You’ve probably seen plenty of headlines this week proclaiming “Stephen Hawking Says Black Holes Don’t Exist” and heard people who read those headlines chattering excitedly about this seemingly huge shift in astrophysics. But as PopMech wisely points out, that’s not an accurate summary of what Hawking actually said.
All of this stems from a short paper Hawking submitted on January 22, titled “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes.” And yes, the phrase “there are no black holes” appears in that paper. But there isn’t a period at the end of it. In full, it states “there are no black holes — in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are, however, apparent horizons which persist for a period of time.”
As PopMech explains, Hawking is writing about the things that happen at the event horizon, the very edge of a black hole. The whole discussion is an excellent read, but the main takeaway is this: astrophysicists who understand this complex language consider the new paper a Hawking op-ed. As Don Marolf, a theoretical physicist who studies black holes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told PopMech, “most people that I know that read the paper see this as an expression of his opinion on a current debate without necessarily adding new scientific ingredients.”
Of course, that’s not the last station for the misquote train. Andy Borowitz threw a massive barrel of kerosene on the confusion fire with his satirical column where he “quoted” Representative Michele Bachmann as saying, “if black holes don’t exist, then other things you scientists have been trying to foist on us probably don’t either, like climate change and evolution.” Far too many people took it seriously, which I guess is the mark of skilful satire.