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#5: Is the universe a hologram? The strange physics of black holes | Top 10 2019
Next on Big Think's 2019 top 10 countdown, black holes may give us a glimpse of the underlying nature of reality.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
MICHELLE THALLER: Black holes really are kind of getting to the very heart of our physics. And I believe that they're kind of showing us the way that eventually we're going to need different physics and new physics. People ask questions like, "What happens inside a black hole?" Or even, "What happens at the very boundary of a black hole, the event horizon, when light is absorbed?" And honestly, our physics is telling us a lot of contradictory things. And our image of what an event horizon really is may be changing. People like Stephen Hawking and Leonard Susskind have recently come up with this idea that a black hole should not be able to destroy information. O.K., what do we mean by information? Information can be almost anything.
All of the different atoms in my body have angular momentum, they have charge, they have mass. There's all sorts of little bits of information that make me me. At the quantum mechanic level, the tiniest of levels, there are different amounts of energy, there are different probabilities that are contained in the structure of my matter. And information, in some ways is a form of energy. It's actually a way that you can describe something which is somehow, in a strange way, a higher energy state than not being able to describe something. And so one of the questions is, "If energy really can't be destroyed energy itself is something that is intrinsic in the universe, you can't really created or destroy it is it possible that information is the same way? Is there really no way to actually destroy the information about what all of my subatomic particles are doing right now?"
So black holes kind of stare you right in the face. What a black hole supposedly does is it absorbs everything. Space and time bend into a black hole so that nothing can escape. That means that any information about the material that fell in is gone. The only thing we know about it is that as a black hole absorbs material, it gets more massive. It actually adds that mass to the mass of the black hole. And as that mass increases, the event horizon becomes larger. Basically, the area where space is so curved that you can't get out begins to extend the more massive a black hole is. The most massive black holes we know of in the universe are many billions of times the mass of our sun. And the physical extent of this event horizon is about the size of our solar system, maybe like out to the planet Pluto.
So is it possible, then, if everything goes into a black hole and nothing ever comes out, space and time go inside the black hole and don't come out? What happened to that information? And this has begun to make a lot of people wonder if we really have thought of black holes the wrong way. Maybe there isn't an event horizon in the true sense. I actually had a friend of mine that studies black holes say, "Well, I'm not sure if they're black. They may be very, very dark navy blue." And what he meant by that is, maybe there are some tricks to actually get information out of a black hole. Maybe there really is some form of energy that can leak away from the black hole over time. Now, Stephen Hawking wondered if quantum effects very near the event horizon could actually separate something called virtual particles, the energy of space itself. If you're familiar with Einstein's equation, E equals MC squared, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Energy and mass are the same thing. They're equivalent.
You can actually make mass into energy, and you can make energy into mass. Around a black hole, where there's very hot gas, very high temperatures, very strong magnetic fields, perhaps, there's a lot of energy. And that energy can actually manifest itself as particles, mass. And the energy always creates particle/antiparticle pairs. They're called virtual particles. And matter and antimatter, the thing you know about it is that it annihilates immediately. So these tiny little particles come into existence, then annihilate, and you're back to energy. And this happens all around us all the time. So, if this happens near a black hole, it's possible one of these little particles can go into the black hole and the other one escapes. And all of a sudden, there's a particle that shouldn't be there. The universe basically has a new particle, energy from nowhere. And how can that work?
And the information theory people say that what happens is that energy has to come out of the black hole. The black hole's mass begins to decrease if there is this poor little orphan particle that shouldn't have been there in the first place. So over time, tiny particle by tiny particle, These black holes can evaporate away. And maybe there's something about those virtual particles that contain some information about the black hole and what fell into it. It even gets stranger than that, because a lot of people think that time goes slower and slower as you approach a black hole, till, at the event horizon, time basically stops. So instead of anything really ever falling into a black hole, what the event horizon may be is some sort of shell of information.
Things are stopped in time as they fell into the black hole. And right at that boundary, there is almost kind of a sphere, a two-dimensional surface that somehow contains all the information about what's inside the black hole. And this reminded people of something that the humans invented, called a hologram. Now, a hologram is a two-dimensional object. You can make it out of glass or a piece of film. And you shine a light through it, and all of a sudden, there seem to be three-dimensional projections. And the idea is that are we looking at some fundamental way the universe stores information. Around a black hole, where space and time have been crushed out of existence, could there be a shell of information, something like a hologram?
And a lot of people began to wonder, maybe that's the way the universe works on a larger scale. Maybe black holes are showing us, intrinsically, what the underlying nature of reality is, that there really is a two-dimensional surface of something that contains all information about the entire universe. Maybe in some way, we are part of this giant hologram. And I should mention that the word, hologram, in no way implies that somebody made the hologram. We're just talking about the universe may really be information contained in a two-dimensional structure, not the three dimensions that we're aware of now. This all sounds incredibly strange. I'm always a little bit afraid to even talk about it. But I think that the thing to really kind of gain from this is that black holes are staring us right in the face. We're now observing them.
They're right there. And we cannot really describe how the universe should work with one of these things. They don't make sense. The universe shouldn't be able to lose information. So how do you get information when space itself are bent in and nothing comes out? Black holes may be the key to where the next physics has to go. We all know that we need a next Einstein, a next quantum theory, something that actually describes how gravity works in very intense situations like a black hole. Now we're actually observing black holes well enough that we really have to get on this. We really have to figure out how the universe works around one of these things. And we may end up learning what the universe itself really is.
- Big Think's fifth most popular video of 2019 explains that, because energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed, some argue that information — arguably a form of energy — cannot be destroyed either. So then, what happens to information when it is absorbed into a black hole? Scientists don't know for certain, but some posit that it may be possible for it to leak away from the black hole over time.
- Black holes may hold information in a two-dimensional manner similar to a hologram, which take on three dimensions when light is shone through them. Some theorize that the underlying nature of reality can be glimpsed through black holes — that all the information about the entire universe is somehow held on a two-dimensional space of something.
- To better understand how black holes work, as well as the elements surrounding them, we may need a level of physics to be developed.
- Experiment Set to Test Whether the Universe Is a Hologram - Big Think ›
- The Universe Is Not a Holograph - Big Think ›
- Scientists Find First Observed Evidence That Our Universe May Be a ... ›
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
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