Black Hole Thermodynamics: More Than an Analogy?

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Dougherty, John; Callender, Craig
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Black hole thermodynamics (BHT) is regarded as one of the deepest clues we have to a quantum theory of gravity. It motivates scores of proposals in the field, from the thought that the world is a hologram to calculations in string theory. The rationale for BHT playing this important role, and for much of BHT itself, originates in the analogy between black hole behavior and ordinary thermodynamic systems. Claiming the relationship is “more than a formal analogy,” black holes are said to be governed by deep thermodynamic principles: what causes your tea to come to room temperature is said additionally to cause the area of black holes to increase. Playing the role of philosophical gadfly, we pour a little cold water on the claim that BHT is more than a formal analogy. First, we show that BHT is often based on a kind of caricature of thermodynamics. Second, we point out an important ambiguity in what systems the analogy is supposed to govern, local or global ones. Finally, and perhaps worst, we point out that one of the primary motivations for the theory arises from a terribly controversial understanding of entropy. BHT may be a useful guide to future physics. Only time will tell. But the analogy is not nearly as good as is commonly supposed.