It's often said that, as long as the information that fell into a black hole comes out eventually in the Hawking radiation (by whatever means), pure states remain pure rather than evolving into mixed states, and "the universe is safe for quantum mechanics." But that can't be the whole story! For quantum-mechanical reversibility doesn't merely say that information must eventually be retrievable, after 1070 years or whatever; but also that, if U is an admissible transformation of a physical system, then U-1 is also an admissible transformation.

So, just like it must be consistent with reversible microlaws for smoke and ash to spontaneously reassemble into a book, it must also be consistent for a black hole to spontaneously "uncollapse" into a star, or into whatever configuration of ordinary matter could have collapsed to form the black hole in the first place. And this "white-hole uncollapse process" must be possible in exactly the same amount of time as the black-hole collapse process, rather than an astronomically longer time (as with Hawking radiation).

In both cases, the explanation for why we never see these processes must be thermodynamic -- i.e., sure they're allowed, but they involve such a crazy decrease in entropy that they're exponentially suppressed. I get that. But I'm still confused about something, and here's my best attempt to crystallize my confusion:

In order to explain how it could even be possible for information to come out of a black hole, physicists typically appeal to Hawking radiation, which provides a mechanism based on more-or-less understood quantum field theory in curved spacetime. (Granted, QFT also predicts that the radiation should be thermal! But because of AdS/CFT and so forth, today people seem pretty confident that the information, after hanging out near the event horizon, is carried away by the Hawking radiation in some not-yet-understood way.) However, suppose it's objected that a Hawking radiation process seems nothing whatsoever like the time-reverse of an ordinary black-hole formation process. Then the only response I know would be along the lines of, "well, do you believe that QM will survive unaltered in a future quantum theory of gravity, or don't you? If you do, then consider the unitary U corresponding to a black-hole formation process, and invert it to get U-1!" My question is: why couldn't people have made that same straightforward argument even before they knew anything about Hawking radiation? (Or did they make it?) More generally, even if Hawking radiation does carry away the infalling information, that still seems extremely far from implying full quantum-mechanical reversibility. So, how much does the existence of Hawking radiation really have to do with the case for the compatibility between quantum mechanics and black holes?
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    $\begingroup$ Hm, interesting. I don't really know the history, but I thought it was originally assumed that GR broke unitarity, probably at the singularity. When Hawking radiation was discovered it perhaps gave some hope of a method to save unitarity at least outside the event horizon, but I'm not sure what the current status is. Inside a black hole the arrow of time actually points spatially inward, and there has been theoretical speculation on white holes, which would be the reversed version of that. No observations, though, of course ;-) $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ For anyone wanting details, it sounds like David Z's referring to Nikodem Poplawski's "Cosmology with torsion", "Universe in a black hole", Non-parametric reconstruction of an inflaton potential", and his other 2009-2019 papers, that use Einstein-Cartan gravity (fermions with spatial extent). Some of the fermions split from partners in virtual pairs (by an EH of a rotating and collapsing star maybe also wobbling thru tidal effects) get their trajectories accelerated & reversed by contact with the larger fermions of the star itself, and form a white hole masking the new BH's inboard side. $\endgroup$
    – Edouard
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 2:46

4 Answers 4


As you said, the case of black holes is conceptually totally analogous to the burning books. In principle, the process is reversible, but the probability of the CPT-conjugated process (more accurate a symmetry than just time reversal) is different from the original one because $$ \frac{Prob(A\to B)}{Prob(B^{CPT}\to A^{CPT})} \approx \exp(S_B-S_A ).$$ This is true because the probabilities of evolution between ensembles are obtained by summing over final states but averaging over initial states. The averaging differs from summing by the extra factor of $1/N = \exp(-S)$, and that's why the exponential of the entropy difference quantifies the past-future asymmetry of the evolution.

At the qualitative level, a white hole is exactly as impossible in practice as a burning coal suddenly rearranging into a particular book. Quantitatively speaking, it's more impossible because the drop of entropy would be much greater: black holes have the greatest entropy among all localized or bound objects of the same total mass.

However, the Hawking radiation isn't localized or bound and it actually has an even greater entropy – by a significant factor – than the black hole from which it evaporated. That's needed and that's true because even the Hawking evaporation process agrees with the second law of thermodynamics.

At the level of classical general relativity, nothing prevents us from drawing a white hole spacetime. In fact, the spacetime for an eternal black hole is already perfectly time-reversal-symmetric. We still mostly call it a black hole but it's a "white hole" at the same moment. Such solutions don't correspond to the reality in which black holes always come from a lower-entropy initial state – because the initial state of the Universe couldn't have any black holes.

So the real issue are the realistic diagrams for a star collapsing into a black hole which later evaporates. Such a diagram is clearly time-reversal-asymmetric. The entropy increases during the star collapse as well as during the Hawking radiation. You may flip the diagram upside down and you will get a picture that solves the equations of general relativity. However, it will heavily violate the second law of thermodynamics.

