December 1972. It was the first physics conference of then 17-year-old Lee Smolin. His teacher at Hampshire College suggested that he drop in to the conference, listen attentively to the talks, and take the opportunity to meet people.
“Don’t be shy,” he said. “If you need an icebreaker, just ask them what they are working on.”
Having practised my line on the subway, I strode into the grand hotel. The first person I met was a young Texan named Lane P. Hughston, who took me to lunch and taught me twistor theory—a radically original description of the geometry of space and time as it would be experienced by a ray of light. I’d been reading Albert Einstein’s original papers on general relativity, but I’d never seen a theory so elegant. In the following days, I met and listened to lectures by many of the leading physicists of the time—including Roger Penrose, the inventor of twistor theory, himself.
At the time, several researchers were working on black holes, which I had recently started to learn about. A black hole is created after a massive star runs out of nuclear fuel and collapses. Inside, gravity is so strong that nothing—not even light—can escape.
At the last afternoon of the symposium, Smolin noticed a man who didn’t look like a typical physicist. He had what Smolin called an “Old Testament” beard and he wore black jeans and a turtleneck.
I tried my line on him, and his reply was so unusual that I remember it exactly. “My approach to research is to ask myself how I would create the universe, were I God. I’ve come to the conclusion that God could never understand calculus or, indeed, the real numbers. But I am pretty sure that God can count.” He showed me a game with an electron and a chessboard. The probability of the electron jumping between any two squares was related to the total number of ways of travelling between them. Through this game, he hoped to reduce quantum physics, concerned with the movement of particles, to a simple matter of counting. I had no idea what to think of this, so I quickly said goodbye, and in my haste, I neglected to ask his name.
Seven years later, as a new PhD visiting Stanford University, I was formally introduced to David Finkelstein, the first person to describe the inner structure of a black hole. In 1958, he had used simple mathematics to describe how something such as light travels near the hole’s surface, showing that the boundary can be crossed only one way—by photons falling in. Because of this, a black hole would appear perfectly black. Today, we call this edge of darkness the event horizon.
Check out this intriguing story over at The Walrus.
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