There's been a huge kerfuffle in the quantum gravity community since this summer, when some people here at UCSB published a paper arguing that (old enough) black holes may actually be surrounded by a wall of fire which burns people up when they cross the event horizon. This is huge, because if it were true it would upset everything we thought we knew about black holes.
General relativity is our best theory of gravity to date, discovered by Einstein. This is a classical theory. (In the secret code that we physicists use, classical is our code-word for "doesn't take into account quantum mechanics". Don't tell anyone I told you.)
In my other posts on physics, I've been trying to explain the fundamentals of physics in the minimum number of blog posts. This post is out of sequence, since I haven't described general relativity yet! But I wanted to say something about exciting current events.
In classical general relativity, a black hole is a region of space where the gravity is so strong that not even light can escape. They tend to form at the center of galaxies, and from the collapse of sufficiently large stars when they run out of fuel to hold them up. A black hole has an event horizon, which is the surface beyond which if you fall in, you can't ever escape without travelling faster than light. The information of anything falling into the black hole is lost forever, at least in classical physics.
In the case of a non-rotating black hole, without anything falling into it, the event horizon is a perfect sphere. (If the black hole is rotating, it bulges out at the equator.) If you fall past the event horizon, you will inevitably fall towards the center, just as in ordinary places you inevitably move towards the future.
At the center is the singularity. As you approach the singularity, you get stretched out infinitely in one direction of space, and squashed to zero size in the other two directions of space, and then at the singularity time comes to an end! Actually, just before time comes to an end, we know that the theory is wrong, since things get compressed to such tiny distances that we really ought to take quantum mechanics into account. Since we don't have a satisfactory theory of quantum gravity yet, we don't really know for sure what happens.
Now it's important to realize that the event horizon is not a physical object. Nothing strange happens there. It's just an imaginary line between the place where you can get out by accelerating really hard, and the place where you can never get out. Someone falling into the black hole just sees a vacuum. If the black hole was formed from the collapse of a star, the matter from the star quickly falls into the singularity and disappears. The black hole is empty inside, except for the gravitational field itself.
We don't know how to describe full-blown quantum gravity, but we have something called semiclassical gravity which is supposed to work well when the gravitational effects of the quantum fields are small. In semiclassical gravity, one finds that black holes slowly lose energy from thermal "Hawking" radiation. This radiation looks exactly like the random "blackbody radiation" coming from an ordinary object when you heat it up. Here's the important fact: You can prove that the radiation is thermal (i.e. random) just using the fact that someone falling across the horizon sees a vacuum (i.e. empty space) there.
The Hawking radiation comes from just outside the event horizon. It does not come from inside the black hole, so in Hawking's original calculation it doesn't carry any information out from the inside. Nevertheless, for various reasons I can't go into right now, most black hole physicists have convinced themselves that the information eventually does come out.
As the black hole radiates into space, it slowly evaporates, and eventually probably disappears entirely (although knowing what happens at the very end requires full-blown quantum gravity). If the outgoing Hawking radiation carries all the radiation out, then for a black hole at a late enough stage in its evaporation, the radiation must not be completely random, because it actually encodes all the information about what fell in.
The gist of what Almheiri, Marolf, Polchinski, and Sully argued, is that if we take both of these statements in bold seriously, then it follows that the black holes are NOT in the vacuum state from the perspective of someone who falls in. Instead you would get incinerated by a "firewall" as you cross the horizon. (It's not clear yet whether this is only for really old black holes, or if it applies to younger ones too.) That's if we still believe there is an "inside" at all. The argument shows that semiclassical gravity is completely wrong in situations where we would have expected it to work great.
If this is right, then it's devastating to the ideas of many of us who have been thinking about black holes for a long time. As a reluctant convert to the idea that information is not lost, I'm wondering if I should reconsider. At the end of this month, I'm going to Stanford for a weekend, since Lenny Susskind has invited a bunch of us to try to get this worked out. Exciting times!