Any consistent classical or quantum theory explains and guarantees the thermodynamic phenomena and laws microscopically, i.e. by statistical physics applied to its phase space or Hilbert space. That's true for burning books but that's true for theories containing black holes, too. So if one has a consistent microscopic quantum theory for this process – but the same comment would hold for a classical theory as well: your question has really nothing to do with quantum mechanics per se – then this theory must predict that the inverted processes that decrease entropy are exponentially unlikely. Whenever there is a specific model with well-defined microstates and a microscopic T or CPT symmetry, it's easy to prove the equation I started with.

A genuine microscopic theory really establishes that the inverted processes (those that lower the total entropy) are possible but very unlikely. A classical theory of macroscopic matter however "averages over many atoms". For solids, liquids, and gases, this is manifested by time-reversal-asymmetric terms in the effective equations - diffusion, heat diffusion, friction, viscosity, all these things that slow things down, heat them up, and transfer heat from warmer bodies to cooler ones.

The transfer of heat from warmer bodies to cooler ones may either occur by "direct contact" which really looks classical but it may also proceed via the black body radiation – which is a quantum process and may be found in the first semiclassical corrections to classical physics. The Hawking radiation is an example of the "transfer of heat from warmer to cooler bodies", too. The black hole has a nonzero temperature so it radiates energy away to the empty space whose temperature is zero. Again, it doesn't "realistically" occur in the opposite chronological order because the entropy would decrease and a cooler object would spontaneously transfer its heat to a warmer one.

In an approximate macroscopic effective theory that incorporates the microscopic statistical phenomena collectively, much like friction terms in mechanics, those time-reversal-violating terms appear explicitly: they are replacements/results of some statistical physics calculations. In the exact microscopic theory, however, there are no explicit time-reversal-breaking terms. And indeed, according to the full microscopic theory – e.g. a consistent theory of quantum gravity – the entropy-lowering processes aren't strictly forbidden, they may just be calculated to be exponentially unlikely.

The probability that we arrange the initial state of the black hole so that it will evolve into a star with some particular shape and composition is extremely tiny. It is hard to describe the state of the black hole microstates explicitly, but even in setups where we know them in principle, it's practically impossible to locate black hole microstates that have evolved from a recent star (or will evolve into a star soon, which is the same mathematical problem). Your $U^{-1}$ transformation undoubtedly exists in a consistent theory of quantum gravity – e.g. in AdS/CFT – but if you want the final state $U^{-1}|initial\rangle$ to have a lower entropy than the initial one, you must carefully cherry-pick the initial one and it's exponentially unlikely that you will be able to prepare such an initial state, whether it is experimental preparation or a theoretical one. For "realistically preparable" initial states, the final states will have a higher entropy. This is true everywhere in physics and has nothing specific in the context of quantum gravity with black holes.

Let me also say that the "white hole" microstates exist but they're the same thing as the "black hole microstates". The reason why these microstates almost always behave as black holes and not white holes is the second law of thermodynamics once again: it's just very unlikely for them to evolve to a lower-entropy state (at least if we expect this entropy drop to be imminent: within a long enough, Poincaré recurrence time, such thing may occur at some point). That's true for burned books, too. A "white hole" is analogous to a "burned book that will conspire its atomic vibrations and rearrange itself into a nice and healthy book again". But macroscopically, such "books waiting to be revived" don't differ from other piles of ashes; that's the analogous claim to the claim that there is no visible difference between black hole and white hole microstates, and due to their "very likely" future evolution, the whole class should better be called "black hole microstates" and not "white hole microstates" even the microstates that will drop entropy soon represent a tiny fraction of this set.

My main punch line is that at the level of general reversibility, there has never been any qualitative difference between black holes and other objects that are subject to thermodynamics and, which is related, there has never been (and there is not) any general incompatibility between the general principles of quantum mechanics, microscopic reversibility, and macroscopic irreversibility, whether black holes are present or not. The only "new" feature of black holes that sparked the decades of efforts and debates was the causality. While a burning book may still transfer the information in both ways, the material inside the black hole should no longer be able to transfer the information about itself to infinity because it's equivalent to superluminal signals forbidden in relativity. However, we know today that the laws of causality aren't this strict in the presence of black holes and the information is leaked, so the qualitative features of a collapsing star and evaporating black hole are literally the same as in a book that is printed by diffusing ink and then burned.

