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How a Moment of Silence Solved the Strange Mathematical Problems Inside Black Holes

 The Nobel Prize in Physics and Roger Penrose’s Inspiration: How a Moment of Silence Solved the Strange Mathematical Problems Inside Black Holes

Roger Penrose was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his research on singularities.
Roger Penrose was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his research on singularities.

One day in September 1964, when the weather was fine, an old friend of Roger Penrose visited him. Ivor Robinson, a British cosmologist who had previously lived and worked in Dallas, Texas, returned to the UK. Every time the two meet, there is no shortage of words to talk, and the conversation is endless and wide.

They walked to Penrose's office at Birkbeck College in London and stopped on the side of the road, waiting for the heavy traffic to stop. The pause at this time gave the conversation a breather, and they fell silent as they crossed the road.

At that moment, Penrose's thoughts drifted. It passed 2.5 billion light-years of vacuum outer space and reached a boiling rotating quasar. He imagined how to control the gravitational collapse, pulling the entire galaxy deeper and closer to the center. Just like a spinning figure skater pulls his arms toward the body, the object spins faster and faster during contraction.

This brief flash of inspiration gave him a revelation-56 years later, this revelation earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Like many relativity theorists, theoretical physicists are dedicated to testing, exploring, and expanding Einstein's general theory of relativity. Penrose studied a strange but particularly intractable contradiction in the early 1960s, known as the "singularity problem."

Einstein published "General Theory" in 1915, which completely changed scientists' understanding of space, time, gravity, matter and energy. By the 1950s, Einstein's theory had been widely successful, but many of its predictions were still considered impossible and untestable. For example, his equations show that, theoretically, gravitational collapse can force enough matter into a small enough area to become infinitely dense, forming a "singularity" that even light cannot escape. These points are called black holes.

But in such a singularity, the known laws of physics will no longer apply, including Einstein's own theory of relativity that predicted its existence.

It is for this reason that singularities are very attractive to mathematical relativity theorists. However, most physicists agree that our universe is too orderly to actually contain these regions. Even if the singularities do exist, there is no way to observe them.

Penrose said: "For a long time, people have been strongly skeptical." "People think that there will be a bouncing: an object will disintegrate, rotate in some complicated way, and then swish back."

The singularity at the center of the black hole can generate intense heat, making the radiation super bright and ejecting it in all directions.
The singularity at the center of the black hole can generate intense heat, making the radiation super bright and ejecting it in all directions.

In the late 1950s, observations in the emerging field of radio astronomy drove these views into confusion. Radio astronomers have discovered new cosmic objects, which look very bright, very distant, and very small. It was originally called "stellar-like objects" and later referred to as "quasars" for short. These objects seem to exert too much energy in a space that is too small. Although it may seem impossible, every new observation points to the view that quasars are ancient galaxies that are collapsing into singularities.

Scientists are forced to ask themselves, is the singularity as impossible as everyone thinks? Isn't the prediction of the theory of relativity just a mathematical whim?

In Austin, Princeton, and Moscow, in Cambridge and Oxford, in South Africa, New Zealand, India, and elsewhere, cosmologists, astronomers, and mathematicians are trying to find a decisive theory that can explain the nature of quasars.

Most scientists respond to this challenge by trying to identify highly specialized environments under which singularities may form.

Penrose was studying at Birkbeck College in London, and he took a different approach. His instinct has always been to find general solutions, underlying principles and basic mathematical structures. When he was in Birkbeck, he spent a long time working on a huge blackboard full of curves and distorted charts of his own design.

In 1963, a group of Russian theorists headed by Isaac Khalatnikov published a highly acclaimed paper, confirming what most scientists still believe, that the singularity is not our substance Part of the universe. They say that in the universe, collapsing dust clouds or stars do expand again before reaching the singularity. There must be other explanations for quasars.

Penrose is skeptical.

He said: "I have a strong feeling that the methods they use are unlikely to draw definite conclusions." "In my opinion, this issue needs to be viewed in a more general way than what they are doing now. This is a limited focus to some extent."

However, even though Penrose refused to believe their arguments, he still could not find a universal solution to the singularity problem. That was before Robinson's visit. Robinson is also working on the singularity issue, but the conversation between the two in London in the fall of 1964 did not discuss this issue.

