© 2021 West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Telling West Virginia's Story
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

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.


WVPB is local news, education, music, and entertainment for West Virginia.
Your donation today will help keep us strong and vital.