Aspire to Lead: Women's Leadership Series | Sponsored by PwC


Teaching Girls to See Themselves as Leaders, with Tara Sophia Mohr

In order to guide young women to achieve their full leadership potential, life coach and author Tara Sophia Mohr explains that society as a whole needs to do three things. First, we need to acknowledge that young people hold the key to changing the world for the better. Treating adolescents like they're powerless only reinforces that harmful untruth. Second, we need to teach them to silence their unhelpful inner critic. Young people who can subvert their fearful self-doubt will be more confident in their dealings and ambitions. Finally, it's vital to reinforce to young women that the world needs them. "In fact, the world has a hole in it that is shaped exactly like them, and only by sharing their own voice and bringing their unique gifts into the world will that hole be filled."


Professional Women Shouldn't Aspire to Be "Mad Men"

ABC News correspondent Claire Shipman explains why it's important for women to maintain authenticity when communicating confidence in the workplace. To emulate male confidence is to subvert one's authenticity. Subverting one's authenticity means negating the effects of diversity in terms of leadership style. Shipman is co-author of the book "The Confidence Code."


Claire Shipman: Be Biased in Favor of Taking Action

Author and broadcaster Claire Shipman explains the positive aspects of allowing confidence to grow within yourself. The best way to do this is to erase any fears that keep you from leaping toward professional and personal challenges.

Carol Sawdye: Manage Your Career With a Sense of Urgency

Carol Sawdye, the chief financial officer of PwC, shares the story of how a startling life event pushed her to become more active in career management. Diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease at 25, Sawdye received a wake-up call that pushed her to lead life with a heightened sense of urgency. In this video, she offers a deeply personal case for, and case study in, risk-taking, operating outside your comfort zone, and taking the initiative to achieve your goals.


Women in Leadership Roles Brings Economic Advantages, with Jane Diplock

The former chair of the New Zealand SEC discusses the correlation between profitability and having an equal number of men and women on corporate boards. Not only is the promotion of gender diversity in leadership positions the right thing to do, says Diplock, but it's also the smart and efficient thing to do.


This is the fifth video in a series on developing women leaders presented in partnership with PwC. Watch Claire Shipman and "The Confidence Code" co-author Katty Kay in a live webcast presented by PwC on February 27th. Register here for the webcast, and follow the conversation on Twitter: #PwCAspire. Big Think has partnered with PwC to promote this event, and will feature videos and other content related to it throughout the month.

Michael Fenlon: It Takes Confidence to Instill Confidence

Michael Fenlon, global talent leader for PwC, discusses his company's Aspire to Lead initiative, which seeks to guide the next generation of women leaders. In order to be a great leader, you have to have the confidence in yourself to make others around you better.

Enlisting Men to Erase Harmful Stereotypes of Women, with Michael Fenlon

PwC Talent Manager Michael Fenlon discusses the aims of HeForShe, the solidarity movement for gender equality famously championed by actress Emma Watson in a September speech at the United Nations. He explains the importance of getting men to pledge their support for women and learn to listen in order to quash harmful stereotypes. To take the pledge for global gender equality, visit HeForShe.org.


On February 27th, PwC hosted a live webcast on developing great women leaders with ABC News's Claire Shipman and her "The Confidence Code" co-author Katty Kay. Watch the archived stream here, and follow the conversation on Twitter: #PwCAspire. Big Think will be featuring more related videos and other content throughout the month.

Aspire to Lead - a Global Webcast

Are you just starting out in your career? Are you keen to learn more about building your confidence at work? Or are you interested in becoming a better leader?


On Friday 27 February, Big Think partner PwC hosted its second global webcast focused on the question, ‘What would you do if you were not afraid?’ The webcast was part of ‘Aspire to Lead: The PwC Women’s Leadership Series’.

The event took place in PwC's London office with around 200 students attending. The panel webcast featured ‘The Confidence Code’ authors – Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, Eileen Naughton – Managing Director of Google UK and Ireland and Mike Fenlon PwC’s Global and US Talent leader, and was viewed by thousands of people across the globe.

