The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Oppenheimer’s Folly: On black holes, fundamental laws and pure and applied science


Einstein and Oppenheimer: Both men in their later years dismissed black holes as anomalies, unaware that they contained some of the deepest mysteries of physics (Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt, LIFE magazine)

On September 1, 1939, the same day that Germany attacked Poland and started World War 2, a remarkable paper appeared in the pages of the journal Physical Review. In it J. Robert Oppenheimer and his student Hartland Snyder laid out the essential characteristics of what we today call the black hole. Building on work done by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Fritz Zwicky and Lev Landau, Oppenheimer and Snyder described how an infalling observer on the surface of an object whose mass exceeded a critical mass would appear to be in a state of perpetual free fall to an outsider. The paper was the culmination of two years of work and followed two other articles in the same journal.

Then Oppenheimer forgot all about it and never said anything about black holes for the rest of his life.

He had not worked on black holes before 1938, and he would not do so ever again. Ironically, it is this brief contribution to physics that is now widely considered to be Oppenheimer’s greatest, enough to have possibly warranted him a Nobel Prize had he lived long enough to see experimental evidence for black holes show up with the advent of radio astronomy.

What happened? Oppenheimer’s lack of interest wasn’t just because he became the director of the Manhattan Project a few years later and got busy with building the atomic bomb. It also wasn't because he despised the free-thinking and eccentric Zwicky who had laid the foundations for the field through the discovery of black holes' parents - neutron stars. It wasn’t even because he achieved celebrity status after the war, became the most powerful scientist in the country and spent an inordinate amount of time consulting in Washington until his carefully orchestrated downfall in 1954. All these factors contributed, but the real reason was something else entirely – Oppenheimer just wasn’t interested in black holes. Even after his downfall, when he had plenty of time to devote to physics, he never talked or wrote about them. The creator of black holes basically did not think they mattered.

Oppenheimer’s rejection of one of the most fascinating implications of modern physics and one of the most enigmatic objects in the universe - and one he sired - is documented well by Freeman Dyson who tried to initiate conversations about the topic with him. Every time Dyson brought it up Oppenheimer would change the subject, almost as if he had disowned his own scientific children.

The reason, as attested to by Dyson and others who knew him, was that in his last few decades Oppenheimer was stricken by a disease which I call “fundamentalitis”. Fundamentalitis is a serious condition that causes its victims to believe that the only thing worth thinking about is the deep nature of reality as manifested through the fundamental laws of physics.

As Dyson put it:

“Oppenheimer in his later years believed that the only problem worthy of the attention of a serious theoretical physicist was the discovery of the fundamental equations of physics. Einstein certainly felt the same way. To discover the right equations was all that mattered. Once you had discovered the right equations, then the study of particular solutions of the equations would be a routine exercise for second-rate physicists or graduate students.”

Thus for Oppenheimer, black holes, which were particular solutions of general relativity, were mundane; the general theory itself was the real deal. In addition they were anomalies, ugly exceptions which were best ignored rather than studied. As Dyson mentions, unfortunately Oppenheimer was not the only one affected by this condition. Einstein, who spent his last few years in a futile search for a grand unified theory, was another. Like Oppenheimer he was uninterested in black holes, but he also went a step further by not believing in quantum mechanics. Einstein’s fundamentalitis was quite pathological indeed.

History proved that both Oppenheimer and Einstein were deeply mistaken about black holes and fundamental laws. The greatest irony is not that black holes are very interesting, it is that in the last few decades the study of black holes has shed light on the very same fundamental laws that Einstein and Oppenheimer believed to be the only thing worth studying. The disowned children have come back to haunt the ghosts of their parents.

Black holes took off after the war largely due to the efforts of John Wheeler in the US and Dennis Sciama in the UK. The new science of radio astronomy showed us that, far from being anomalies, black holes litter the landscape of the cosmos, including the center of the Milky Way. A decade after Oppenheimer’s death, the Israeli theorist Jacob Bekenstein proved a very deep relationship between thermodynamics and black hole physics. Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose found out that black holes contain singularities; far from being ugly anomalies, black holes thus demonstrated Einstein’s general theory of relativity in all its glory. They also realized that a true understanding of singularities would involve the marriage of quantum mechanics and general relativity, a paradigm that’s as fundamental as any other in physics.

In perhaps the most exciting development in the field, Leonard Susskind, Hawking and others have found intimate connections between information theory and black holes, leading to the fascinating black hole firewall paradox that forges very deep connections between thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and general relativity. Black holes are even providing insights into computer science and computational complexity. The study of black holes is today as fundamental as the study of elementary particles in the 1950s.

Einstein and Oppenheimer could scarcely have imagined that this cornucopia of discoveries would come from an entity that they despised. But their wariness toward black holes is not only an example of missed opportunities or the fact that great minds can sometimes suffer from tunnel vision. I think the biggest lesson from the story of Oppenheimer and black holes is that what is considered ‘applied’ science can actually turn out to harbor deep fundamental mysteries. Both Oppenheimer and Einstein considered the study of black holes to be too applied, an examination of anomalies and specific solutions unworthy of thinkers thinking deep thoughts about the cosmos. But the delicious irony was that black holes in fact contained some of the deepest mysteries of the cosmos, forging unexpected connections between disparate disciplines and challenging the finest minds in the field. If only Oppenheimer and Einstein had been more open-minded.

The discovery of fundamental science in what is considered applied science is not unknown in the history of physics. For instance Max Planck was studying blackbody radiation, a relatively mundane and applied topic, but it was in blackbody radiation that the seeds of quantum theory were found. Similarly it was spectroscopy or the study of light emanating from atoms that led to the modern framework of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Scores of similar examples abound in the history of physics; in a more recent case, it was studies in condensed matter physics that led physicist Philip Anderson to make significant contributions to symmetry breaking and the postulation of the existence of the Higgs boson. And in what is perhaps the most extreme example of an applied scientist making fundamental contributions, it was the investigation of cannons and heat engines by French engineer Sadi Carnot that led to a foundational law of science – the second law of thermodynamics.

Today many physicists are again engaged in a search for ultimate laws, with at least some of them thinking that these ultimate laws would be found within the framework of string theory. These physicists probably regard other parts of physics, and especially the applied ones, as unworthy of their great theoretical talents. For these physicists the story of Oppenheimer and black holes should serve as a cautionary tale. Nature is too clever to be constrained into narrow bins, and sometimes it is only by poking around in the most applied parts of science that one can see the gleam of fundamental principles.

As Einstein might have said had he known better, the distinction between the pure and the applied is often only a "stubbornly persistent illusion". It's an illusion that we must try hard to dispel.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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