The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole Information Paradox: An Animated Explanation of the Greatest Unsolved Challenge to Our Understanding of Reality

“It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century as she contemplated the human search for truth. Since her era — a time predating the very notion of a galaxy, when we thought our tiny parochial Solar System was the full extent of the universe — this search has taken us into new horizons of knowledge, which have only unlatched new questions, tangling some into confounding paradoxes — none more disquieting to our understanding of reality than the black hole information paradox.

When Stephen Hawking discovered black hole radiation in the 1970s, the idea that black holes slowly emanate energy contradicted the core mathematical model of black holes as regions of spacetime that swallow all physical information. This paradox cast into stark conflict the two great truth-models of modern physics: Einstein’s general relativity, or the science of the very large, holding true on the scale of galaxies, and quantum field theory, or the science of the very small, holding true on the scale of particles. Hawking himself devoted his life to reconciling this fundamental conflict in a unified theory of everything, which he never completed. Another proposed solution to the information paradox is the holographic principle, which, if correct, would render everything we experience as reality a holographic 3D projection of information encoded on the flat rim of the universe.

In this lovely animated primer from TED-Ed, astrophysicist Fabio Pacucci breaks down the black hole information paradox, the essential theories from which it arises, and the disorienting challenges it poses to our fundamental understanding of reality.

Complement with the magnificent Black Hole Blues and poet Marie Howe’s tribute to Hawking, then revisit Hawking himself on the meaning of the universe, what makes a good theory, and the “God” question.

Published November 19, 2019




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