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Black Holes One Of Space's Great Paradoxes


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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.