A Look Back and Forward for Working Women

Most young women in the workforce don’t remember firsthand the battles their mothers and grandmothers fought over issues that are still relevant today. Among those who’ve read about them or learned secondhand, many women have taken pains to separate themselves from the purportedly drab, angry feminists with whom they have difficulty identifying. 


During the 1980s and 1990s, such disparaging labels as “ball-breakers,” “ice queens,” and “female mafia” were imposed on women who often only sought equal pay and a voice in the proceedings. The so-called “mommy wars” concept caught on in the media focusing on the differences between women working outside the home and those who chose to stay (and work) at home. It was more a headline grabber than an actual reality. Elitist, too, since stagnating purchasing power required most mothers to work. Nevertheless, the “mommy wars” grabbed attention, and the categories it imposed still cause harm today. Let it be said clearly and loudly: just as there are not two types of men, so there are not two types of women.

With all the manufactured anger and derision, is it any wonder that, given a choice, the next generations of women took another, quieter path? Who could blame them? Betty Friedan predicted that would be their choice when she wrote The Second Stage, which addressed the question of how to live the portion of equality that had been won. In the midst of writing The Second Stage, Friedan correctly saw that the future would not be rosy for women. “I sense other victories we thought were won yielding illusory gains,” she wrote. “I see new dimensions to problems we thought were solved.” 

There was at that time, however, the promise of young men attending college and getting MBAs alongside women. What their fathers had found unsettling, it was thought, these young men would consider natural. It seemed a reasonable expectation unless you taught (as I did) at a business school where little changed in terms of male-oriented cases, books, and articles. Female professors with tenure were quite rare. Learning, as female students noted, was one-dimensional in the incubators of future leaders.

At the same time, men became increasingly inclined toward silence about negative views of women — some because they felt under siege even if they were in favor of equality for women. Separating inadvertent and minor offenses against women from the major ones could have been done more effectively. Many men became actively involved in perpetuating the culture of excluding women; after all, it was a more comfortable and rewarding arena in which to reside — to say nothing of the fact that women were now directly competing with men for jobs. Indeed, it’s one thing to be theoretically in favor of gender equality at work and quite another to face the possible loss of your livelihood. Such were the ignition factors of backlash.

Also, women grew tired of struggling on behalf of their gender. Always having to prove commitment to the job and saying little of their children to prevent the perception of being distracted became taxing. We continue to see the effects. Helena Morrissey, chief executive of the Newton subsidiary of BNY Mellon and a leading campaigner for gender equality in the workplace, told The Financial Times, “It’s so tedious that there still seems such a problem.”

In 1979, Radcliffe’s president Matina Horner described a "crisis of confidence" facing women in the choices they encountered between family and career. This was especially true 10 years later for those women who worked full-time outside and inside the home, as described in 1989 in The Second Shift. As Gloria Steinem has said, “The truth is that women can't be equal outside the home until men are equal in it."

The confidence crisis continues today, as Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have written in The Confidence Code. Women tend to negotiate lower salaries than they deserve and to believe they must be 100 percent qualified for a job or promotion.   

Earlier this month, The Financial Times reported that more women are leaving fund-management careers. They’ve had it with sexist slights and corporate cultures that demean their value, even though research shows that female fund managers have better track records and that diverse groups in this field are more effective than those dominated by white males. Sixty-five percent of female fund managers reported regularly experiencing sexist behavior at the office. Their male colleagues also report seeing such behavior directed at women on a regular basis. Moreover, Catalyst research recently indicated a serious depletion of women in high-tech careers. They’re leaving shortly after they arrive.

It isn’t all bad news, of course. Women are succeeding as entrepreneurs. Pay equity in some sectors is almost where it should be, and young women enter the workplace more aware and with higher expectations. Increasingly, there are efforts to recruit women to the fields of science and engineering. Women are seeking graduate degrees and in larger numbers than ever before. Organizations have learned that hiring large numbers of women results in outperforming their competitors. Clearly women haven’t given up. They’re being realistic about where they’re valued and where they’re not and perhaps rightly realizing that to succeed in those areas they must leave the gender-equity fight largely to others.

