In March 2012, Joseph Polchinski began to contemplate suicide — at least in mathematical form. A string theorist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California, Polchinski was pondering what would happen to an astronaut who dived into a black hole. Obviously, he would die. But how?
According to the then-accepted account, he wouldn’t feel anything special at first, even when his fall took him through the black hole’s event horizon: the invisible boundary beyond which nothing can escape. But eventually — after hours, days or even weeks if the black hole was big enough — he would begin to notice that gravity was tugging at his feet more strongly than at his head. As his plunge carried him inexorably downwards, the difference in forces would quickly increase and rip him apart, before finally crushing his remnants into the black hole’s infinitely dense core.