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September 2011 – Me and Morgan Freeman

September 2011 – Me and Morgan Freeman

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. We had already picked this month’s theme ‘The Great Escape,’ wanting to do something with hard sciences for a change. Then there it was on Sciencedaily.com: ‘Escaping Gravity’s Clutches: Information Could Escape from Black Holes After All, Study Suggests’. It was perfect. Controversial, new, mysterious. There was just one problem: we knew nothing about black holes. Or quantum physics, for that matter.

However, this didn’t stop us from pursuing our journalistic goals. So I asked my co-editor Mark to contact the two physicists who had published the study, and set up an interview. It started out fine. Some history, some Einstein. When the name ‘Hawking’ was mentioned, Mark even got a little excited. He knew Stephen Hawking! “Ooh, ‘Hawking radiation’, you say?” Mark wasn’t sure. And then it got more difficult; words like ‘entropy’ and ‘inertia’ entered the conversation. Followed by ‘black hole evaporation’ and ‘the thermodynamic properties of event horizons.’ Mark felt himself slipping away into a different kind of abyss, but there was nothing he could do. So he kept on recording their words, translated them to the best of his knowledge, and then sent me the first draft of his story to edit.

Mark’s first question: What was the original idea of your research “Black Hole Evaporation Rates,” and what did you learn? Answer: “The basic idea was: let’s forget about black holes and instead just think about some quantum mechanical system and we’re just randomly sampling some subsystems from it, so its dimensionality slowly goes down and down.” I read it once. Twice. And six more times. But there was no way of denying it: I just didn’t understand this.

And then our designer recommended I watch Discovery Science’s Through the Wormhole. Desperate and confused, I went to the website. And there he was; the black prince of narration. The David Attenborough of science. Well-dressed, golden-voiced, soft-spoken- Morgan Freeman. He explained things to me in a way I could understand, as he always does on the silver screen. Entropy, he said, was just like putting cream in a cup of coffee; once the two were mixed, there was no way of getting the milk out again. It made sense. The universe, he continued, was like a New York bagel; not infinite, but formed in such a way that we would never reach its borders. Aha. With Morgan at my side, I finished editing Mark’s interview. Hopefully, it makes more sense to you than it did to me. And if not, rest assured we added a little quantum physics Dictionary for Dummies to the story. Just to be on the safe side.

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