Why Theories On Black Holes Are Full Of Holes

Research indicates that black holes are more common than astronomers previously thought. (This piece initially aired on August 7, 2013, on All Things Considered).

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Scientists announced, earlier this week, they had discovered three supermassive black holes orbiting close together in a single galaxy. That indicates that black holes are more common than astronomers previously thought. And it's a good reason to revisit a report from Joe Palca on black holes. In this encore segment, he reports that the theories about these super powerful bodies are still, well, full of holes.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Astronomers know a few things about black holes. On the other hand, Ensign Chekov and Mr. Spock seem to know all about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR TREK")

ANTON YELCHIN: (As Chekov) They're creating a singularity that will consume the planet.

ZACHARY QUINTO: (As Spock) They're creating a black hole at the center of Vulcan?

YELCHIN: (As Chekov) Yes.

PALCA: Sure, why not? Let's make a black hole. Well, it's not that simple, actually. So what do real scientists know about black holes?

ANDREA GHEZ: A black hole is a region of space where the pull of gravity is so intense that nothing can escape it - not even light.

PALCA: Andrea Ghez is an astronomer at UCLA. And yes, a black hole would suck in a planet if it got too close. Since light can't escape from a black hole, you can't actually see them, but you know they're there by observing the stars nearby.

GHEZ: So very much like the planets going around the sun, a black hole will force stars around it to orbit.

PALCA: And by studying those orbits, you can figure out where the black hole is and how massive it is. That's how Ghez and others discovered a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. But black holes pose a paradox; although they're massive, they take up no space. In other words, something with the mass of a star but in a space infinitesimally smaller than a pinhead. The laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity break down when trying to explain how black holes work. So let's get real.

GHEZ: Nobody really understands what a black hole is.

PALCA: It'll be a while before Ghez and her scientific colleagues catch up with with the Star Trek crew. Joe Palca, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.