a hard pill to swallow. When infinites appear in the mathematics, it’s a signpost that we’re doing something wrong, that our machinery isn’t quite up to the task. We’re missing something. … we know our theoretical models (i.e., general relativity) are incomplete. There isn’t really a singularity at the center of a black hole. But we simply don’t understand strong gravity at small scales. That’s the domain of a full-on quantum theory of gravity, which we haven’t cracked despite decades of trying. Hard. — Paul Sutter, On the Existence of Black Holes, September 11, 2017.