However, in the brief silence at that intersection, Penrose realized that the Russians were wrong.

All these energy, motion, and mass shrink together to produce intense heat, causing radiation to burst out to wavelengths in all directions. The smaller its size, the faster the speed and the brighter the light it emits.

In his mind, he mapped the pictures on the blackboard and the sketches in the diary to the distant object, and looked for the points predicted by the Russians in his mind, where this cloud would explode again.

Such a point does not exist. In his mind, Penrose finally saw how the understanding would continue unimpeded. Outside the denser center, this celestial body emits more light than all the stars in the Milky Way. Deep down, the light will bend at dramatic angles, twisting in time and space, until every direction converges with each other.

There will be a point that cannot be turned back. Light, space and time will all cease. A black hole.

At that moment, Penrose knew that Singularity did not require any special circumstances. In the universe, the existence of singularities is not impossible. They are inevitable.

In the 1970s, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose founded the Singularity Theory.
In the 1970s, Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose founded the Singularity Theory.

Back on the other side of the street, he continued to talk to Robinson, and soon forgot what he was thinking. After they bid farewell, Penrose returned to the chalk foam and piles of paper in the office.

The rest of the afternoon was the same as usual, except that Penrose found himself in a very good mood. He couldn't think of why. He began to look back on this day, looking for what made him so excited.

His thoughts returned to the silence at that moment when he was crossing the road. All that came back like a flood. He has solved the singularity problem.

He started writing equations, testing, editing, and rearranging them. The debate is still fierce, but it has worked. Gravitational collapse only needs some very common and easily satisfied energy conditions to collapse into infinite density. Penrose knew that at that moment, there must be billions of singularities in the universe.

This idea will subvert man’s understanding of the universe and shape our understanding of the universe today.

In less than two months, Penrose began to give a speech on this scheduled haircut. In mid-December, he submitted a paper to the academic journal Physical Review Letters. This paper was published on January 18, 1965, only four months after he and Robinson crossed the road.

The result was not exactly what he wanted. Penrose's singularity theorem has been rebutted.

Later that same year, the debate reached a climax at the International Conference on General Relativity and Gravity in London.

"Not very friendly. The Russians are very annoyed and do not want to admit that they are wrong." Penrose said. The meeting ended with an unresolved dispute.

But shortly after, the Russian papers had calculation errors-mathematics had fatal flaws, and their arguments no longer held up.

At the center of the Milky Way, 26,000 light-years away from the solar system, there is a huge black hole.
At the center of the Milky Way, 26,000 light-years away from the solar system, there is a huge black hole.

Penrose said: "The way they did it was wrong."

By the end of 1965, Penrose's singularity theorem had attracted widespread attention worldwide. His unique insight became the driving force of cosmology. He not only explained what quasars are, but also revealed important truths about the underlying reality of the universe. Since then, any cosmological model proposed by people must include singularities, which means including science beyond relativity.

Singularities are also beginning to seep into the public consciousness, partly because they are called "black holes," which is the first public term used by American science journalist Ann Ewing.

After Stephen Hawking and Penrose studied the singularity, he overturned the theory about the origin of the universe with Penrose's theorem. The singularity becomes the center of all theories about nature, history, and the future of the universe. The experimenters confirmed other singularities, including the center of the super-large black hole at the center of the galaxy, discovered by Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, who and Penrose jointly obtained This year's Nobel Prize in Physics.

Penrose continued to develop a theory that could replace the Big Bang theory, the Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, whose evidence may come from the remnants of ancient black holes.

In 2013, a research team led by engineer and computer scientist Katie Bouman developed an algorithm that wanted to take pictures of black holes. In April 2019, the Horizon Telescope used the algorithm to capture the first black hole image, which vividly confirmed the controversial theory of Einstein and Penrose.

Penrose, 89, is happy to be awarded the Nobel Prize, the highest honor in physics, but there are other things in his mind.

"It feels very strange. I have been trying to adjust myself. This is a great honor and gratitude," he told me a few hours after hearing the news. "But on the other hand, I tried to write three different (scientific) articles at the same time, which is more difficult than before," he explained. The phone kept ringing, people congratulated him, and reporters asked to interview him. All this noise made him unable to focus on his latest theory.

Penrose understands the power of silence and the aura it can bring better than anyone.


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