Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Firewalls can only be settled by debate

Matthew R. Francis writes in Slate:
The wild-haired German's latest foe comes to us courtesy of a story in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye. The very first sentence reads: “This time, they say, Einstein might really be wrong.” Specifically, a debate over the nature of black holes could challenge “the basis of his general theory of relativity … on which our understanding of the universe is based.”

Sounds dire, no? Poor Einstein could be refuted at last, more than 50 years after his death, his legacy shredded by the very black holes his theory predicted. But this framing presents a distorted view of the process of science. ...

Newer theories supplant older ones conceptually, but every theory is provisional, constantly tested by experiments and observations. Einstein, important as he was in 20th-century physics, is not the ultimate authority even on his own theories, and refinements to his work should not be framed as proving him right or wrong. Rather than saying things like “Einstein survives to fight another day” or “[throwing] Einstein under the bus,” as Overbye does, we should frame scientific discovery as a process, not a clash between people. Black hole firewalls are part of the process, which ultimately won't be settled by debate. Let's let Einstein sit this one out.
I already commented on Overbye's raticle. Overbye is an Einstein biographer and idolizer, but other science writers do the same.

It is rare for anyone to even mention relativity without tying in some Einstein worship. I cannot think of any other scientific theory that is so universally tied to the beliefs and personality of one man.

In this case, Einstein is particularly inappropriate because he did not even believe in black holes or quantum mechanics. So we have no idea what he would think about some alleged contradiction between the two.

I agree with much of what Francis says, but not his conclusion that "Black hole firewalls ... ultimately won't be settled by debate." The issue can only be settled by debate. There is no experiment that can be done to decide the issue. It is not really a scientific question.

Leo Susskind wrote a whole book on how debate supposedly settled a closely related issue, the Black hole information paradox. He is a big believer in paradigm shift theory, and he has no evidence in the usual scientific sense. He claims victory based on opinion polls of his colleagues, not any scientific theory or experiment. He is an example in my book of how How Einstein Ruined Physics.

Update: Freeman Dyson recently wrote:
Permanent free fall was a new idea, counterintuitive and profoundly important. It allows a massive star to keep falling permanently into a black hole without ever reaching the bottom.

Einstein never imagined and never accepted this consequence of his theory.
So yes, Einstein was not the authority on black holes.

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