Black holes don't actually exist in the way we traditionally think of them, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has proposed in a short but potentially revolutionary paper.

Classical theory holds that no energy or information can ever escape a black hole, but the principles of quantum physics suggest it can. This contradiction has been the subject of debate among physicists for years. In the paper, "Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes," Dr. Hawking proposes a solution to this paradox: instead of devouring information and energy permanently, black holes release it back into the universe in a garbled, unrecognizable form.

Traditionally, black holes were thought to contain an "event horizon," a sharp boundary beyond which even light cannot escape the gravitational pull of the black hole's infinitely dense core. Now Dr. Hawking proposes a shifting boundary, the "apparent" horizon, which fluctuates according to quantum effects.

"There are no black holes," the paper concludes

Among other implications, this new theory would have consequences for any astronaut who happened to fall into a black hole. According to quantum physics, the unlucky astronaut would immediately burn up in a "firewall" of intense radiation. Relativity, however, holds that the astronaut would be gradually pulled and stretched like pasta until being crushed at the black hole's core. Hawking's theory dispenses with the paradox because without an event horizon, there would be no firewall.

"There are no black holes," the paper concludes, "in the sense of regimes from which light can't escape to infinity."

Other physicists are already challenging Hawking's theory, which has not been peer-reviewed yet. "The idea that there are no points from which you cannot escape a black hole is in some ways an even more radical and problematic suggestion than the existence of firewalls," says Raphael Bousso, a theoretical physicist at Berkeley.