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Why Theories On Black Holes Are Full Of Holes

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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