This week, I'm hanging out with some of the greatest minds in theoretical physics. They're trying to answer some of the burning questions that scientists still have about black holes.
From Aug. 24-29, The Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (Nordita) is playing host to a veritable “who’s who” of the physics world, gathering the fathers of black hole theory in a tiny conference room at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. There's James Bardeen, known for his work in helping to formulate the laws of black hole mechanics; Leonard Parker, whose pioneering work on particle creation has helped scientists understand our expanding universe; Nobel prize winner Gerard t’Hooft; and, of course, Stephen Hawking.
Hawking was an hour late on Monday, but nobody seemed to mind. Sporting whimsical purple laces on his black dress shoes, Hawking wasn’t even the headliner of that day's schedule. The famed physicist was surrounded by researchers of similar ilk, and his arrival interrupted the speech of a Nobel laureate.
In a conference organized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Nordita and headed up by physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton, along with Nordita director and cosmologist Katherine Freese, these great scientists will spend a week thinking — and arguing — about the mysteries of black holes.
Hawking, who will present new theories on black holes to his colleagues later in the week, gave a public lecture on the topic to a sold-out auditorium on the Stockholm waterfront on Monday evening.
After a lesson in the basics of black holes, Hawking explained the questions that drove him to attend this week's conference.
"The particles that come out of a black hole seem to be completely random," Hawking said, referring to the "Hawking Radiation" that he discovered in the 70s.
"It appears that the information about what fell in is lost," he said. "It might seem that it does not matter whether we can predict what comes out of a black hole. There aren't any near us. But it is a matter of principle."
The loss of all of that information violates basic laws we've placed upon the Universe. If those laws are broken by black holes, they might be broken elsewhere. And in that case, everything we know about physics starts to fall apart.
Along with the other conference attendees, Hawking is hoping to prove that black holes don't actually violate these physical laws.
"The message of this lecture is that black holes ain't as black as they were painted," Hawking said. "They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don't give up. There's a way out!"
The crowd went wild.
There are plans to take away some of the mystery by using powerful radio telescopes (jointly called the Event Horizon Telescope) to study the black hole that sits in the center of our galaxy. But for now, the best scientists can do is think deep thoughts — and create lots of complex mathematical equations — to try to puzzle out how black holes might behave.
This week in Stockholm, many deep thoughts are being thought. And many complex mathematical equations are being scribbled. And the fathers of modern physics are arguing. So much so, in fact, that they've had to work right through their Fika, the traditional Swedish coffee breaks meant to include tasty pastries and relaxing conversation.
There's been a lot of coffee, but the coffee talk has been more aggressive than is strictly speaking traditional.
Conference attendee and KTH space program director Christer Fuglesang is a particle physicist and astronaut. He's been on five spacewalks for the European Space Agency, but he was positively gleeful at the prospect of spending a week with Hawking and co.
"I have a Ph.D. in particle physics, but I never dared go into theoretical physics," Fuglesang said. "I wasn't smart enough for that. It's wonderful to have the chance to listen to these, the brightest minds in this area. I know enough to understand what they're talking about -- in a general sense."
It's doubtful that the week-long think tank will produce any earth shattering new theories. Science, after all, takes time. But theoretical physics also takes brainpower, and there's enough in one room in Stockholm to light up the universe.
This post has been updated to clarify the involvement of various institutions with the conference.