The Theory That Ate the World

George Johnson in the New York Times Book Review:

Screenhunter_10_aug_23_0938In his new book, “The Black Hole War: My Battle With Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics,” [Leonard] Susskind’s cosmos gets even weirder. Black holes already seemed scary enough, with their ability to swallow everything, including light. For a while, we learn, physicists were faced with the possibility that these cosmic vortexes might also be eaters of order, sucking up and destroying information. Like the Echthroi, the evil demons of entropy in Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wind in the Door,” black holes might be chomping their way through the universe, ploughing sense into nonsense.

The story of how Susskind and a colleague, the Dutch physicist Gerard ’t Hooft, disproved (or at least undermined) the theory begins in 1983 at a San Francisco mansion owned by, of all people, Werner Erhard, the New Age entrepreneur who had made his fortune with a profitable cult called EST. Erhard, we’re told, was also a “physics groupie,” and he presided over salons in which some of the world’s great theorists came to butt minds.

The trouble began when Stephen Hawking made an astonishing prediction about what happens when information — a book, a painting, a musical recording or any pattern of matter or energy — falls into a black hole. Earlier, Hawking had proved that black holes eventually evaporate — at which point, he now claimed, everything inside them disappears from the universe.

That might not sound like such a big deal. Just find another copy of whatever was lost. But that, Susskind realized, was not the point. Among the fundamentals of physics is that information must always be conserved.

More here.