  • $\begingroup$ My latest take on this whole discussion is that what needs to preserved is the uncertainty principle (e.g. normally understood quantum complementarity). Information in the Shannon sense is viewed as freedom of choice, although we can distinguish between freedom of choice by the sender and noise (equivocation), the uncertainty is still viewed as information. From a classical point of view, the black hole represents a definite position and momentum state. The quantum argument is that complementarity is still preserved, and it could be potentially argued that (continued) $\endgroup$
    – Freedom
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ the evaporation processes are driven by complementarity, which becomes more significant as the black hole mass becomes smaller (which also implies a reduction in the number of potential subsystems). If we incorrectly viewed quantum uncertainty as the result of hidden variables, then a loss of information would be viewed as a loss of those hidden variables. QM says no, this is not possible, the complementarity is intrinsic and can not be lost, so the information associated with uncertainty is preserved. $\endgroup$
    – Freedom
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ The only flaw I can see in all this is the assumption, mentioned in the answer's 4th or 5th paragraph, that the universe had an initial state: It is nevertheless a serious one, given the resemblance between psychotic "ideas of reference" and the idea that we happen to exist at a "special time", whence we can date a beginning more reliably than we can date an end. That's evident in human life, but the notion that the universe modeled itself on us is a little extravagant, and itself implies a notion that both time AND entropy might run backward, with our surroundings working like a mirror. $\endgroup$
    – Edouard
    Commented Jul 27, 2019 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ At arxiv.org/pdf/1907.05292.pdf, I've found a description of what I was getting at in yesterday's comment: The 2019 paper, on astronomically-realistic black holes (although it starts with a description of Schwarzchild BHs), puts what I was saying in terms of cosmology that I believe to be past- (as well as future-) eternal. Its math's rather opaque to me, so other comments on it would be welcome. $\endgroup$
    – Edouard
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ Dear @Edouard, I am pretty sure that my argument doesn't depend on any assumptions about the distant past, e.g. on the existence of the Big Bang and/or a static Universe or something like that. The arrow of time doesn't have anything to do with any assumptions about the cosmological beginnings, it exists in every region of spacetime locally. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2019 at 13:39

There are two equivalent descriptions for the same process in terms of the time-forward version, and the time-reversed version. Externally, both look the same; some matter in a pure state collapses together into a dense state — a gravitational hole — and slowly, over time, it evaporates Hawking radiation until nothing is left of it. The totality of all the Hawking radiation remains pure.

In the time-forward version, matter collapses into a black hole with a future singularity, and ends there. Entangled Hawking pairs are produced just outside the horizon. One particle of each pair falls into the hole and hits the singularity. Postselection to an entangled state of the infalling Hawking radiation and infalling matter is imposed at the future singularity. The outgoing Hawking particles carry information about the infalling matter after postselection. Before postselection, it remains entangled with the infalling Hawking radiation.

In the time-reversed version, a white hole with a past singularity forms with a white hole horizon. Matter can only emerge from the white hole, not enter it, and all matter emerging from inside it was created at the past singularity. Matter just outside the white hole is still attracted gravitationally, but it only accumulates just outside the horizon, unable to penetrate it. Matter emerging from the past white hole singularity and crossing the horizon, but without enough escape velocity to leave the white hole's pull also accumulates just outside the horizon. The shell of accumulating matter just outside the horizon quickly forms a black hole shell with a future singularity. This is the time-reversed firewall, which is very real in the time-reversed version. Postselection occurs at this shell. All the matter emerging from the past white hole singularity at the same location are entangled with each other. After postselection, matter emerging from the white hole singularity which has enough escape velocity carries information about the infalling matter which accumulates at the shell just outside the white hole horizon because it was initially entangled with other matter which collides with the infalling matter at the shell, and they are postselected together in an entangled state.

Far away from the horizon outside the hole, both the time-forward and time-reversed versions look identical after their respective postselections. However, around the horizon and inside the hole, they look very different. This is "time reversal complementarity"! The time reversed version of a time-forward version is a time-reversed version, and vice versa. However, operationally, the only information one can have about these regions are those carried by concrete physical information emerging from the hole and recorded far outside it. Operationally, one can never tell the difference.

Is there a firewall just outside the horizon? In the time-forward picture, no. In the time-reversed picture, yes. Far outside the hole, we can't tell the difference. Sure, we can send a probe to measure the presence/absence of a firewall, and beam the result outside. Then, external observers will see a signal telling them "I'm from the probe, and I don't see any firewall". However, in the time-reversed picture, there is a firewall shell, and the probe is thermalized there. After postselection, the beamed signal that external observers pick up originated from the past white hole singularity itself, which heads straight to the external observers. Prior to postselection, the radiation from the past singularity carries no such information, but after postselection, it does. This process looks conspiratorial, but then, the time-reversed picture works best when entropy is decreasing, i.e. reversed thermodynamic arrow of time, which isn't the case here. With a reversed time arrow, such conspiracies are the norm.

See also the related question Why are white holes the same thing as black holes in quantum gravity? and What are cosmological "firewalls"?.


Think of the Reeh-Schlieder theorem for a vacuum. It states that the vacuum is an entangled state, even between spatially distinct regions. By acting upon a local region here on Earth by a local operator which is appropriately fine-tuned, you can create any arbitrary configuration of matter behind the moon. For a vacuum that is, but we're not living in a vacuum...

Anyway, a black hole is filled with entangled Hawking radiation, which isn't exactly a vacuum. But the same principle applies. By a judicious choice of operator acting upon infalling Hawking radiation at the singularity, you can form an arbitrary configuration of matter for the outgoing Hawking radiation. The catch is, the operator acting at the singularity mustn't be unitary.


It is possible to realize lower entropy states through finetuned projective measurements or simple measurements where the environment has minimal degrees of freedom. In such a scenario the blackhole micro states are not same as white hole microstes,and thermalisation due to time reversal scenrio can happen


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