When news broke this September that a pair of physicists, Lauren Herald Mersini-Houghton at the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill and Herald P. Pfeiffer at the University of Toronto, had published a paper concluding that black holes don’t exist, astronomers from around the world had something to say about it.
Without going into the technical details just right now, here are some of the experts’ general shouts of protest that echoed through Twitter, blogs, and the media.
For some, 180 characters was too little space. A number of bloggers took to their keyboards and dissected the paper bit-by-bit.
The difficult part, as physicist and science writer Matthew R. Francis explains, is that this paper is not your run-of-the-mill crackpot theory.
“Unlike the majority of the ‘black holes don’t exist OMG!!!’ papers that cross my desk, this one isn’t obviously wrong,” Francis wrote in his blog Galileo’s Pendulum. “As gravitational researchers, the authors know what they’re doing, so any problem with the calculation can’t just be spotted outright.”
In fact, mathematically speaking, the paper is accurate as far as Francis can see, which he writes in his second take for The Daily Beast titled “Black holes exist. So Does Bad Science.”
Other scientists, like theoretical physicist William Unruh at the University of British Columbia, were more blunt.
“The [paper] is nonsense,” Unruh told IFLS in an email. “Attempts like this to show that black holes never form have a very long history, and this is only the latest.”
Although the paper might be “nonsense” the scientists are legitimate researchers, writes Renee Hlozek, a research fellow at Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysics, in the blog Statistics, Space, Strings and Stuff.
“First things first, Mersini-Houghton, the author, appears a totally respectable physicist who has published highly cited work on a variety of topics in the past, and works at a respectable institution,” Hlozek co-wrote with another blogger, “Doddy.” The blog goes on to argue against the paper’s conclusions.
And according to theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Sweden, the lead author of the paper is even good company.
“I know Laura; we have met at various conferences, and I’ve found her to be very pleasant company,” Hossenfelder wrote in her blog BackRe(Action).
Hossenfelder goes on to deconstruct Mersini-Houghton’s latest paper in painstaking detail, however, and concludes:
“In summary, the recent papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer contribute to a discussion that is decades old, and it is good to see the topic being taken up by the numerical power of today…Their results are surprising and in contradiction with many previously found results. It is thus too early to claim that is has been shown black holes don’t exist.”
So, if the numbers are right and the scientists are credible, what went wrong? Here are the details.
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