Tuesday, September 25, 2012

BBC: Who's afraid of a big black hole?

Another episode about fundamental physics of the BBC 2 "Horizon" program, featuring people such as Andy Strominger (in a dark classroom of the Jefferson Lab and in his office), was aired in November 2009.

Here's the 59-minute video:

At the beginning, they edit a few interviews so that all the physicists say that no one understands black holes. A little bit over the edge but funny.

After 5:00, they switch to an astronomer who explains what stars and black holes are. He believes that a bright star went supernova and then it became a black hole because we see nothing there. ;-)

They switch to theorists at 8:40, Kaku, Strominger, Tegmark... History of black holes from Einstein. Kaku under skyscrapers about GR and gravity. Funny ancient TV "popularizations" of GR. Comments about black hole – hydrodynamics link. Tegmark tortured by waterfalls; nothing as dramatic as my talk about black hole event horizons while skydiving. ;-)

At 16:05, Tegmark says that we know that you may perfectly survive the crossing of the event horizon; no firewalls here. Inner horizon of a rotating black hole. At 19:20, the singularity is presented as a bug or monster of GR, Kaku.

21:45, Strominger, singularity means we don't know what to do. Less concisely, Tegmark says the same thing. Einstein wrote a paper that black holes couldn't arise, Krauss. 23:50, X-ray observations of black holes. Reinhard Genzel, a guy from the Max Planck Institute who was looking for certain BHs. Well, the galactic center BH. Using motion of stars around it. Won a $1 million astronomy prize. He gave it away and bought a new car.

30:55, Ramesh Narayan of Harvard-Smithsonian is comparing the BH with others. I actually covered his paper in an astronomy course at Rutgers – my talk was exactly about the evidence that there was a giant BH at the center of the Milky Way (two-temperature plasma etc.).

Lots of stellar black holes.

35:30 GR bad for the small world. Need quantum mechanics. Why Krauss? ;-) 36:50, Andy says that to understand the final fate of BHs, QM will be needed. Krauss misinterprets QM: "a particle can be at many points at the same time". It's just ain't the case. A particle may have nonzero probabilities to be at many points but we may still prove that there're just one point where the particle is although it's unknowable in principle before the measurement.

At 38:30, Andy says that QM describes everything, one can't escape it. All objects are quantum and the world is a quantum world. Most of the time, QM and GR are in peace. But there's an arena where they are in conflict, high-density, small size – inside BHs. "Quantum gravity" is said for the first time around 40:00. Kaku and Lagrangians. He sketches some toy UV divergence and adds big words to it. 42:30, Andy also talks about the breakdown of GR.

42:00 BHs – problems become opportunities, a next key, Andy. Linked to the Big Bang mysteries (singularity). Narayan, Andy, Krauss add a few words. We have no clues what QG is. And no one has seen a BH. The cameraman plays with the physicists' eyes, deforms their words (like near a black hole) etc.

50:20, a new telescope guy, Shep Doeleman of MIT. Computer-combines lots of telescope to get an image at a supercomputer. Huge increase of sharpness. Nerdy discussions with another empirical guy. Trying to see a horizon via shadows.

Sorry for these chaotic catchwords. It wasn't supposed to be a fully formatted text.


It was a so so program. I find it very paradoxical that they haven't even tried to cover any new actual theory from the last 40 years. I mean, there was no black hole thermodynamics or string theory or information loss in the program. That's very paradoxical given the fact that Stephen Hawking is arguably the most recognized living scientist. What he's famous for among physicists has never been really covered by a popular program, or at least the number of such programs is infinitesimal.

And yes, I was annoyed by the highly repetitive occultist comments that everything about the black holes is completely mysterious and misunderstood. It's not really the case. Such programs help to reinforce the widespread laymen's misconception that physicists don't have a clue what they're doing and everyone could be employed as a physicist, too.


  1. Great video ! "Nature is smarter than us" says Kaku... and then there is Lubos... ;-) says me :-)
    Thanks for sharing. Always nice before bed time ;-)

  2. Nature is surely smarter than me! ;-)

  3. It is what is natural that helps lay people like me understand what is going on. If you believe the microscopic black holes to be part of what nature is revealing, as in the cosmic particle collisions demonstrated in the LHC then it is not to far a leap to understand what is happening around all the time in nature.

    theory and other possibilities can distort the relative numbers of
    'down' and 'up' neutrinos," said Jonathan Feng, associate professor in
    the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UC Irvine. "For example,
    extra dimensions may cause neutrinos to create microscopic black holes,
    which instantly evaporate and create spectacular showers of particles in
    the Earth's atmosphere and in the Antarctic ice cap. This increases the
    number of 'down' neutrinos detected. At the same time, the creation of
    black holes causes 'up' neutrinos to be caught in the Earth's crust,
    reducing the number of 'up' neutrinos. The relative 'up' and 'down'
    rates provide evidence for distortions in neutrino properties that are
    predicted by new theories."
    Sorry link now dead

    Some needed more reassurances to ally this fear so Peter Steinberg stepped up and under the auspice of LHC literature and public relation it helped. He was responding to the public fear generated by challenges to the knowledge and this was brought out safety measures already ensure in the LHC process.

    It is not to hard a thing to understand that such research public funded would have such an obligation to the public and even more so for me to being appreciative of the efforts of scientist who help further this understanding in all other areas of science as well

    QGP as a gas or a Fluid this has already been determined.

    Standing on this platform you see the world of science experiments going on as being much clearer as you understand how this may be applied to revealing the inherent nature of the environment. Also as to what is going on without our part and parcel of saying so.

    We are just observers with a better knowledge and understanding of what in nature has been revealed.


  4. "Art of Science Communication"

    Slide #9
    1. scientific literacy (1960-1980)
    let's educate that ignorant public

    2. public understanding of science (1960-1980)
    let's make them love science

    3. Science & Society
    WE have the attitude problem

    Slide #13 (picture of Brian Greene/Columbia)
    create awareness, expose to new ideas, plant a seed, inspirte ("Edutainment")

    I think M. Kaku has completely gone overboard, gone to "lowest common denominator" (dumbed down masses)

    "The Universe is WEIRDER than you can imagine"

    "The American Public is DUMBER than you can imagine"

  5. Ha ha, clever answer. And so you ;-)

  6. Perhaps to "she" your secrets (which of course can't be kept from her however much you try) are 'her ultimate free confusion'? ;>

  7. Thanks for these BBC links. An oddball question: during a stellar collapse there ought to be a bath of Z bosons with neutrons and neutrinos hanging around. I wanted to ask, since the Z can scatter neutrinos, if there might be any kind of bound state in this weird environment - and also whether it is possible for the Z to flip the spin of the neutrino - which seems forbidden if weak bosons only interact with left handed fermions. JR.

  8. Before picking holes in things kindly get your fundamentals correct. The BBC make Horizon which is a television programme. It is not a 'program'. Correct nomenclature, spelling and cultural awareness are functions of accuracy which I am certain is of interest to you. Please remember the BBC make television programmes. Non British TV producers may well produce 'programs' but the BBC does not. The BBC does employ and develop computer programs i.e. lines of computer code but that is an entirely different matter.

  9. Not sure whether you're joking or not but if you're serious, let me tell you that this blog is written in U.S. English and U.S. English has "program" for both versions of the word, see