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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.

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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