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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


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
  • We think of the 1960s as a turbulent decade, but the shifts of the 70s left the deepest imprint on America; shifts from manufacturing to information trading, from social affinity to self-actualization, from modernism's earnestness to postmodernism's spectacle, writes Vince Carducci in Logos. While these shifts were actually in the making for decades, Carducci says recent scholarship has singled out the 70s as the pivotal moment of their emergence. While Francis Fukuyama has called the transformation of traditional industrial society the "Great Disruption," Carducci says what was happening was more profound—it was the advent of the postmodern notion that the reality of our social, historical, and economic understandings is culturally constructed. Essay Carducci spends too much time summarizing a lot of scholarship in order to make a simple point—the 70s marked the triumph of "the fetish of the commodity"—but he eventually arrives at a succinct conclusion: "The postmodern turn that unfolded over the decade tracked the shift from vertically integrated assembly line to outsourced sweatshop, production to consumption, commodity to brand, equity to debt, concrete to spectacle.
    Television: back to the 90s, from the New York Times
    Merchandise: back to the 80s, third item here
    The birth of semiotics, earlier item
  • "There is such a thing as exhausting the capital of one's health and constitution," President William Howard Taft told the New York Times in a 1910. Tell that to Americans today, one in four of whom doesn't receive—or doesn't use up—paid vacation time, says The Week magazine. The culprit, The Week says, is "the stern Protestants who first settled this country" and their belief that "idleness corrupted the soul." While this scapegoating is dubious (see an essay on the Protestant ethic and capitalism forthcoming from B&C), it is quite a sacrifice that Americans, unique among developed nations, are willing to make: less vacation time in exchange for more profit but also more irritability, insomnia, and heart disease. Article
    German companies extend work week to keep up with world economy, from the Frankfurter Allgemeine
    French government calls 35-hour work week a 'disaster,' from the London Telegraph
    College professors are overworked, says one prof in the London Guardian and another in the Chronicle of Higher Education
  • News reports of this year's emergence of the 17-year cicadas said they came in "biblical proportions," a cliché that was more apt than we realize, writes Jeremy Biles in the Sightings newsletter. Biles says scholarship shows that the plague of locusts recorded in Exodus was actually an appearance of periodical cicadas, and that's just the beginning of "the inadequately studied religious dimensions of the cicada phenomenon." Biles cites the cicadas' "monstrosity"—which evokes in us "a contradictory affectivity characterized by simultaneous fascination and repulsion— 'sacred horror' "—and their "eroticism," with their "amatory life" animated by "imminent death." "What compels our fascination with these insects," he concludes, "is the recognition of a holy desire to be single-minded, devoted, tenacious, and unreservedly loving—to embody the obsessive, religious impulse to love, even unto death." Entry
    Review of Locust, a B&C Book of the Week
  • The New Yorker's view of Christian comedian Brad Stine is probably summed up in the seemingly rhetorical tagline of its profile of him: "How funny can a Christian comedian be?" But the magazine does devote a lengthy story to what makes Stine tick, and finds more than the usual conservative punching bag of secular liberalism (though Stine does lambast that). Calling his standup act "progressive, contemporary-style" (the New Yorker calls it "frantic, aggressive, and caustic"), Stine spoofs certain fatuities of American evangelicals, from "God is my co-pilot" bumper stickers to the assumption that Satan to blame job layoffs. Stine, 44, says his hero is George Carlin, but he substitutes "stinking" for Carlin's favorite adjective, and comes across as nudging, rather than pushing, the envelope. Article
  • Miscellaneous:How the water cycle tinkers with the earth's gravity, and the sociology of beaches, from the New York Times —Robert Kaplan reports from Fallujah in the Atlantic - Nigerian e-mail scammers contested, from the BBC, and arrested, from the Observer - Ten myths about outsourcing, from Reason
    Edward Said's last essay: when artists age, from the Guardian - Would-be Waldener tires of nature, in the Boston Globe - Does BBQ-ing really cause cancer? From the Chicago Reader
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant atBooks & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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