How do we help women, and they help themselves, to move forward past the issues that concern them, impinge on their success, make them more tired than they need to be, and, instead, move forward in their careers while also enjoying their families? Here are a few important ways:

Reduce pressure on women to do it all — superbly. There is nothing new about this — women trying to “have it all” when we know no one can. Yet, the discussion about whether women can be all things to all people, including to themselves, is always popping up in the media. Let’s agree to stop it. The final answer to the question is: "No one can have it all." Parenting takes a considerable toll. So does being among the “sandwich generation,” trying to care for young children and aging parents. Something has to give, as Arianna Huffington wrote in Thrive. It does not mean compromising on success, but rather redefining it.

Confidence comes from doing certain things very well. Some days, as author Elizabeth Gilbert proposes, let other people be better parents, better artists, better at whatever because none of us can be wonderful all the time. Women cannot progress in the workplace if they never cut themselves any slack.

Increase work-life reconciliation policies. Since 1990, other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last. From The NYT op ed by Stephanie Coontz, “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” comes this conclusion:  “Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.” 

It’s time to make issues regarding women at work nonpartisan and to put more women in office. Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters work. Equal pay and equal opportunity to succeed belong to no single political party. We need to wrench these issues free of sides and pressure all government representatives to actually represent women, whenever and from wherever they decide to work. 

Encourage organizations to notice and reward women’s contributionsRosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Change Masters, describes most organizations as having “a preference for being guided by the past rather than the future, by what is already known rather than what is not yet known.” Reward systems in such companies are what Kanter terms “payoff-centered” rather than “investment centered.” 

Women are an investment that research shows pays off. Yet, even in Silicon Valley where forward-thinking companies abound, women are not generally welcome at higher levels. As Nina Burleigh wrote in her Newsweek article, “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women":  “In inverse ratio to the forward-looking technology the community produces, it is stunningly backward when it comes to gender relations.”  

Lessen Reliance on easy fixes. This is a call to get real. We must be somewhat critical here of the press and the blogosphere for the plethora of instant fixes that women have become especially inclined to accept as a means of learning the ropes at work. In an age of six ways to do anything, it’s easy to slip into thinking that if women were just a little more this way or that, they’d be fine. There are some advantages to such tips, but they do not adequately address, let alone fix, the larger problems of sexism, discrimination, inequitable pay, and appalling dearth of women at the highest levels of industry and government.  

Band-Aid solutions give the wrong impression of what's involved in getting ahead at work. Learning about politics, for example, is critical to functioning well in organizations. Leadership too. No one learns about these critical skills with a few tips. It’s important to study the work environment, be an avid observer, learn from others — male and female, stretch your style, and practice, practice, practice.

When we look back, it’s clear that women’s equality at work is an extremely tall order. As we move forward, the future will look very different from the past. Women are unlikely to be marching for equality in pay and promotions, but as attention turns once again to these issues, as women are feeling more empowered to expect equal treatment, more supported by other women, movement forward is likely to look like thousands upon thousands of candles in the mist.  

Each day, each woman on her own, in small groups, or “circles” will make a difference. If we refuse to forget what has been accomplished, ignore or reframe labels that hold women back, and increase our political and leadership acumen, once again we will move the stone up the hill and this time refuse to let it slip.

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Professor Emerita at the USC Marshall School of Business and Big Think blogger, is the author of 10 books on communication and politics at work, including The Secret Handshake; the mystery thriller Shadow Campus, about one woman’s perilous struggle with workplace politics described by Forbes as “masterful”; the reprint bestseller Harvard Business Review case, “The Memo Every Woman Keeps in Her Desk”; and the book They Don't Get It, Do They? re-released now on Kindle. She also writes about workplace issues here.

 

Photo: albund/Shutterstock.com

 

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  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.


Shares of Beyond Meat soared Tuesday after the company announced plans to sell a ground-beef product called 'Beyond Beef' in grocery stores nationwide.

On Tuesday morning, Beyond Meat (BYND) opened at about $200, but by the afternoon fell to $170. The drop was partly fueled by Wall Street analysts saying the company is overvalued. (For context, the highest price target among analysts is currently $123.) Still, Beyond Meat is trading far above its initial public offering price of $25, and analysts seem generally optimistic about the company over the long term.

"Despite the valuation considerations, we continue to expect significant growth potential in the plant-based meat category and believe that Beyond Meat is well positioned as one of the frontrunners leading the new wave of plant-based meat products," said Bernstein, the Wall Street research and brokerage firm.

