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Stephen Hawking's information sent into a black hole

A radio broadcast including his voice and tribute music sent into space

A radio broadcast including his voice and tribute music sent into space

Artist's impression of a black hole superimposed over the milky way (Ute Kraus)

Following the interment of Stephen Hawking's remains in Westminster Abbey this week, a radio signal containing his voice and music by composer Vangelis, was beamed to a "nearby" black hole.

The message was sent into space by the European Space Agency's 35-metre radio antenna in Cebreros, Spain.  

It is appropriate that Hawking's information — in the form of radiation — will be consumed by one of these mysterious black holes, because understanding radiation from black holes was one of his great scientific achievements.

The black hole in question, with the uninspiring name 1A 0620-00, is the closest to our planet, but still lies about 3,300 light years away. As a result, the Hawking audio tribute will take thousands of years to reach its destination.

Before Hawking's work, it was assumed that nothing could escape from these ultimate gravity traps.

Hawking disputed that assumption with a revolutionary theory that looked at events that can take place right at the event horizon — the point of no return — around a black hole. His breakthrough was to suggest that some radiation can indeed escape, and it's now known as Hawking Radiation. In fact, one of the implications of this work was that Hawking Radiation, could cause a black hole to evaporate over a very long period of time.

Late British scientist Stephen Hawking is seen in 2015 with daughter Lucy Hawking, who said before the event that Friday's service would be an inspirational 'message of peace and hope.' (Facundo Arrizabalaga/PA-EFE)

One of the most tantalizing implications of this work was the possibility that things swallowed by black holes were not, at least in a sense, lost forever. Hawking Radiation was a possible mechanism for information about the contents of a black hole to escape.

Just how this might work has been a matter of intense theoretical debate for decades, and Hawking himself was an important participant in this debate right through to the end of his career. Physicists will continue to wrestle with this part of his legacy well into the future.

Now, information from Stephen Hawking in the form of a radio transmission — electromagnetic radiation — is heading to a black hole. And in a sense, Hawking himself demonstrated that this information will not be lost forever.

One of Hawking's other areas of interest, and to some extent a source of frustration for him, was the Big Bang that created the universe as we know it. He proposed, along with physicist Roger Penrose, that the Big Bang emerged from a single point, a singularity.

This is kind of a black hole in reverse, where everything burst out of a super dense gravitational singularity rather than falling into one. But both black holes and the Big Bang bring together all the theories that regulate the universe: Relativity, which works on the large, cosmic scale, and quantum physics, that works on the very small scales within the atom. 
This updated timeline of the universe reflects the recent discovery that the first stars emerged by 180 million years after the Big Bang. (N.R.Fuller, National Science Foundation)

Nature apparently unifies these two phenomenon in black holes and the Big Bang, but science hasn't yet figured out a theory to explain how. This would be the so-called "theory of everything."

Such a theory would be a major leap forward in our understanding of the workings of the universe. Hawking worked on this problem, but late in his career, he admitted that he could not solve it. Of course, scientists are still struggling with it today by proposing solutions through string theory and the multiverse, among others.

Perhaps, by the time Hawking's message reaches the black hole 3,300 years from now, that mystery will be solved.  

Professor Hawking's ashes were laid alongside the remains of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, who both changed humanity's view of life on Earth and the workings of the universe.

Black holes and exotic physics may not seem as relevant to everyday life as the theory of evolution, or Newton's laws of motion that describe everything from the movement of billiard balls to rockets. They do, however, provide a window into the fundamental forces that operate in nature and forged the creation of the universe itself. Hawking will be remembered for centuries on Earth, while part of his energy travels for millennia in space.

Farewell Professor Hawking.

About the Author

Bob McDonald

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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