Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Hawking radiation

Any process that could destroy heat (or convert it into nothing but mechanical work) would lead to a reduction in entropy. Black holes are supermassive stars whose gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape from them once it gets within a boundary known as the event horizon. Black holes are commonly observed to suck hot gas into them. Does this lead to a reduction in the entropy of the universe? Of course one could argue that the entropy is still there inside the black hole, but being able to hide entropy there amounts to the same thing as being able to destroy entropy.

The physicist Steven Hawking was bothered by this question, and finally realized that although the actual stuff that enters a black hole is lost forever, the black hole will gradually lose energy in the form of light emitted from just outside the event horizon. This light ends up reintroducing the original entropy back into the universe at large.

Last Update: 2009-06-21