By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

icon1 of 2view all


After 30 years, Stephen Hawking changed his mind last month about one of his most famous theories. In 1975, Hawking said that black holes—balls of matter so dense that light cannot escape (if the Earth collapsed into a black hole, it would be less than an inch in diameter)—seemed to swallow information whole, releasing only generic, featureless radiation. This meant that studying the matter that entered a black hole based on what came out was impossible. But last month, at a conference on gravitational physics in Dublin, Hawking said that the emissions of black holes might contain information, after all. This would be in keeping with the laws of quantum physics, which say that information cannot vanish from the universe. "The black hole only appears to form but later opens up and releases information about what fell in, so we can be sure of the past and we can predict the future," Hawking said. "If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our Universe but in a mangled form," he said.

This admission meant that Hawking lost a bet with physicist John Preskill, who doubted Hawking's 1975 theory, and so Hawking awarded Preskill a Total Baseball encyclopedia. Preskill was glad to get it but—after hearing Hawking say that "the path integral over all topologically non-trivial metrics is asymptotically independent of the initial state"—Preskill admitted, "To be honest, I didn't understand the talk."

Physicist Paul Ginsparg did, and wrote in a New York Timesop-ed last week that Hawking's revision is incomplete. "The recent 'resolution' of the information puzzle," he wrote, "has neither supporting publication nor calculation, peer-reviewed or otherwise." Hawking made the announcement and handed over Total Baseball "without even a hint yet as to what might have been missing from [his] original calculation," Ginsparg asserted. Ginsparg didn't say whether or not Hawking's explanation was sound, only that what happens in black holes will remain "a profound puzzle whose resolution will provide clues to understanding the basic laws of physics."

More about Hawking's announcement from the Economist
The sound waves bursting from black holes, from the Times


From the Christian Science Monitor:

• It was named nearly a century ago to honor a Japanese immigrant who taught the locals how to farm rice. But regardless of its intent, the name Jap Road has offended Japanese-Americans and fueled persistent images of racial intolerance in East Texas. Now, after much wrangling, Jefferson County has asked residents for a new name. Last week, county commissioners voted to rename the four-mile stretch outside Beaumont, not because they believe the residents are bigots, but because they worry the nation does.

• Not many—outside Texas—confuse the Big Apple with Dallas, the Big D. But a new marketing campaign is designed to put a little more glitz and a lot more attitude into Cowtown USA. Hoping to shed its boot-strapped image, Dallas has come up with a new city slogan: "Live Large, Think Big." The idea is to play up its entrepreneurial opportunities and maverick attitude —and Dallas not alone in seeking a new image. Recently, cities and states such as Columbia, S.C. ("Where friendliness flows"), Pennsylvania ("State of Independence"), and San Francisco ("Only in San Francisco") have come up with new slogans. Others, such as Denver, Kentucky, and Palm Springs, Calif., are still shopping around. But do slogans really work? … Not really, say experts.


  • Alice Fulton's poetry, says the Atlantic, is "remarkably 'about things' "; it doesn't display contemporary poetry's fixation on style and abstractions. "Her poems explore their overt subject matter deeply and uphold their convictions with rigor … delivering pleasurable yet exacting jolts of mindfulness," the Atlantic says in an online-only interview with Fulton. Little of the interview is terribly illuminating ("To avoid being stale and preachy or cliché d, the poet always needs to ask herself how to approach the world freshly and deeply," Fulton advises), but toward the end, Fulton introduces an intriguing formula, saying that poetry should combine beauty and justice. "Art should be fair in both senses of the word," she says. "Fair is the perfect word because it means both justice and beauty. There is no beauty without justice: if something is very beautiful but there is no rightness to it in the ethical sense, its beauty is at heart cold and selfish, narcissistic and empty. It's a debased aesthetic object. But something beautiful that's also fair—as in ethical and just—is something sublime." Interview
    James Wood on beauty in the New York Times
    Wills that pass on values, from the Christian Science Monitor
icon1 of 2view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide