Douglas Stanford, 31
INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED STUDY
AND S TANFORD UNIVERSI T Y
Douglas Stanford’s fascination with
black holes had its origins in an unlikely
place: a sailboat.
Starting at age 10, Stanford spent five
years sailing around the world with his
parents and two sisters. Sailboats are
“like a physics laboratory,” Stanford says.
Keeping the boat on course requires bal-
ancing the forces induced by wind and
water. “You can see really simple physics
effects happening,” he says.
Today, Stanford, 31, applies his physics
know-how to more abstract problems:
black holes, quantum mechanics and
His work as a theoretical physicist
at the Institute for Advanced Study in
Princeton, N.J., has already revealed
new insights, including the discovery
that black holes reach the pinnacle
of chaos—nothing can be more cha-
otic than a black hole. That revelation
reinforces the notion that black holes
are some of the most extreme oddities in
the universe and, importantly, it might
aid the search for a new and improved
theory of gravity.
In chaotic systems, a tiny tweak can
have cascading effects that drastically
alter the outcome. The most famous
example is the butterfly effect, a hypo-
thetical scenario in which a butterfly
flaps its wings, and the tiny change in air-
flow affects when and where a tornado
appears (SN Online: 9/16/13).
On a quantum level, Stanford and
in a black hole
By Emily Conover
theoretical physicist Stephen
Shenker showed in calculations
that black holes exhibit simi-
larly chaotic behavior. Changes to
a black hole — as minor as throwing a
single particle into the abyss — can dras-
tically shift how the black hole behaves.
One key to understanding this chaos
is that black holes aren’t fully black.
The cosmic giants radiate a faint haze of
particles, the result of pairs of quantum
particles that are constantly blipping
in and out of existence everywhere in
space (SN: 11/26/16, p. 28). When this
process occurs near a black hole’s edge,
some of the particles can escape, producing what’s known as Hawking radiation
(SN: 4/14/18, p. 12).
Studying Hawking radiation reveals
black holes’ chaotic nature, Stanford
and Shenker, of Stanford University,
reported in 2014 in the Journal of High
Imagine throwing a single electron
into a black hole — a tiny change for the
behemoth. “It’s one particle and a huge,
ginormous black hole,” Stanford says.
But that minuscule change alters the
Hawking radiation the black hole emits,
like a butterfly flapping its wings and
redirecting a distant sailboat.
Adding a particle increases the black
hole’s heft and slightly expands its event
horizon, the boundary from within which
nothing can escape (SN: 5/31/14, p. 16).
Hawking radiation that would otherwise have been emitted gets stuck inside
the expanded black hole. A seemingly
insignificant alteration has ballooning
effects — the definition of chaos.
Stanford then took this idea a step
further. In 2016 in the Journal of High
Energy Physics, he, Shenker and Juan
Maldacena of the Institute for Advanced
Study showed theoretically that the
repercussions of a small tweak to a black
hole snowballed as fast as physically
possible. That snowballing makes black
holes the most chaotic system allowed by
the laws of nature.
Stanford’s colleagues say he’s poised
to uncover even bigger insights. “He is a
deep thinker and a powerful calculator,
a rare, winning combination that one
finds in the very best physicists,” says
Raphael Bousso, a theoretical physicist
at the University of California, Berkeley.
Despite his young age, Stanford has
secured a position as an associate pro-
fessor at Stanford University, where he
will move in April.
Maldacena says working with Stanford
made him feel like a student again. “He
corrected my mistakes and gave me good
ideas.” That’s no small feat. Maldacena
is a giant of quantum gravity and string
theory known for discovering mathematical oddities that physicists are still
pondering (SN: 10/17/15, p. 28).
By understanding the link between
tiny particles and gigantic black holes,
Stanford and others hope to tackle a
knotty conflict between two of physics’
most important theories. The aim is to
formulate a theory of quantum gravity,
combining two theories that have long
clashed: quantum mechanics and general relativity. The mismatch hints that
something big is deeply wrong at the
heart of physics. Stanford’s new ideas
about black holes could help scientists
find a solution.
“It’s possible that he is one of those
rare individuals [who] will really change
the direction of science,” Shenker says.
“I look forward to seeing whether I’m
Trapped Imagine a black hole with a particle nearby, in danger of falling in ( 1). Sometime
later, that particle may escape. But if another
particle is tossed in ( 2), the black hole will
expand, preventing the original particle from
getting away. Making a minor change to the
black hole changes the outcome — an indicator
of chaos. SOURCE: D. STANFORD
the black hole