Lenny Susskind has a new book out: The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. At first I was horrified by the title, but upon further reflection it’s grown on me quite a bit.
Some of you may know Susskind as a famous particle theorist, one of the early pioneers of string theory. Others may know his previous book: The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. (Others may never have heard of him, although I’m sure Lenny doesn’t want to hear that.) I had mixed feelings about the first book; for one thing, I thought it was a mistake to put “Intelligent Design” there in the title, even if it were to be dubbed an “Illusion.” So when the Wall Street Journal asked me to review it, I was a little hesitant; I have enormous respect for Susskind as a physicist, but if I ended up not liking the book I would have to be honest about it. Still, I hadn’t ever written anything for the WSJ, and how often does one get the chance to stomp about in the corridors of capitalism like that?
The good news is that I liked the book a great deal, as the review shows. I won’t reprint the thing here, as you are all well-trained when it comes to clicking on links. But let me mention just a few words about information conservation and loss, which is the theme of the book. (See Backreaction for another account.)
It’s all really Isaac Newton’s fault, although people like Galileo and Laplace deserve some of the credit. The idea is straightforward: evolution through time, as described by the laws of physics, is simply a matter of re-arranging a fixed amount of information in different ways. The information itself is neither created nor destroyed. Put another way: to specify the state of the world requires a certain amount of data, for example the positions and velocities of each and every particle. According to classical mechanics, from that data (the “information”) and the laws of physics, we can reliably predict the precise state of the universe at every moment in the future — and retrodict the prior states of the universe at every moment in the past. Put yet another way, here is Thomasina Coverley in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:
If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.
This is the Clockwork Universe, and it is far from an obvious idea. Pre-Newton, in fact, it would have seemed crazy. In Aristotelian mechanics, if a moving object is not subject to a continuous impulse, it will eventually come to rest. So if we find an object at rest, we have no way of knowing whether until recently it was moving, or whether it’s been sitting there for a long time; that information is lost. Many different pasts could lead to precisely the same present; whereas, if information is conserved, each possible past leads to exactly one specific state of affairs at the present. The conservation of information — which also goes by the name of “determinism” — is a profound underpinning of the modern way we think about the universe.
Determinism came under a bit of stress in the early 20th century when quantum mechanics burst upon the scene. In QM, sadly, we can’t predict the future with precision, even if we know the current state to arbitrary accuracy. The process of making a measurement seems to be irreducibly unpredictable; we can predict the probability of getting a particular answer, but there will always be uncertainty if we try to make certain measurements. Nevertheless, when we are not making a measurement, information is perfectly conserved in quantum mechanics: Schrodinger’s Equation allows us to predict the future quantum state from the past with absolute fidelity. This makes many of us suspicious that this whole “collapse of the wave function” that leads to an apparent loss of determinism is really just an illusion, or an approximation to some more complete dynamics — that kind of thinking leads you directly to the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. (For more, tune into my Bloggingheads dialogue with David Albert this upcoming Saturday.)
In any event, aside from the measurement problem, quantum mechanics makes a firm prediction that information is conserved. Which is why it came as a shock when Stephen Hawking said that black holes could destroy information. Hawking, of course, had famously shown that black holes give off radiation, and if you wait long enough they will eventually evaporate away entirely. Few people (who are not trying to make money off of scaremongering about the LHC) doubt this story. But Hawking’s calculation, at first glance (and second), implies that the outgoing radiation into which the black hole evaporates is truly random, within the constraints of being a blackbody spectrum. Information is seemingly lost, in other words — there is no apparent way to determine what went into the black hole from what comes out.
This led to one of those intellectual scuffles between “the general relativists” (who tended to be sympathetic to the idea that information is indeed lost) and “the particle physicists” (who were reluctant to give up on the standard rules of quantum mechanics, and figured that Hawking’s calculation must somehow be incomplete). At the heart of the matter was locality — information can’t be in two places at once, and it has to travel from place to place no faster than the speed of light. A set of reasonable-looking arguments had established that, in order for information to escape in Hawking radiation, it would have to be encoded in the radiation while it was still inside the black hole, which seemed to be cheating. But if you press hard on this idea, you have to admit that the very idea of “locality” presumes that there is something called “location,” or more specifically that there is a classical spacetime on which fields are propagating. Which is a pretty good approximation, but deep down we’re eventually going to have to appeal to some sort of quantum gravity, and it’s likely that locality is just an approximation. The thing is, most everyone figured that this approximation would be extremely good when we were talking about huge astrophysical black holes, enormously larger than the Planck length where quantum gravity was supposed to kick in.
But apparently, no. Quantum gravity is more subtle than you might think, at least where black holes are concerned, and locality breaks down in tricky ways. Susskind himself played a central role in formulating two ideas that were crucial to the story — Black Hole Complementarity and the Holographic Principle. Which maybe I’ll write about some day, but at the moment it’s getting late. For a full account, buy the book.
Right now, the balance has tilted quite strongly in favor of the preservation of information; score one for the particle physicists. The best evidence on their side (keeping in mind that all of the “evidence” is in the form of theoretical arguments, not experimental data) comes from Maldacena’s discovery of duality between (certain kinds of) gravitational and non-gravitational theories, the AdS/CFT correspondence. According to Maldacena, we can have a perfect equivalence between two very different-looking theories, one with gravity and one without. In the theory without gravity, there is no question that information is conserved, and therefore (the argument goes) it must also be conserved when there is gravity. Just take whatever kind of system you care about, whether it’s an evaporating black hole or something else, translate it into the non-gravitational theory, find out what it evolves into, and then translate back, with no loss of information at any step. Long story short, we still don’t really know how the information gets out, but there is a good argument that it definitely does for certain kinds of black holes, so it seems a little perverse to doubt that we’ll eventually figure out how it works for all kinds of black holes. Not an airtight argument, but at least Hawking buys it; his concession speech was reported on an old blog of mine, lo these several years ago.