Black holes – mysteries and conflicts

It was a BBC Horizon programme on black holes that inspired a 12-year-old Paul Abel to plan a career in astronomy, but it was a University of Leicester Honorary Graduate – Sir Patrick Moore – who helped him along the way and later the University of Leicester once more came on the scene as the place where Paul chose to take an undergraduate degree in Mathematics.
Black holes – mysteries and conflicts
Paul Abel working at the University’s observatory in Oadby.

Pretty much all these strands have come full circle, as Paul Abel now co-presents the BBC’s highly popular ‘The Sky at Night’ with Sir Patrick, while he studies for a PhD at Leicester’s internationally acclaimed Department of Physics and Astronomy. He has also co-written the Mathematics course for the University’s innovative Interdisciplinary Science (iScience) programme, which he also now teaches.

On Paul’s return to Leicester he began to work with Professor Derek Raine, Director of the iScience Project  in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

It appears to be a highly successful partnership. “Professor Raine has been an ideal PhD supervisor,” Paul said. “I can’t imagine anybody else would have given me the help, support and encouragement to do all the other things I do. He’s a brilliant man and I’m very lucky to work with him.”

Paul’s PhD is on Hawking radiation. He explained: “Black holes aren’t static dead objects, they radiate. As a result they close up, evaporate  and eventually explode in a shower of gamma rays, or high energy particles. I’m looking at an alternative way of formulating that Hawking mechanism.”

Black holes are the keystone of modern Physics, he claims, because understanding them is the key to understanding the conflicting natures of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Again, Paul explains in terms that are (comparatively) simple, making it clear to understand how he became a co-presenter on The Sky at Night. “Quantum mechanics states that space-time is flat and rigid – the particles of nature just exist on it. However Relativity says that space-time is flexible it bends in the presence of matter and we experience that as a gravitational field. Black holes must obey both quantum mechanics and gravity though, and we’re trying to find a theory that binds them together – a quantum theory of gravity. I should say that many brilliant minds have tried for a long time to unify quantum mechanics and gravity, including Stephen Hawking, but without success.”

Paul Abel’s passion for science is almost evangelical, so it comes as something of a shock when he stresses that “in many ways, the public science we sell people is a slightly ‘faulty’ product.

“This is one of science’s great secrets. Science gives us wonderful things, like objective rational thought. It stops us burning people as witches or believing aliens are abducting us and gives us a way to predict and control the physical world around us. But in order to communicate complex ideas generally, we have to simplify them and this leads people to think that we have all the answers. We don’t of course, science is a work in progress!

“We have to be careful when we have theories that don’t make testable predictions. It’s all very well promising a theory of everything but if that theory cannot be tested then it is not yet science, as everything in science is based on reproducible experiments or what we can observe in the Universe.”

Paul enjoys communicating science to the public and appreciates the opportunity ‘The Sky at Night’ gives him to do this. It is, he says, a good thing to be involved with and provides a way for people to get into science.

He is also currently writing a book, illustrated with wonderfully delicate hand-painted images of planets, suns and moons, which he says will be for anybody who just wants to go out and look at the Universe.

Much as he loves television work Paul says he would never want to give up his university research and teaching and he is particularly glad to be at Leicester with its great strength in astronomy and its diversity.

His interest in black holes is as strong as ever. “They are,” he says, “one of most profoundly strange things in the whole of Nature. In many ways they are an absurdity, and it is so outrageously strange that Nature just could allow such things to exist. But stealing Nature’s secrets is our business, and I hope I am able to contribute to our understanding of them.

“The Universe is such a fundamental thing to be connected with. Just to be able to go out at night and look up at the vastness of space is intrinsically fascinating. It encapsulates all the things pertaining to the human condition – time, space infinity, loneliness, isolation. It reminds us of all the things that make us human.

“You haven’t asked me about aliens,” he accused as our interview threatened to draw to a close, and then proceeded to be utterly fascinating on the subject. But aliens will have to wait until another time, along with quantum mechanics, string theory, gravity, a 12-dimensional world, UFOs … No question, Paul Abel is a born communicator.

This article originally appeared in LE1 Autumn 2011.

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