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A Philosopher Is Trying to Figure out What Black Holes Really Are

Physicists can't agree.

Dan RobitzskiFebruary 15th 2019

Converging Theories

Black holes remain mysterious. It was huge news, back in October, when astronomers did as little as actually confirming that there’s a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.

But it turns out that scientists very rarely agree about black holes on a philosophical level — they often can’t even agree what they are.

Words Matter

That’s the conclusion of an investigation by Erik Curiel, a philosopher and physicist from Harvard and the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy at Germany’s Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, according to new research he published last month in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“The properties of black holes are the subject of investigations in a range of subdisciplines of physics — in optical physics, in quantum physics and of course in astrophysics,” Curiel said in a university-published press release. “But each of these specialties approaches the problem with its own specific set of theoretical concepts.”

Conflict Resolution

Many of the black hole definitions Curiel gathered from various physicists conflicted with one another. An astrophysicist told him that “a black hole is the ultimate prison: once you check in, you can never get out.” On the other hand, a theoretical physicist said that it’s “conceptually problematical to think of black holes as objects in space, things that can move and be pushed around.”

Curiel embarked on this journey to point out the problem of having multiple, incongruous definitions for a single concept, but eventually came around to the discrepancy, arguing that scientists defining black holes according to their specific fields allowed them to do better work.

“I conclude that, within reasonable bounds, the profusion of different definitions is in fact a virtue, making the investigation of black holes possible and fruitful in all the many different kinds of problems about them that physicists consider,” Curiel wrote in his research paper, “although one must take care in trying to translate results between fields.”

READ MORE: Philosophy: What exactly is a black hole? [Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München newsroom via ScienceDaily]

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