"Come be among the first to try this delicious new product that delivers the versatility, meaty texture and juiciness of ground beef with less of the baggage!" the company wrote in an Instagram post.

Beyond Meat says its new product is "versatile enough to use in any ground beef recipe," and that it will tenderize and marbelize just like real meat. Last week, the company debuted a new burger patty that contains cocoa butter and coconut oil, which create a marbling effect when cooked. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown told CNN Business his company will probably continue to issue new products and improve upon existing ones.

"It's part of our philosophy and our approach to innovation that we're going to be constantly iterating," he said.

Brown echoed similar thoughts on a call with analysts following Beyond Meat's first-quarter earnings results.

"I am maniacally focused on driving this business forward through innovation," he said. "I have no distraction with an incumbent business, no concerns about upsetting my existing supply chain."

The alternative meat war

But Impossible Foods – Beyond Meat's chief competitor – is also vying to dominate the alternative meat industry.

"They've both publicly stated that their goal is to really reach every single person," Zak Weston, a food service analyst at the Good Food Institute, told Marketplace.

What's more, Impossible Foods might be more popular.

"Based on our search volume data, it is clear that the Impossible Burger is much more popular among consumers than the Beyond Meat burger," Olga Andrienko, head of global marketing at SEMrush, told MarketWatch. "While search volume cannot determine causation, the significant difference in consumer interest for one of its main competitors, the Impossible Burger, points to a larger long-term risk for Beyond Meat in addition to its recent losses on Wall Street."

Tyson – the world's second largest processor – also debuted new alternative meat products this week under the Raised & Rooted brand. Ultimately, the winner of the alternative meat war will likely come down to which company can better mimic the taste, texture and appearance of real meat. After all, these companies aren't advertising primarily to vegans or vegetarians – they're going after carnivores.

  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.


A new study estimated the prevalence of psychopathy in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia.

How can you identify psychopaths? It's difficult, but research provides a few clues, such as that psychopathic tendencies are more common in:

  • Men
  • Younger people
  • Professions such as CEOs, lawyers and politicians

Psychologists have used different diagnostic tools to measure psychopathy over the decades. Today, the leading tool is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), which measures traits such as pathological lying, impulsivity, parasitic lifestyle and lack of remorse or guilt. But psychopathy can be measured in other, more indirect ways, too.

One example is the triarchic model of psychopathy, which says the disorder stems from a combination of the personality traits disinhibition, boldness and meanness. In the recent study, the researchers used that triarchic definition of psychopathy, but mapped it onto the Big Five model of personality, which includes the traits conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism, extraversion and agreeableness.

"Boldness corresponds to low neuroticism and high extraversion, meanness corresponds to low agreeableness, and disinhibition corresponds to low conscientiousness," the researchers write.

To measure psychopathy across the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., the researchers used state-level Big Five data from a previous study. The results consistently showed that people in rural areas tended to be less psychopathic, while urban areas were more psychopathic. Scoring highest in psychopathy, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the District of Columbia.

"The District of Columbia is measured to be far more psychopathic than any individual state in the country, a fact that can be readily explained either by its very high population density or by the type of person who may be drawn to a literal seat of power," the researchers wrote.

Regionally, psychopathy was clustered in the Northeast, with Maine as the most psychopathic state. Some psychologists have described the Northeast as "Temperamental and Uninhibited." In terms of the Big Five personality traits, the researchers wrote that this translates to "low extraversion, very low agreeableness and conscientiousness, very high neuroticism, and moderately high openness."

The researchers also compared the Big Five data to four variables that relate to psychopathy: homicide rate, violent crime rate, property crime rate and percentage of residents living in an urban area. Only the share of residents living in an urban area had a significant relationship with the personality data.

Ultimately, the researchers cautioned that their methodology was indirect, and that "some amount of noise will inevitably be captured in the results."

"The meaningfulness of the results found here is contingent on both the translation of Big Five personality traits into psychopathy and that psychopathy is something that can be conceptualized as a statistical aggregate across people," they wrote. "And if the estimates are conceptually meaningful, the question remains of whether the size of the differences across regions is practically significant. The weak relationships found in the data can themselves be interpreted as support for skepticism, but whether that interpretation is correct requires further research beyond the scope of the presentation of this methodology and results."

