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Chapter 7

BLACK HOLES AIN’T SO BLACK

BEFORE 1970, MY research on General Relativity had concentrated mainly on the question of whether or not there had been a big bang singularity. However, one evening in November that year, shortly after the birth of my daughter, Lucy, I started to think about black holes as I was getting into bed. My disability makes this rather a slow process, so I had plenty of time. At that date there was no precise definition of which points in space-time lay inside a black hole and which lay outside. I had already discussed with Roger Penrose the idea of defining a black hole as the set of events from which it was not possible to escape to a large distance, which is now the generally accepted definition. It means that the boundary of the black hole, the event horizon, is formed by the light rays that just fail to escape from the black hole, hovering forever just on the edge . It is a bit like running away from the police and just managing to keep one step ahead but not being able to get clear away!

Suddenly I realized that the paths of these light rays could never approach one another. If they did, they must eventually run into one another. It would be like meeting someone else running away from the police in the opposite direction – you would both be caught! (Or, in this case, fall into a black hole.) But if these light rays were swallowed up by the black hole, then they could not have been on the boundary of the black hole. So the paths of light rays in the event horizon had always to be moving parallel to, or away from, each other. Another way of seeing this is that the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole, is like the edge of a shadow – the shadow of impending doom. If you look at the shadow cast by a source at a great distance, such as the sun, you will see that the rays of light in the edge are not approaching each other.

If the rays of light that form the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole, can never approach each other, the area of the event horizon might stay the same or increase with time but it could never decrease because that would mean that at least some of the rays of light in the boundary would have to be approaching each other. In fact, the area would increase whenever matter or radiation fell into the black hole . Or if two black holes collided and merged together to form a single black hole, the area of the event horizon of the final black hole would be greater than or equal to the sum of the areas of the event horizons of the original black holes . This nondecreasing property of the event horizon’s area placed an important restriction on the possible behavior of black holes. I was so excited with my discovery that I did not get much sleep that night. The next day I rang up Roger Penrose. He agreed with me. I think, in fact, that he had been aware of this property of the area. However, he had been using a slightly different definition of a black hole. He had not realized that the boundaries of the black hole according to the two definitions would be the same, and hence so would their areas, provided the black hole had settled down to a state in which it was not changing with time.

The nondecreasing behavior of a black hole’s area was very reminiscent of the behavior of a physical quantity called entropy, which measures the degree of disorder of a system. It is a matter of common experience that disorder will tend to increase if things are left to themselves. (One has only to stop making repairs around the house to see that!) One can create order out of disorder (for example, one can paint the house), but that requires expenditure of effort or energy and so decreases the amount of ordered energy available.

A precise statement of this idea is known as the second law of thermodynamics. It states that the entropy of an isolated system always increases, and that when two systems are joined together, the entropy of the combined system is greater than the sum of the entropies of the individual systems. For example, consider a system of gas molecules in a box. The molecules can be thought of as little billiard balls continually colliding with each other and bouncing off the walls of the box. The higher the temperature of the gas, the faster the molecules move, and so the more frequently and harder they collide with the walls of the box and the greater the outward pressure they exert on the walls. Suppose that initially the molecules are all confined to the left-hand side of the box by a partition. If the partition is then removed, the molecules will tend to spread out and occupy both halves of the box. At some later time they could, by chance, all be in the right half or back in the left half, but it is overwhelmingly more probable that there will be roughly equal numbers in the two halves. Such a state is less ordered, or more disordered, than the original state in which all the molecules were in one half. One therefore says that the entropy of the gas has gone up. Similarly, suppose one starts with two boxes, one containing oxygen molecules and the other containing nitrogen molecules. If one joins the boxes together and removes the intervening wall, the oxygen and the nitrogen molecules will start to mix. At a later time the most probable state would be a fairly uniform mixture of oxygen and nitrogen molecules throughout the two boxes. This state would be less ordered, and hence have more entropy, than the initial state of two separate boxes.

The second law of thermodynamics has a rather different status than that of other laws of science, such as Newton’s law of gravity, for example, because it does not hold always, just in the vast majority of cases. The probability of all the gas molecules in our first box being found in one half of the box at a later time is many millions of millions to one, but it can happen. However, if one has a black hole around, there seems to be a rather easier way of violating the second law: just throw some matter with a lot of entropy, such as a box of gas, down the black hole. The total entropy of matter outside the black hole would go down. One could, of course, still say that the total entropy, including the entropy inside the black hole, has not gone down – but since there is no way to look inside the black hole, we cannot see how much entropy the matter inside it has. It would be nice, then, if there was some feature of the black hole by which observers outside the black hole could tell its entropy, and which would increase whenever matter carrying entropy fell into the black hole. Following the discovery, described above, that the area of the event horizon increased whenever matter fell into a black hole, a research student at Princeton named Jacob Bekenstein suggested that the area of the event horizon was a measure of the entropy of the black hole. As matter carrying entropy fell into a black hole, the area of its event horizon would go up, so that the sum of the entropy of matter outside black holes and the area of the horizons would never go down.

