Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Getting Physical Stephen Hawking Loses Shirts over Theoretical Point

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Getting Physical Stephen Hawking Loses Shirts over Theoretical Point

Article excerpt

John Preskill won a bet with Stephen Hawking, and all he got was a T-shirt.

In 1991, Preskill and Kip Thorne, both physicists at the California Institute of Technology, made a wager with the formidable British physicist on an esoteric point of theoretical physics.

The issue at hand: Do the laws of physics as they are currently understood allow for the existence of objects known as naked singularities? Preskill and Thorne said yes. Hawking said no. A naked singularity is sort of like a black hole, but not really. Black holes are regions of space that are isolated from the rest of the universe because nothing can escape the gravitational pull of the infinite mass, or singularity, inside them. A naked singularity is simply a point of infinite mass with no isolating space around it. Calculations performed by Matthew Choptuik, a physicist at the University of Texas in Austin, show that Hawking was wrong and his California colleagues were right. So on Feb. 5 Hawking, the author of "A Brief History of Time," settled by giving each of his friends a T-shirt emblazoned with the message, "Nature abhors a naked singularity." It is unclear whether that gesture satisfies the conditions of the bet, but never mind. Preskill and Thorne are satisfied that their point is made. "He thought that at least as far as classical relativity goes, it should be a consequence of the theory that you can't make a naked singularity," Preskill said. Choptuik's computer calculations, published by the journal Physical Review Letters in January 1993, show that such a thing could exist. He showed that a black hole could theoretically compress into a single point where space is infinitely curved and the laws of physics collapse. Although possible, such an event is so unlikely that physicists do not expect it would ever really happen. It's sort of like having a pencil stand on its sharpened point, Choptuik said. Theoretically it could be done, but nobody has ever done it. …

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