The considerations of the previous sections make a compelling case for the merger of the laws of black hole mechanics with the laws of thermodynamics. In particular, they strongly suggest that ( in general relativity – see Eqs. (8) and (9) above) truly represents the physical entropy of a black hole. Now, the entropy of ordinary matter is understood to arise from the number of quantum states accessible to the matter at given values of the energy and other state parameters. One would like to obtain a similar understanding of why represents the entropy of a black hole in general relativity by identifying (and counting) the quantum dynamical degrees of freedom of a black hole. In order to do so, it clearly will be necessary to go beyond the classical and semiclassical considerations of the previous sections and consider black holes within a fully quantum theory of gravity. In this section, we will briefly summarize some of the main approaches that have been taken to the direct calculation of the entropy of a black hole.
The first direct quantum calculation of black hole entropy was given by Gibbons and Hawking  in the context of Euclidean quantum gravity. They started with a formal, functional integral expression for the canonical ensemble partition function in Euclidean quantum gravity and evaluated it for a black hole in the “zero loop” (i.e, classical) approximation. As shown in , the mathematical steps in this procedure are in direct correspondence with the purely classical determination of the entropy from the form of the first law of black hole mechanics. A number of other entropy calculations that have been given within the formal framework of Euclidean quantum gravity also can be shown to be equivalent to the classical derivation (see  for further discussion). Thus, although the derivation of  and other related derivations give some intriguing glimpses into possible deep relationships between black hole thermodynamics and Euclidean quantum gravity, they do not appear to provide any more insight than the classical derivation into accounting for the quantum degrees of freedom that are responsible for black hole entropy.
It should be noted that there is actually an inconsistency in the use of the canonical ensemble to derive a formula for black hole entropy, since the entropy of a black hole grows too rapidly with energy for the canonical ensemble to be defined. (Equivalently, the heat capacity of a Schwarzschild black hole is negative, so it cannot come to equilibrium with an infinite heat bath.) A derivation of black hole entropy using the microcanonical ensemble has been given in .
Another approach to the calculation of black hole entropy has been to attribute it to the “entanglement entropy” resulting from quantum field correlations between the exterior and interior of the black hole [24, 31, 57]. As a result of these correlations across the event horizon, the state of a quantum field when restricted to the exterior of the black hole is mixed. Indeed, in the absence of a short distance cutoff, the von Neumann entropy, , of any physically reasonable state would diverge. If one now inserts a short distance cutoff of the order of the Planck scale, one obtains a von Neumann entropy of the order of the horizon area, . Thus, this approach provides a natural way of accounting for why the entropy of a black hole is proportional to its surface area. However, the constant of proportionality depends upon a cutoff and is not (presently) calculable within this approach. (Indeed, one might argue that in this approach, the constant of proportionality between and should depend upon the number, , of species of particles, and thus could not equal (independently of ). However, it is possible that the -dependence in the number of states is compensated by an -dependent renormalization of  and, hence, of the Planck scale cutoff.) More generally, it is far from clear why the black hole horizon should be singled out for a such special treatment of the quantum degrees of freedom in its vicinity, since similar quantum field correlations will exist across any other null surface. It is particularly puzzling why the local degrees of freedom associated with the horizon should be singled out since, as already noted in Section 2 above, the black hole horizon at a given time is defined in terms of the entire future history of the spacetime and thus has no distinguished local significance. Finally, since the gravitational action and field equations play no role in the above derivation, it is difficult to see how this approach could give rise to a black hole entropy proportional to Eq. (8) (rather than proportional to ) in a more general theory of gravity. Similar remarks apply to approaches which attribute the relevant degrees of freedom to the “shape” of the horizon  or to causal links crossing the horizon .