What's more, psychopathy lies on a spectrum. The researchers note that "a very small percentage of individuals in any given state may actually be true psychopaths." According to the Hare checklist, about 1 percent of the general population qualifies as psychopathic.

Here's how the recent study ranked the 48 contiguous states:

1. Maine

2. Connecticut

3. New York

4. Maryland

5. Massachusetts

6. Delaware

7. Wyoming

8. New Jersey

9. California

10. Nevada

11. Virginia

12. Rhode Island

13. Illinois

14. Ohio

15. Wisconsin

16. Arkansas

17. Pennsylvania

18. Arizona

19. Louisiana

20. Idaho

21. Colorado

22. South Dakota

23. Texas

24. Kansas

25. Iowa

26. New Hampshire

27. North Dakota

28. Florida

29. Washington

30. Kentucky

31. Michigan

32. Alabama

33. Oregon

34. Minnesota

35. Utah

36. Indiana

37. Missouri

38. Vermont

39. Montana

40. New Mexico

41. West Virginia

42. Oklahoma

43. Georgia

44. South Carolina

45. Nebraska

46. Mississippi

47. Tennessee

48. North Carolina

  • Composed of massive filaments of galaxies separated by giant voids, the cosmic web is the name astronomers give to the structure of our universe.
  • Why does our universe have this peculiar, web-like structure?
  • The answer lies in processes that took place in the first few hundred thousands years after the Big Bang.


Looking up at the night sky, it seems as though the stars and galaxies are spread out in a more or less random fashion. This, however, isn't really the case. The universe isn't a random jumble of objects; it has a structure composed of galaxies and gas. Cosmologists call this structure the cosmic web.

The cosmic web is composed of interconnecting filaments of clustered galaxies and gases stretched out across the universe and separated by giant voids. The largest of these filaments that we have found to date is the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall, which is a staggering 10 billion light years long and contains several billion galaxies. As for the voids, the largest is the Keenan, Barger, and Cowie (KBC) void, which has a diameter of 2 billion light years. Within a segment of the spherical KBC void lies the Milky Way galaxy and our planet.

Altogether, these features give the universe a foamy appearance. However, once you zoom out far enough, this pattern disappears, and the universe appears to be a homogeneous chunk of galaxies. Astronomers have a delightful name for this sudden homogeneity — the End of Greatness. At smaller scales, however, we can see that the universe does indeed have a rather magnificent structure. This begs the question: How did this structure come to be?

It starts with a bang

Space itself has fluctuating energy levels. Incredibly small pairs of particles and anti-particles are spontaneously coming into existence and annihilating each other. This "boiling" of space was happening in the early universe as well. Normally, these particle pairs destroy each other, but the rapid expansion of the early universe prevented that from happening. As space expanded, so too did these fluctuations, causing discrepancies in the density of the universe.

Wikimedia Commons

A visualization of quantum fluctuations.

Because matter attracts matter through gravity, these discrepancies explain why matter clumped together in some places and not others. But this doesn't fully explain the structure of the cosmic web. After the inflationary period (roughly, 10-32 seconds after the Big Bang), the universe was full of primordial plasma clumping together due to the aforementioned discrepancies. As this matter clumped together, it created pressure that counteracted gravity, creating ripples akin to a sound wave in the matter of the universe. Physicists call these ripples baryon acoustic oscillations.

Simply put, these ripples are the product of regular matter and dark matter. Dark matter only interacts with other things through gravity, so the pressure that causes these ripples doesn't affect it — it stays at the center of ripple, not moving. Regular matter, however, is pushed out. A little under 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe has cooled enough such that the pressure pushing the matter out is released through a process called photon decoupling.

Zosia Rostomian, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

An artist's illustration of the rings formed by baryon acoustic oscillations.

As a result, the matter is locked into place. Some regular matter finds its way back to the center of the ripple due to the gravitational attraction of the dark matter. The result is a bullseye: Matter in the middle and matter in a ring around the middle. Because of this, physicists know that you're more likely to find a galaxy 500 million light years away from another galaxy than you are to find one 400 or 600 million light years away. Simply put, galaxies tend to be found at the outer rings of these cosmic bullseyes.

