By Dennis Overbye
The cosmologist and pop-science icon Stephen Hawking, who died last March on Einstein’s birthday, spoke out from the grave recently in the form of his last scientific paper. Appropriately for a man on the Other Side, the paper is about how to escape from a black hole.
Cleansed of its abstract mathematics, the paper is an ode to memory, loss and the oldest of human yearnings, the desire for transcendence. As the doomed figure in Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” sings, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
Dr. Hawking was the manifestation of perseverance; stricken by Lou Gehrig’s disease, he managed to conquer the universe from a wheelchair. The fate of matter or information caught in a black hole is one that defined his career, and it has become one of the deepest issues in physics.
Black holes are objects so dense that, according to Einstein’s law of general relativity, not even light can escape. In 1974, Dr. Hawking turned these objects, and the rest of physics, inside-out. He discovered, to his surprise, that the random quantum effects that rule the microscopic world would cause black holes to leak and, eventually, explode and disappear.
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