A closely related idea has been to attribute the entropy of the black hole to the ordinary entropy of its thermal atmosphere ). If we assume that the thermal atmosphere behaves like a free, massless (boson or fermion) gas, its entropy density will be (roughly) proportional to . However, since diverges near the horizon in the manner specified by Eq. (12), we find that the total entropy of the thermal atmosphere near the horizon diverges. This is, in effect, a new type of ultraviolet catastrophe. It arises because, on account of arbitrarily large redshifts, there now are infinitely many modes – of arbitrarily high locally measured frequency – that contribute a bounded energy as measured at infinity. To cure this divergence, it is necessary to impose a cutoff on the locally measured frequency of the modes. If we impose a cutoff of the order of the Planck scale, then the thermal atmosphere contributes an entropy of order the horizon area, , just as in the entanglement entropy analysis. Indeed, this calculation is really the same as the entanglement entropy calculation, since the state of a quantum field outside of the black hole is thermal, so its von Neumann entropy is equal to its thermodynamic entropy (see also ). Note that the bulk of the entropy of the thermal atmosphere is highly localized in a “skin” surrounding the horizon, whose thickness is of order of the Planck length.
Since the attribution of black hole entropy to its thermal atmosphere is essentially equivalent to the entanglement entropy proposal, this approach has essentially the same strengths and weaknesses as the entanglement entropy approach. On one hand, it naturally accounts for a black hole entropy proportional to . On the other hand, this result depends in an essential way on an uncalculable cutoff, and it is difficult to see how the analysis could give rise to Eq. (8) in a more general theory of gravity. The preferred status of the event horizon and the localization of the degrees of freedom responsible for black hole entropy to a “Planck length skin” surrounding the horizon also remain puzzling in this approach. To see this more graphically, consider the collapse of a massive spherical shell of matter. Then, as the shell crosses its Schwarzschild radius, the spacetime curvature outside of the shell is still negligibly small. Nevertheless, within a time of order the Planck time after the crossing of the Schwarzschild radius, the “skin” of thermal atmosphere surrounding the newly formed black hole will come to equilibrium with respect to the notion of time translation symmetry for the static Schwarzschild exterior. Thus, if an entropy is to be assigned to the thermal atmosphere in the manner suggested by this proposal, then the degrees of freedom of the thermal atmosphere – which previously were viewed as irrelevant vacuum fluctuations making no contribution to entropy – suddenly become “activated” by the passage of the shell for the purpose of counting their entropy. A momentous change in the entropy of matter in the universe has occurred, even though observers riding on or near the shell see nothing of significance occurring.
Another approach that is closely related to the entanglement entropy and thermal atmosphere approaches – and which also contains elements closely related to the Euclidean approach and the classical derivation of Eq. (8) – attempts to account for black hole entropy in the context of Sakharov’s theory of induced gravity [47, 46]. In Sakharov’s proposal, the dynamical aspects of gravity arise from the collective excitations of massive fields. Constraints are then placed on these massive fields to cancel divergences and ensure that the effective cosmological constant vanishes. Sakharov’s proposal is not expected to provide a fundamental description of quantum gravity, but at scales below the Planck scale it may possess features in common with other more fundamental descriptions. In common with the entanglement entropy and thermal atmosphere approaches, black hole entropy is explained as arising from the quantum field degrees of freedom outside the black hole. However, in this case the formula for black hole entropy involves a subtraction of the (divergent) mode counting expression and an (equally divergent) expression for the Noether charge operator, so that, in effect, only the massive fields contribute to black hole entropy. The result of this subtraction yields Eq. (9).
More recently, another approach to the calculation of black hole entropy has been developed in the framework of quantum geometry [3, 10]. In this approach, if one considers a spacetime containing an isolated horizon (see Section 2 above), the classical symplectic form and classical Hamiltonian each acquire an additional boundary term arising from the isolated horizon . (It should be noted that the phase space  considered here incorporates the isolated horizon boundary conditions, i.e., only field variations that preserve the isolated horizon structure are admitted.) These additional terms are identical in form to that of a Chern–Simons theory defined on the isolated horizon. Classically, the fields on the isolated horizon are determined by continuity from the fields in the “bulk” and do not represent additional degrees of freedom. However, in the quantum theory – where distributional fields are allowed – these fields are interpreted as providing additional, independent degrees of freedom associated with the isolated horizon. One then counts the “surface states” of these fields on the isolated horizon subject to a boundary condition relating the surface states to “volume states” and subject to the condition that the area of the isolated horizon (as determined by the volume state) lies within a squared Planck length of the value . This state counting yields an entropy proportional to for black holes much larger than the Planck scale. Unlike the entanglement entropy and thermal atmosphere calculations, the state counting here yields finite results and no cutoff need be introduced. However, the formula for entropy contains a free parameter (the “Immirzi parameter”), which arises from an ambiguity in the loop quantization procedure, so the constant of proportionality between and is not calculable.