Altogether, these processes produced the gigantic web of stuff that compose our universe. Of course, there are many other processes that go into producing the cosmic web, but these fall outside the scope of this article. For those of you interested in observing what this structure would look like, you're in luck: astronomer Bruno Coutinho and colleagues developed an interactive, 3D visualization of the universe's structure, which you can access here.

The Cosmic Web, or: What does the universe look like at a VERY large scale?

The Millennium Simulation featured in this clip was run in 2005 by the Virgo Consortium, an international group of astrophysicists from Germany, the United K...

  • A new study asked hundreds of participants what advice they would give their younger selves if they could.
  • The subject matter tended to cluster around familiar areas of regret.
  • The test subjects reported that they did start following their own advice later in life, and that it changed them for the better.

Everybody regrets something; it seems to be part of the human condition. Ideas and choices that sounded good at the time can look terrible in retrospect. Almost everybody has a few words of advice for their younger selves they wish they could give.

Despite this, there has never been a serious study into what advice people would give their younger selves until now.

Let me give me a good piece of advice

The study, by Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord at Clemson University and published in The Journal of Social Psychology, asked several hundred volunteers, all of whom were over the age of 30, to answer a series of questions about themselves. One of the questions asked them what advice they would give their younger selves. Their answers give us a look into what areas of life everybody wishes they could have done better in.

Previous studies have shown that regrets tend to fall into six general categories. The answers on this test can be similarly organized into five groups:

  • Money (Save more money, younger me!)
  • Relationships (Don't marry that money grabber! Find a nice guy to settle down with.)
  • Education (Finish school. Don't study business because people tell you to, you'll hate it.)
  • A sense of self (Do what you want to do. Never mind what others think.)
  • Life goals (Never give up. Set goals. Travel more.)

These pieces of advice were well represented in the survey. Scrolling through them, most of the advice people would give themselves verges on the cliché in these areas. It is only the occasional weight of experience seeping through advice that can otherwise be summed up as "don't smoke," "don't waste your money," or "do what you love," that even makes it readable.

A few bits of excellent counsel do manage to slip through. Some of the better ones included:

  • "Money is a social trap."
  • "What you do twice becomes a habit; be careful of what habits you form."
  • "I would say do not ever base any decisions on fear."

The study also asked if the participants have started following the advice they wish they could have given themselves. 65.7% of them said "yes" and that doing so had helped them become the person they want to be rather than what society tells them they should be. Perhaps it isn't too late for everybody to start taking their own advice.

Kowalski and McCord write:

"The results of the current studies suggest that, rather than just writing to Dear Abby, we should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves. The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate well-being and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice."

  • Stephen Hawking predicted virtual particles splitting in two from the gravitational pull of black holes.
  • Black holes, he also said, would eventually evaporate due to the absorption of negatively charged virtual particles.
  • A scientist has built a black hole analogue based on sound instead of light.

While black holes may well be points in space into which everything falls and from which even light can't escape, the image many of us have of an ever-growing nonstop universe-eater may not be so. Stephen Hawking didn't think it was. He theorized that black holes eventually evaporate as a byproduct of the gradual release of tiny bits of radiation now known as "Hawking radiation". Such emissions are too faint for us to observe from so far away, but now the behavior of an artificial, lab-created black hole of sorts has lent support to Hawking's theory. There's nothing about this story that isn't interesting. For one thing, this man-made "black hole" is made of sound. It's also formed inside some always-bizarre Bose-Einstein condensate.

What Hawking predicted

Photo: Bruno Vincent/Getty

Physicist Stephen Hawking.

While it's known that photons can't escape the pull of a black hole, Hawking's equations, intolerant of absolute nothingness, suggested "empty" space is actually full of virtual quantum matter/antimatter pairs that blink into existence, and immediately annihilate each other thanks to their opposite electrical charges, quickly blinking out again.

Hawking proposed that when virtual pairs pop into existence near a black hole, though, they're torn apart by the pull of the black hole, with the antimatter being sucked in while the matter shoots off into space — at this point, they're no longer virtual, but real, particles. The negative charge belonging to the antimatter particles reduces the energy and mass of the black hole that's absorbed it by a tiny amount — however, when a black hole ingests enough of these, it evaporates. The positively charged particles fly away as what's now called "Hawking radiation." It would be very weak, but nonetheless there.

