Why Theories On Black Holes Are Full Of Holes

Jul 1, 2014
Originally published on July 28, 2014 8:58 am
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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.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.