The Other I

October 2, 2010

Unlearning the obvious

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 3:04 pm

As graduate students, some of us used to play a game in which we constructed paragraphs composed to sound like learned articles but which were absolute nonsense.  It made us laugh which helped to keep us sane.

Occasionally, I read a serious article that in my ignorance sounds exactly like one of our graduate creations, and I cannot resist the impulse to laugh.  I had that experience yesterday reading an article about black holes published in this week’s Economist.   Here is an excerpt that illustrates my point.  I’ve underlined two statements I think deserve special attention.

Dr. Hawking’s insight came from considering what happens in the empty space just outside the event horizon (of a black hole).  According to quantum mechanics, empty space is anything but empty.  Rather, it is a rolling, seething cauldron of evanescent particles.  For brief periods of time, these particles pop into existence from pure nothingness, leaving behind holes in the nothingness – or antiparticles, as physicists label them.  A short time later, particle and hole recombine, and the nothingness resumes.

If, however, the pair appears on the edge of an event horizon, either particle or hole may wander across the horizon, never to return.  Deprived of its partner, the particle (or the hole) has no “choice” but to become real.

I’ve read this kind of thing before, but it went so far over my head that I barely noticed.  This time I was really trying to understand.

I must confess that I have failed utterly.  I cannot conceive how a particle that is not yet real must become real because it has lost its partner.  And how does one leave a hole in nothingness?  Or if the particle does find its partner — which is a hole —  why do both return to nothingness – which replaces the hole.   My questions seem so obvious that I am practically speechless.

And I already knew particles on the quantum level “pop in and out of existence” but in truth I have absolutely no idea what the physicists are talking about.

What can I say?  I asked somebody to explain this to me once but he sailed into math.  Are there any sources that plain ordinary people like me could understand?

(Not that I generally consider myself “plain and ordinary.”  But faced with this look at reality,  I feel the need for a little unaccustomed humility.)


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