In the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar Burton plays helmsman Geordi La Forge (his assignment changes to Chief Engineer after the first season, odd career path).
The allegory of a blind man as helmsman provides infinite opportunities to address the meaning of “vision”, story lines touching on perception were the mainstay of the La Forge character. He may have been inspired by the Frank Herbert’s Guild Navigators in the “Dune” novels, or the Fafa-kitahi, the “Feelers of the Sea”, Tongan navigators who were blind. Roddenberry named the character for a fan of the original series, George La Forge, who was quadriplegic.
The purpose of science is to see the unseen.
Applied sciences exploit our understanding of the universe, but it is “pure” science, the desire to understand, that sparks great minds. In the real world our La Forge is the real life helmsman of understanding the universe, Stephen Hawking.
For those of you not familiar with Professor Hawking, he is a brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist, whose greatest contribution has been his personality. Dr. Hawking didn’t invent black holes, but without him you would have never heard of them. Professor Hawking has made theoretical physics accessible. From his wheelchair. Professor Hawking was diagnosed with a form of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of twenty one, and his physical abilities have deteriorated to the point that he now controls devices with the muscles in his cheeks.
You’ve heard his “voice“, which despite being generated synthetically is still recognizable as belonging to him. He has appeared in countless interviews and guest appearances, including a role on “The Simpsons“. His first popular book, “A Brief History of Time”, sold over ten million copies since its publication in 1988, and spent five years on the London Sunday Times’ best seller list. The New York Metropolitan Opera has commissioned an operatic adaptation.
Very few people know what exactly Professor Hawking did that made him so famous. He presented a theory that black holes aren’t really black. Hawking radiation, an emission at the event horizon of a black hole, was a pretty radical idea in 1974. In a micro black hole, more energy could escape than is consumed, causing “black hole evaporation”. Maybe it is the romanticism, the Geordi La Forge effect, that comes when a man whose personal universe is collapsing sees the omega of the universe has an escape hatch, that has made Professor Hawking so popular.
A great deal of understanding physics involves the ability to see through the veneer of “reality” and into the way things really work. In the same way that it is difficult to draw a four-dimensional object on a two-dimensional canvass, it is difficult to explain theoretical physics with words. The idea of a black hole, an object so massive that its gravitational field can trap light, seems simple. It’s when you get down to the “How can that exist within the known laws of the universe?” part when descriptions fall into mathematics. We “prove” the existence of things we cannot see through mathematics, electrons do not orbit nuclei in orderly solar systems, they exist in a probability cloud. The picture of an atom is an equation of probabilities.
The boundary of the gravitational field, the points in space at which the field is so intense that light cannot escape, is called the event horizon. Because light does not escape that boundary we call it a black hole. But if you’re picturing a non-reflective sphere, or some point at which a gravity well can be presumed to exist due to the flux in visual perception, you’re trying to draw two-dimensional tesseracts.
I’m trying to avoid the math and just stay with the concepts. Professor Hawking made the universe of cosmology approachable, but what he “showed” us can only be imagined. We see what we can imagine, which presents our limiting factor. If we can’t imagine it, we can’t understand it.
Recently the professor has published a new view of the invisible. In “Information preservation and weather forecasting for black holes”, Professor Hawking addresses the conflicts between general relativity and quantum theory as they explain black holes (he also indicates, by the title, he is still has an awesome sense of humor). This has been popularized as “Hawking now claims black holes don’t exist”.
Language zero, Physics one.
In the classic sense, black holes as we envision them do not exist. If anything that enters the event horizon is lost to the universe forever, there is no way for them to fit our classical measures of existence. What Professor Hawking has formulated is an explanation for the existence of something that can’t exist. Professor Hawking is suggesting is that event horizons do not exist, and replaces the term with “apparent horizons”, a fuzzy zone in which the super gravity of the black hole wrecks havoc with the laws of physics; he summarizes “The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes — in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are however apparent horizons which persist for a period of time”. That period of time may be billions of years.
Our impressions of the universe are experienced with our minds. What we see is only the photons that have traveled to our optic nerve, what our mind sees is the photons that could never reach us. When we look at the stars, we see them as they were thousands of years ago. We see constellations with no sense of depth, as if the stars were laid out upon a canvas, yet from another angle, the brightness and relationships would form different pictures.
What is “real”? The answer rests on what we understand to be possible. And of course, there’s always the wisdom of the Rockman…