Revisions & Reflections – Hawking: It’s not about right or wrong

The scientific community has been thrown into a state of flux due to a recent paper from renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. While it has yet to undergo peer review or be formally published, the paper is freely available online for anyone to read, and reception has been mixed, to say the least.

In the paper, entitled “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes,” Hawking challenges the commonly accepted idea of black holes having an “event horizon”—a distance from within which nothing can escape the black hole’s gravitational pull. Hawking claims that this notion is incompatible with modern quantum physics.

That’s about as far into the science as I can go. Instead, I want to focus on the attention that this paper has received, both within the astrophysics community and with the general public.

In the former, there is understandably some disagreement. Hawking’s paper calls into question one of the fundamentally accepted characteristics of black holes, and such a challenge is unlikely to be accepted without any resistance. While Hawking’s name alone does command a certain sense of respect, most scientists are quite rightly waiting for the paper to undergo the peer review process before they start rewriting textbooks.

The paper’s reception within society at large, meanwhile, has been not quite as reasonable. When confronted with the fact that scientists—the very people who are basically paid to know these kinds of things—cannot seem to agree on what’s taking place around black holes, some members of the population begin to question other theories and even the foundations of science altogether.

This is by no means a new problem. Consider the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) experiment in 2011 that appeared to show neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light; the experiment seemed to violate the basic principles of Einstein’s special relativity and could have overturned much of modern physics. During the weeks of uncertainty that followed, I distinctly recall being asked, “What’s the point of science if even Einstein can’t get it right?”

While the neutrino case did end up being the result of equipment failure, there have been plenty of more reasonable instances where some seemingly contradictory idea faced heavy resistance in the academic community and caused the public to question a lot of scientific advancements—even if said ideas would turn out to be accurate. For example, evolution and the Big Bang theory both faced difficult roads to widespread acceptance.

The point is, different fields of science regularly undergo paradigm shifts—changes in theory when one commonly accepted idea is replaced by another one that better explains some aspect of the world around us. For example, it wasn’t widely believed that the Earth orbits the Sun until a few hundred years ago.

This new paper from Hawking isn’t cause for alarm. Black holes are a relatively new concept in science,  and our understanding of their behaviour is still developing.

On a wider scale, paradigm shifts are a necessary part of scientific advancement. When a new observation or phenomena indicates that our current theories are incorrect, it makes sense to search for a new, better theory, but this doesn’t mean that all scientific theories are fundamentally wrong. Instead, it shows us that science is a constantly changing field—and that even if we don’t entirely understand how the world works, we’re learning.

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