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.