This suggestion seemed to prevent the second law of thermodynamics from being violated in most situations. However, there was one fatal flaw. If a black hole has entropy, then it ought also to have a temperature. But a body with a particular temperature must emit radiation at a certain rate. It is a matter of common experience that if one heats up a poker in a fire it glows red hot and emits radiation, but bodies at lower temperatures emit radiation too; one just does not normally notice it because the amount is fairly small. This radiation is required in order to prevent violation of the second law. So black holes ought to emit radiation. But by their very definition, black holes are objects that are not supposed to emit anything. It therefore seemed that the area of the event horizon of a black hole could not be regarded as its entropy. In 1972 I wrote a paper with Brandon Carter and an American colleague, Jim Bardeen, in which we pointed out that although there were many similarities between entropy and the area of the event horizon, there was this apparently fatal difficulty. I must admit that in writing this paper I was motivated partly by irritation with Bekenstein, who, I felt, had misused my discovery of the increase of the area of the event horizon. However, it turned out in the end that he was basically correct, though in a manner he had certainly not expected.

In September 1973, while I was visiting Moscow, I discussed black holes with two leading Soviet experts, Yakov Zeldovich and Alexander Starobinsky. They convinced me that, according to the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle, rotating black holes should create and emit particles. I believed their arguments on physical grounds, but I did not like the mathematical way in which they calculated the emission. I therefore set about devising a better mathematical treatment, which I described at an informal seminar in Oxford at the end of November 1973. At that time I had not done the calculations to find out how much would actually be emitted. I was expecting to discover just the radiation that Zeldovich and Starobinsky had predicted from rotating black holes. However, when I did the calculation, I found, to my surprise and annoyance, that even nonrotating black holes should apparently create and emit particles at a steady rate. At first I thought that this emission indicated that one of the approximations I had used was not valid. I was afraid that if Bekenstein found out about it, he would use it as a further argument to support his ideas about the entropy of black holes, which I still did not like. However, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the approximations really ought to hold. But what finally convinced me that the emission was real was that the spectrum of the emitted particles was exactly that which would be emitted by a hot body, and that the black hole was emitting particles at exactly the correct rate to prevent violations of the second law. Since then the calculations have been repeated in a number of different forms by other people. They all confirm that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass: the higher the mass, the lower the temperature.

How is it possible that a black hole appears to emit particles when we know that nothing can escape from within its event horizon? The answer, quantum theory tells us, is that the particles do not come from within the black hole, but from the ‘empty’ space just outside the black hole’s event horizon! We can understand this in the following way: what we think of as ‘empty’ space cannot be completely empty because that would mean that all the fields, such as the gravitational and electromagnetic fields, would have to be exactly zero. However, the value of a field and its rate of change with time are like the position and velocity of a particle: the uncertainty principle implies that the more accurately one knows one of these quantities, the less accurately one can know the other. So in empty space the field cannot be fixed at exactly zero, because then it would have both a precise value (zero) and a precise rate of change (also zero). There must be a certain minimum amount of uncertainty, or quantum fluctuations, in the value of the field. One can think of these fluctuations as pairs of particles of light or gravity that appear together at some time, move apart, and then come together again and annihilate each other. These particles are virtual particles like the particles that carry the gravitational force of the sun: unlike real particles, they cannot be observed directly with a particle detector. However, their indirect effects, such as small changes in the energy of electron orbits in atoms, can be measured and agree with the theoretical predictions to a remarkable degree of accuracy. The uncertainty principle also predicts that there will be similar virtual pairs of matter particles, such as electrons or quarks. In this case, however, one member of the pair will be a particle and the other an antiparticle (the antiparticles of light and gravity are the same as the particles).

Because energy cannot be created out of nothing, one of the partners in a particle/antiparticle pair will have positive energy, and the other partner negative energy. The one with negative energy is condemned to be a short-lived virtual particle because real particles always have positive energy in normal situations. It must therefore seek out its partner and annihilate with it. However, a real particle close to a massive body has less energy than if it were far away, because it would take energy to lift it far away against the gravitational attraction of the body. Normally, the energy of the particle is still positive, but the gravitational field inside a black hole is so strong that even a real particle can have negative energy there. It is therefore possible, if a black hole is present, for the virtual particle with negative energy to fall into the black hole and become a real particle or antiparticle. In this case it no longer has to annihilate with its partner. Its forsaken partner may fall into the black hole as well. Or, having positive energy, it might also escape from the vicinity of the black hole as a real particle or antiparticle. To an observer at a distance, it will appear to have been emitted from the black hole. The smaller the black hole, the shorter the distance the particle with negative energy will have to go before it becomes a real particle, and thus the greater the rate of emission, and the apparent temperature, of the black hole.

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