Hawking also predicted that the radiation emitted would exhibit a continuous thermal spectrum rather than discreet light wavelengths preferred by individual escaping photons. The temperature of the spectrum would be determined instead by the black hole's mass.

Part of the problem in testing Hawking's theories was summarized by physicist Silke Weinfurtner, who has written:

"The temperature that is associated with Hawking radiation, known as the Hawking temperature, is inversely proportional to the mass of the black hole. And for the smallest observed black holes, which have a mass similar to that of the Sun, this temperature is about 60 nanokelvin. Hawking radiation therefore produces a tiny signal, and it would seem that the phenomenon cannot be verified through observation."

The analogue black hole in Haifa

Image source: Technion–Israel Institute of Technology

Physicist Jeff Steinhauer.

Experimental physicist Jeff Steinhauer of Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, has been working alone in his lab for years creating sonic "black holes" that suck in and trap sound waves. (He's a drummer, too.) Physicist William Unruh of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, first proposed the creation of a sound-wave black-hole replica in 1981 as a safe way of observing the behavior of the stellar version. (After all, creating a real black hole in a lab or anywhere nearby could lead to The End of Life as We Know It.)

Steinhauer's black-hole replica was "constructed" within a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), an extremely strange form of matter in which atoms are cooled to a temperature vanishingly close to absolute zero. At this temperature, there's so little energy available that atoms barely move at all in relation to each other, and thus the entire superfluid begins to behave as one big, unified atom. Within such a frigid condensate, weak quantum fluctuations occur, and these produce pairs of entangled phonons, compressional waves that can create the air-pressure changes we perceive as sound.

Working with a cigar-shaped trap just a few millimeters long, Steinhauer cooled some 8,000 iridium atoms into a BEC. Inside it, the speed of sound, the rate at which the condensate flowed, dropped from 343 meters per second to an almost stationary half a millimeter per second. Reducing the density of one area of the BEC to allow atoms to travel at 1 millimeter per second, though he created a supersonic region — at least compared to the lower speed in the rest of the condensate, that is. Its comparatively rapid current overwhelmed and pulled in any high-energy phonons that came near its event horizon, thus trapping them.

In August, Steinhauer published a paper in Nature that documented his observation of phonons emerging from his artificial black hole in line with Hawking's predictions. Steinhauer reports entangled phonon pairs popping into existence together equidistant across the condensate's event horizon and behaving much as Hawking predicted: One pulled over the supersonic waterfall and trapped in the supersonic region, and the other escaping outward, away from it, just as Hawking radiation would do. The symmetry in the number of phonons inside and outside the event horizon further supported their entangled beginnings and eventual separation, as in Hawking's prediction.

On top of that, the aggregate radiated phonons did indeed produce a thermal spectrum determined by the system's analogue to gravity/mass, which in this model's case was the relationship between the speed of sound and the flow of the BEC, and not individual phonons' sonic wavelengths.

Analogies are usually imperfect

Image source: Alex Farias/Shutterstock

While the behavior of Steinhauer's phonons in his black hole analogue certainly supports the plausibility of Hawking's hypothesis, it doesn't constitute proof. His experiment deals with sound and phonons instead of light and photons, and obviously operates on an entirely different scale than a real black hole — and scale does matter in quantum physics. Still, it's fascinating.

Theoretical physicist Renaud Parentani enthuses to Live Science, "These experiments are a tour de force. It's a very precise experiment. From the experimental side, Jeff Steinhauer is really, at the moment, the world-leading expert of using cold atoms to probe black hole physics." Other aren't as impressed. Speaking with Nature, physicist Ulf Leonhardt says that while, "For sure, this is a pioneering paper," he considers it incomplete, however, in part because Steinhauer was only able to correlate phonons of high energy across the event horizon, and didn't find that low-energy phonons also behaved as Hawking predicted. In addition, Leonhardt is concerned that what was inside the trap wasn't a true BEC, and that it could be producing other forms of quantum fluctuation that just look like Hawking radiation.