For nearly thirty years Cambridge University's Stephen W. Hawking has been the cosmologist most closely associated in the public mind with the phenomenon of black holes—cosmic concentrations of mass so dense that nothing can escape from them. The basic idea behind black holes has a long pedigree. The English geologist John Michell speculated centuries ago that a celestial body with a radius 500 times greater than that of the sun, but with the same density, would possess an escape velocity at its surface equal to the speed of light, meaning that light could not escape: "all light emitted from such a body would be made to return towards it, by its own proper gravity." Theorizing about black holes picked up considerable momentum after Einstein, and during the past several decades in particular has been the focus of much speculation. It was Stephen Hawking who introduced the idea of the "event horizon" (the outer boundary of a black hole), and it was Hawking who in 1976 proposed that black holes were essentially omnivorous, swallowing not only matter but also information (although it was possible, he thought, that the information might escape into new "baby universes" forming inside the black hole). Hawking's ideas about information loss contradicted known laws of physics. They led to deep divisions among scientists, and a vast amount of science fiction.
Now, after years of fuss, Hawking has conceded error. At the last minute he contacted the organizers of the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation, to be held in Dublin. Hawking's message: "I have solved the black hole information paradox and I want to talk about it." When his turn came to speak at the conference, he had this to say: "I am sorry to disappoint science-fiction fans, but if you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in mangled form. There is no baby universe branching off, as I once thought." Emily Litella, a Gilda Radner character on Saturday Night Live, used to deliver editorial rants against "free Soviet jewelry" and "making Puerto Rico a steak," only to correct herself meekly when informed of her error by a colleague. Stephen Hawking's comments in Dublin amounted to a cosmological "Never mind."
It is always a little disconcerting when audacious scientific theories come a cropper. Sometimes what is lost is not just a specific explanation but a whole way of thinking, an entire world view. Perhaps for that reason, old scientific theories do not wholly die. Oscar Wilde once observed that "science is the record of dead religions." He might have added, in a codicil, that "metaphor is the record of dead science."
The theory of black holes hasn't been discredited in its entirety, just one of its more intriguing postulates. But even if the theory itself were sucked into a black hole, it's hard to believe that the black-hole metaphor—for the bedrooms of certain children, the minds of certain friends, the legal status of certain detainees—wouldn't be around more or less forever. Here's The Boston Globe commenting on memories of the 1960s at Democratic conventions: "They loom stage left, a blur to many of us, a black hole to the rest." Here's the Omaha World Herald on the fortunes of a neighboring state: "While Iowa has been the center of the whirlwind at caucus time, by November the state usually has been sucked into a political black hole."
Theories rejected eons ago as inadequate for the narrow purposes of science have proved far too useful to reject in the broader world of normal life. The idea that a Great Flood once destroyed most life on the planet is now untenable, but we still think of antiquated people and ideas as being antediluvian, "before the deluge." I am aware, and accept, that ships sailing off to the horizon will not actually reach a place where the world ends and the oceans spill off into the void. But regardless of what the geographers say, "falling off the face of the earth" is something that happens—to fashions, to celebrities, to popular culture. It is the explanation for any number of phenomena: What happened to the huge surplus that Gore and Bush sparred over? Where are Erik Estrada and Menudo, Vanilla Ice and Andrew Dice Clay?