Mad scientists

  • Article by: DEBORAH BLUM , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2008 - 3:48 PM

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but physicists love nothing more than a good argument.

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Reading a book with "quantum mechanics" in the subtitle makes me feel smart. Especially smart. Possibly smarter than anyone around me. I noticed this unattractive effect while reading "The Black Hole War" on a long airline flight, when I caught myself sneering at the beach-book passenger in the next seat.

Thankfully, though, I got over myself before I stepped onto the jetway. It's impossible to read Leonard Susskind's beautifully clear story without realizing he's not really interested in writing for the elite mind, whatever that is. He's interested in those readers -- and this includes me -- who like their physics lessons served up with style and wit. "Welcome to the fun house," he writes, "the mad, insane, topsy-turvy world of Quantum Mechanics, where uncertainty rules and nothing makes sense to the sensible."

Susskind, a professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University, has written a book that's part insider history of science, focused on a period in the 1980s and 1990s when physicists were quarreling over the destructive capacity of black holes, and part primer on the science that explains the argument. As the subtitle makes obvious, the story contains an all-star cast of opinionated physicists: assorted Nobel laureates such as Richard Feynman, brilliant minds of the past such as Sir Isaac Newton, and, of course, Stephen Hawking, arguably the best-known theorist of black hole mechanics.

Hawking is partly famous for possessing a brilliant mind trapped in a disintegrating body. His 1988 best-seller, "A Brief History of Time," featured his photo on the cover, looking rather like a very savvy hobbit tucked into the bat-like wings of an enormous wheelchair. Susskind describes him as being as much a showman as a genius: "He is a physically tiny man - I doubt he weights 100 pounds - but his small body contains a prodigious intelligence and an equally outsized ego."

Susskind's irritation with Hawking derives from their opposite stands on the long-running black hole debate. It is, of course, the kind of argument that only physicists can really obsess about.

A black hole is a region in space, an area of space-time, with a gravitational field so intense that even light cannot escape. In the early 1980s, Hawking proposed that not only was light trapped in a black hole but that it, and all other forms of energy -- which physicists sometimes refer to as "information" -- would be destroyed in the interior. According to the admittedly odd laws of physics, light, emitted by a star, can be considered to act as both moving particles (photons) and as energy waves. Another way of thinking about light is that it is actually information about the star itself.

Susskind and his allies countered that such a loss of information is not possible in the realm of quantum mechanics, which provides that no information is ever lost; it is merely altered, transformed, thus keeping the universe in its own peculiar but essential state of balance.

Susskind infuses this difference of opinion with genuine drama, occasionally verging on melodrama: "All hell would break loose in all of physics, not just black hole physics, once the door to information loss was opened. Stephen's challenge had ignited a fuse to a bundle of theoretical dynamite." The strength of the book, though, is not the theatrics but how he uses the quarrel to explore the physics behind the theoretical firefight. He does a terrific job across an astonishing range, from Einstein's work in relativity to the laws of thermodynamics to the fantastical ideas behind string theory in cosmology. When the debate finally ends -- and I'll let you guess who wins -- the reader has gotten some rather entertaining insights into the world of physics and a very nice grounding in the science.

In fact, I do feel a little smarter than before I whiled away a flight with Susskind's book. I may even allow myself a certain amount of smugness after all.

Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of "Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death."

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  • The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind

  • THE BLACK HOLE WAR

    By: Leonard Susskind

    Publisher: Little, Brown, 470 pages, $28

    Review: A marvelous book for the inquisitive scientific layman that not only chronicles one of the most important theoretical disputes of modern physics, but gives readers an excellent, intelligible background in the science behind the spat.

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