Simons Foundation Lectures are free public colloquia related to basic science and mathematics. These high-level talks are intended for professors, students, postdocs and business professionals, but interested people from the metropolitan area are welcome as well.
Thought experiments have played an important role in figuring out the laws of physics. For the unification of quantum mechanics and gravity, where the phenomena take place in extreme regimes, they are even more crucial. Hawking’s 1976 paper “Breakdown of Predictability in Gravitational Collapse” presented one of the great thought experiments in the history of physics, arguing that black holes destroy information in a way that requires a modification of the laws of quantum mechanics. Skeptics for years failed to
poke holes in Hawking’s argument, but concluded that if quantum mechanics is to be saved then our understanding of spacetime must break down in a radical way. I present some of the history of these ideas, what has already been learned from this puzzle, and the recent `firewall’ controversy, which argues that Einstein’s theory breaks down radically for an observer falling into a black hole.