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How Black is Black?

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  • How Black is Black?

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 13 - Black Holes: A String/M-Theory Perspective
    How Black is Black?
    As it turns out, Hawking too had thought of the analogy between his black hole area-increase law and the law of inevitable increase of entropy, but he dismissed it as nothing more than a coincidence. After all, Hawking argued, based upon his area-increase law and other results he had found with James Bardeen and Brandon Carter, if one did take the analogy between the laws of black holes and the laws of thermodynamics seriously, not only would one be forced to identify the area of the black hole's event horizon with entropy, but it turns out that one would also have to assign a temperature to the black hole (with the precise value determined by the strength of the black hole's gravitational field at its event horizon). But if a black hole has a nonzero temperature—no matter how small—the most basic and well-established physical principles would require it to emit radiation, much like a glowing poker. But black holes, as everyone knows, are black; they supposedly do not emit anything. Hawking and most everyone else agreed that this definitively ruled out Bekenstein's suggestion. Instead, Hawking was willing to accept that if matter carrying entropy is dropped into a black hole, this entropy is lost, plain and simple. So much for the second law of thermodynamics.

    This was the case until Hawking, in 1974, discovered something truly amazing. Black holes, Hawking announced, are not completely black. If one ignores quantum mechanics and invokes only the laws of classical general relativity, then as originally found some six decades previously, black holes certainly do not allow anything—not even light—to escape their gravitational grip. But the inclusion of quantum mechanics modifies this conclusion in a profound way. Even though he was not in possession of a quantum-mechanical version of general relativity, Hawking was able to finesse a partial union of these two theoretical tools that yielded some limited yet reliable results. And the most important result he found was that black holes do emit radiation, quantum mechanically.

    The calculations are long and arduous, but Hawking's basic idea is simple. We have seen that the uncertainty principle ensures that even the vacuum of empty space is a teeming, roiling frenzy of virtual particles momentarily erupting into existence and subsequently annihilating one another. This jittery quantum behavior also occurs in the region of space just outside the event horizon of a black hole. Hawking realized, however, that the gravitational might of the black hole can inject energy into a pair of virtual photons, say, that tears them just far enough apart so that one gets sucked into the hole. With its partner having disappeared into the abyss of the hole, the other photon of the pair no longer has a partner with which to annihilate. Instead, Hawking showed that the remaining photon gets an energy boost from the gravitational force of the black hole and, as its partner falls inward, it gets shot outward, away from the black hole. Hawking realized that to someone looking at the black hole from the safety of afar, the combined effect of this tearing apart of virtual photon pairs, happening over and over again all around the horizon of the black hole, will appear as a steady stream of outgoing radiation. Black holes glow.

    Moreover, Hawking was able to calculate the temperature that a far-off observer would associate with the emitted radiation and found that it is given by the strength of the gravitational field at the black hole's horizon, exactly as the analogy between the laws of black hole physics and the laws of thermodynamics suggested. 3 Bekenstein was right: Hawking's results showed that the analogy should be taken seriously. In fact, these results showed that it is much more than an analogy—it is an identity. A black hole has entropy. A black hole has temperature. And the gravitational laws of black hole physics are nothing but a rewriting of the laws of thermodynamics in an extremely exotic gravitational context. This was Hawking's 1974 bombshell.

    To give you a sense of the scales involved, it turns out that when one carefully accounts for all of the details, a black hole whose mass is about three times that of the sun has a temperature of about a hundred-millionth of a degree above absolute zero. It's not zero, but only just. Black holes are not black, but only barely. Unfortunately, this makes a black hole's emitted radiation meager, and impossible to detect experimentally. There is, however, an exception. Hawking's calculations also showed that the less massive a black hole is, the higher its temperature and the greater the radiation it emits. For instance, a black hole as light as a small asteroid would emit about as much radiation as a million-megaton hydrogen bomb, with radiation concentrated in the gamma-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Astronomers have searched the night sky for such radiation, but except for a few long-shot possibilities they have come up empty-handed, a likely indication that such low-mass black holes, if they exist, are very rare. 4 As Hawking often jokingly points out, this is too bad, for if the black hole radiation that his work predicts were to be detected, he would undoubtedly win a Nobel Prize. 5

    By contrast with its tiny, sub-millionth of a degree temperature, when one calculates the entropy of, say, a three-solar-mass black hole, the result is an absolutely enormous number: a one followed by about 78 zeros! And the more massive the hole, the greater the entropy. The success of Hawking's calculations unequivocally established that this truly reflects the enormous amount of disorder embodied by a black hole.

    But disorder of what? As we have seen, black holes appear to be terribly simple objects, so what is the source of this overwhelming disorder? On this question, Hawking's calculations were completely silent. His partial merger of general relativity and quantum mechanics could be used to find the numerical value of a black hole's entropy, but offered no insight into its microscopic meaning. For nearly a quarter of a century, some of the greatest physicists tried to understand what possible microscopic properties of black holes could account for their entropy. But without a fully trustworthy amalgam of quantum mechanics and general relativity, glimpses of an answer may have been uncovered, but the mystery remained unsolved.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
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