Late summer tends to be a slow month for news. But here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, of course, we put on a two-hour program no matter what. So without a trace of irony, NPR science correspondent Joe Palca offered to help fill some holes in our show this summer with a series of stories about holes. Today, black holes.

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


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

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

YELCHIN: (as Pavel Chekov) Yes, sir.

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 super massive 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 the "Star Trek" crew. Joe Palca, NPR News.


Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at 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.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the 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.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from