Black Hole Computers; November 2004; Scientific American Magazine; by Seth Lloyd and Y. Jack Ng; 10 Page(s)
What is the difference between a computer and a black hole? This question sounds like the start of a Microsoft joke, but it is one of the most profound problems in physics today. Most people think of computers as specialized gizmos: streamlined boxes sitting on a desk or fingernail-size chips embedded in high-tech coffeepots. But to a physicist, all physical systems are computers. Rocks, atom bombs and galaxies may not run Linux, but they, too, register and process information. Every electron, photon and other elementary particle stores bits of data, and every time two such particles interact, those bits are transformed. Physical existence and information content are inextricably linked. As physicist John Wheeler of Princeton University says, "It from bit."
Black holes might seem like the exception to the rule that everything computes. Inputting information into them presents no difficulty, but according to Einstein's general theory of relativity, getting information out is impossible. Matter that enters a hole is assimilated, the details of its composition lost irretrievably. In the 1970s Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge showed that when quantum mechanics is taken into account, black holes do have an output: they glow like a hot coal. In Hawking's analysis, this radiation is random, however. It carries no information about what went in. If an elephant fell in, an elephant's worth of energy would come out--but the energy would be a hodgepodge that could not be used, even in principle, to re-create the animal.