Struggles with the Continuum – Conclusion

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We’ve been looking at how the continuum nature of spacetime poses problems for our favorite theories of physics — problems with infinities. Last time we saw a great example: general relativity predicts the existence of singularities, like black holes and the Big Bang. I explained exactly what these singularities really are. They’re not points or regions of spacetime! They’re more like ways for a particle to ‘fall off the edge of spacetime’. Technically, they are incomplete timelike or null geodesics.

The next step is to ask whether these singularities rob general relativity of its predictive power. The ‘cosmic censorship hypothesis’, proposed by Penrose in 1969, claims they do not.

In this final post I’ll talk about cosmic censorship, and conclude with some big questions. You can download the whole series in one document here.

Cosmic censorship

To say what we want to rule out, we must first think about what behaviors we consider acceptable. Consider first a black hole formed by the collapse of a star. According to general relativity, matter can fall into this black hole and ‘hit the singularity’ in a finite amount of proper time, but nothing can come out of the singularity.

The time-reversed version of a black hole, called a ‘white hole’, is often considered more disturbing. White holes have never been seen, but they are mathematically valid solutions of Einstein’s equation. In a white hole, matter can come out of the singularity, but nothing can fall in. Naively, this seems to imply that the future is unpredictable given knowledge of the past. Of course, the same logic applied to black holes would say the past is unpredictable given knowledge of the future.

If white holes are disturbing, perhaps the Big Bang should be more so. In the usual solutions of general relativity describing the Big Bang, all matter in the universe comes out of a singularity! More precisely, if one follows any timelike geodesic back into the past, it becomes undefined after a finite amount of proper time. Naively, this may seem a massive violation of predictability: in this scenario, the whole universe ‘sprang out of nothing’ about 14 billion years ago.

However, in all three examples so far — astrophysical black holes, their time-reversed versions and the Big Bang — spacetime is globally hyperbolic. I explained what this means last time. In simple terms, it means we can specify initial data at one moment in time and use the laws of physics to predict the future (and past) throughout all of spacetime. How is this compatible with the naive intuition that a singularity causes a failure of predictability?

For any globally hyperbolic spacetime ##M##, one can find a smoothly varying family of Cauchy surfaces ##S_t## (##t \in \mathbb{R}##) such that each point of ##M## lies on exactly one of these surfaces. This amounts to a way of chopping spacetime into ‘slices of space’ for various choices of the ‘time’ parameter ##t##. For an astrophysical black hole, the singularity is in the future of all these surfaces. That is, an incomplete timelike or null geodesic must go through all these surfaces ##S_t## before it becomes undefined. Similarly, for a white hole or the Big Bang, the singularity is in the past of all these surfaces. In either case, the singularity cannot interfere with our predictions of what occurs in spacetime.

A more challenging example is posed by the Kerr–Newman solution of Einstein’s equation coupled to the vacuum Maxwell equations. When

$$ e^2 + (J/m)^2 \lt m^2 ,$$

this solution describes a rotating charged black hole with mass ##m##, charge ##e## and angular momentum ##J## in units where ##c = G = 1##. However, an electron violates this inequality. In 1968, Brandon Carter pointed out that if the electron were described by a Kerr–Newman solution, it would have a gyromagnetic ratio of ##g = 2##, much closer to the true answer than a classical spinning sphere of charge, which gives ##g = 1##. But since

$$ e^2 + (J/m)^2 \gt m^2, $$

this solution gives a spacetime that is not globally hyperbolic: it has closed timelike curves! It also contains a ‘naked singularity’. Roughly speaking, this is a singularity that can be seen by arbitrarily faraway observers in a spacetime whose geometry asymptotically approaches that of Minkowski spacetime. The existence of a naked singularity implies a failure of global hyperbolicity.

The cosmic censorship hypothesis comes in a number of forms. The original version due to Penrose is now called ‘weak cosmic censorship’. It asserts that in a spacetime whose geometry asymptotically approaches that of Minkowski spacetime, gravitational collapse cannot produce a naked singularity.