The most quantitatively successful calculations of black hole entropy to date are ones arising from string theory. It is believed that at “low energies”, string theory should reduce to a 10-dimensional supergravity theory (see  for considerable further discussion of the relationship between string theory and 10-dimensional and 11-dimensional supergravity). If one treats this supergravity theory as a classical theory involving a spacetime metric, , and other classical fields, one can find solutions describing black holes. On the other hand, one also can consider a “weak coupling” limit of string theory, wherein the states are treated perturbatively. In the weak coupling limit, there is no literal notion of a black hole, just as there is no notion of a black hole in linearized general relativity. Nevertheless, certain weak coupling states can be identified with certain black hole solutions of the low energy limit of the theory by a correspondence of their energy and charges. (Here, it is necessary to introduce “D-branes” into string perturbation theory in order to obtain weak coupling states with the desired charges.) Now, the weak coupling states are, in essence, ordinary quantum dynamical degrees of freedom, so their entropy can be computed by the usual methods of statistical physics. Remarkably, for certain classes of extremal and nearly extremal black holes, the ordinary entropy of the weak coupling states agrees exactly with the expression for for the corresponding classical black hole states; see  and  for reviews of these results. Recently, it also has been shown  that for certain black holes, subleading corrections to the state counting formula for entropy correspond to higher order string corrections to the effective gravitational action, in precise agreement with Eq. (8).
Since the formula for entropy has a nontrivial functional dependence on energy and charges, it is hard to imagine that the agreement between the ordinary entropy of the weak coupling states and black hole entropy could be the result of a random coincidence. Furthermore, for low energy scattering, the absorption/emission coefficients (“gray body factors”) of the corresponding weak coupling states and black holes also agree . This suggests that there may be a close physical association between the weak coupling states and black holes, and that the dynamical degrees of freedom of the weak coupling states are likely to at least be closely related to the dynamical degrees of freedom responsible for black hole entropy. However, it remains a challenge to understand in what sense the weak coupling states could be giving an accurate picture of the local physics occurring near (and within) the region classically described as a black hole.
The relevant degrees of freedom responsible for entropy in the weak coupling string theory models are associated with conformal field theories. Recently Carlip [33, 34] has attempted to obtain a direct relationship between the string theory state counting results for black hole entropy and the classical Poisson bracket algebra of general relativity. After imposing certain boundary conditions corresponding to the presence of a local Killing horizon, Carlip chooses a particular subgroup of spacetime diffeomorphisms, generated by vector fields . The transformations on the phase space of classical general relativity corresponding to these diffeomorphisms are generated by Hamiltonians . However, the Poisson bracket algebra of these Hamiltonians is not isomorphic to the Lie bracket algebra of the vector fields but rather corresponds to a central extension of this algebra. A Virasoro algebra is thereby obtained. Now, it is known that the asymptotic density of states in a conformal field theory based upon a Virasoro algebra is given by a universal expression (the “Cardy formula”) that depends only on the Virasoro algebra. For the Virasoro algebra obtained by Carlip, the Cardy formula yields an entropy in agreement with Eq. (9). Since the Hamiltonians, , are closely related to the corresponding Noether currents and charges occurring in the derivation of Eqs. (8) and (9), Carlip’s approach holds out the possibility of providing a direct, general explanation of the remarkable agreement between the string theory state counting results and the classical formula for the entropy of a black hole.
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