Monday, October 31, 2005

Entropy, black holes, string theory

One of the most dramatic recent results in string theory is the derivation of the Bekenstein-Hawking entropy formula for black holes obtained by counting the microscopic string states which form a black hole. Bekenstein noted that black holes obey an "area law", dM = K dA, where 'A' is the area of the event horizon and 'K' is a constant of proportionality. Since the total mass 'M' of a black hole is just its rest energy, Bekenstein realized that this is similar to the thermodynamic law for entropy, dE = T dS. Hawking later performed a semiclassical calculation to show that the temperature of a black hole is given by T = 4 k [where k is a constant called the "surface gravity"]. Therefore the entropy of a black hole should be written as S = A/4. Physicists Andrew Strominger and Cumrin Vafa, showed that this exact entropy formula can be derived microscopically (including the factor of 1/4) by counting the degeneracy of quantum states of configurations of strings and D-branes which correspond to black holes in string theory. This is compelling evidence that D-branes can provide a short distance weak coupling description of certain black holes! For example, the class of black holes studied by Strominger and Vafa are described by 5-branes, 1-branes and open strings traveling down the 1-brane all wrapped on a 5-dimensional torus, which gives an effective one dimensional object -- a black hole.
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Some have compared this extraordinary result to the significance of Boltzman’s kinetic theory of gases. By postulating that a gas was made of microscopic molecules, he was able to derive the ideal gas formula that had already been known using macroscopic quantities such as pressure, volume and temperature. It was this landmark idea that promoted the concept of atoms and molecules. One would hope that the Strominger and Vafa calculations will do the same for the concept of strings as the basic block of matter/energy.
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