In 1991, Preskill and Thorne made a bet against Hawking in which they claimed that weak cosmic censorship was false. Hawking conceded this bet in 1997 when a counterexample was found. This features finely-tuned infalling matter poised right on the brink of forming a black hole. It almost creates a region from which light cannot escape — but not quite. Instead, it creates a naked singularity!

Given the delicate nature of this construction, Hawking did not give up. Instead he made a second bet, which says that weak cosmic censorshop holds ‘generically’ — that is, for an open dense set of initial conditions.

In 1999, Christodoulou proved that for spherically symmetric solutions of Einstein’s equation coupled to a massless scalar field, weak cosmic censorship holds generically. While spherical symmetry is a very restrictive assumption, this result is a good example of how, with plenty of work, we can make progress in rigorously settling the questions raised by general relativity.

Indeed, Christodoulou has been a leader in this area. For example, the vacuum Einstein equations have solutions describing gravitational waves, much as the vacuum Maxwell equations have solutions describing electromagnetic waves. However, gravitational waves can actually form black holes when they collide. This raises the question of the stability of Minkowski spacetime. Must sufficiently small perturbations of the Minkowski metric go away in the form of gravitational radiation, or can tiny wrinkles in the fabric of spacetime somehow amplify themselves and cause trouble — perhaps even a singularity? In 1993, together with Klainerman, Christodoulou proved that Minkowski spacetime is indeed stable. Their proof fills a 514-page book.

In 2008, Christodoulou completed an even longer rigorous study of the formation of black holes. This can be seen as a vastly more detailed look at questions which Penrose’s original singularity theorem addressed in a general, preliminary way. Nonetheless, there is much left to be done to understand the behavior of singularities in general relativity.


In this series of posts, we’ve seen that in every major theory of physics, challenging mathematical questions arise from the assumption that spacetime is a continuum. The continuum threatens us with infinities! Do these infinities threaten our ability to extract predictions from these theories — or even our ability to formulate these theories in a precise way?

We can answer these questions, but only with hard work. Is this a sign that we are somehow on the wrong track? Is the continuum as we understand it only an approximation to some deeper model of spacetime? Only time will tell. Nature is providing us with plenty of clues, but it will take patience to read them correctly.

For more

To delve deeper into singularities and cosmic censorship, try this delightful book, which is free online:

• John Earman, Bangs, Crunches, Whimpers and Shrieks: Singularities and Acausalities in Relativistic Spacetimes, Oxford U. Press, Oxford, 1993.

To read this whole series of posts in one place, with lots more references and links, see:

• John Baez, Struggles with the continuum.



I’m a mathematical physicist. I work at the math department at U. C. Riverside in California, and also at the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore. I used to do quantum gravity and n-categories, but now I mainly work on network theory and the Azimuth Project, which is a way for scientists, engineers and mathematicians to do something about the global ecological crisis.
3 replies
  1. nick sam
    nick sam says:

    John, great observations and thank you for lucidly presenting them.  Historically presence of singularities in spacetime continuum presents flows in our understanding of universe. So the question is what can be in the place of singularities that can also provide hyperbolic characteristics you are referring to. Well there is a spacetime qualitative feature known as the wormhole that does that. In physics, however, wormholes are thought of as being the general relativity solutions, also known as the Einstein-Rosen bridge. This is all fine except that these solutions can occur in lower dimensions where they can be better visualized and understood. In lower dimensions it becomes quite apparent that wormholes create appearances of singularities that we know as the black and the white holes, and they also connect the two holes by creating hyperbolic type manifolds. What is even more interesting is that you do not need PDEs to show this, it can all be done with simple ODEs. One additional property of wormholes is their propensity to "discretize continuum". Here I placed quotes because it seems that the wormhole discretization in universe is just our perception,  while the spacetime continuum still remains preserved.

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