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What black holes can teach us about daily life

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And now for our weekly dose of wonder - black holes. Astrophysicist and NPR's scientist in residence, Regina Barber, reports how these mysterious objects can hold the mass of millions of suns and also a few lessons that we humans can apply to everyday life.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: When I talk about black holes with anyone, I notice something. People love them, but they don't really get them. Priyamvada Natarajan is an astrophysicist who studies supermassive black holes, and she says maybe that's part of their appeal.

PRIYAMVADA NATARAJAN: Well, I mean, I see them as, you know, really beautiful places in the universe because they're so enigmatic.

BARBER: The more Natarajan talks about the science of black holes, the more I realized black holes are out there living their best lives. What can they teach us? Here's three things I learned from them. Lesson one - don't be afraid to test your limits, even if other people doubt you. In 1915, Einstein presented his general theory of relativity. These were complex mathematical equations that describe the interplay between matter and space-time.

NATARAJAN: And Einstein explained what gravity is. It's kind of the interaction between space-time and matter.

BARBER: It was a revolutionary idea that the more massive something is, the more it alters the shape of space around it. It sounds simple. But mathematically speaking, there's just a lot of moving parts. So Einstein believed it would be extremely difficult to find solutions that weren't approximations or fuzzy answers. But soon after Einstein published this work, Karl Schwarzschild presented the first exact solution. And he did this partly by asking himself what a mass would do to space-time if it were squeezed into a single point. It sounds extreme, but checking these limits is a normal part of math and science.

NATARAJAN: It's an exact solution of Einstein's equations. So it is actually the shape of space around a compact - like, a point mass - like, a really concentrated, compact mass. And that's the black hole solution.

BARBER: And the story goes, Einstein was shocked by what the solution implied for the universe - that there could be an infinite point mass that was so powerful that light could not escape and that the laws of physics would break down around it. So Schwarzschild, by testing his limits and keeping an open mind, helped expand our understanding of what was really possible.

Lesson two - don't judge someone by their reputation. Black holes are associated with gobbling up everything and destroying stars. But there are these supermassive black holes at the center of almost all galaxies, up to a billion times the mass of our sun. Those may help control the rates of which stars form within these galaxies.

NATARAJAN: So we think that they fundamentally shape galaxies now.

BARBER: And yet we don't see them for what they are. But that's all right because that brings us to lesson three - do your thing, and don't worry if anyone's watching. Humans weren't able to see an image of a black hole until 2019. You might remember the iconic photo of a black hole with a glowing orange donut of gas and dust around it.

NATARAJAN: That's as close as we can ever get to seeing a black hole, as it were.

BARBER: But if a black hole exists and no one's around to directly observe it, does it still matter? Natarajan says yes.

NATARAJAN: Just because you are not seen it doesn't mean that you are not there or that you are not, you know, playing a very, very important role. You're an integral part of the cosmic ecosystem.

BARBER: And so next time you're feeling down about yourself, remember - somewhere out there there's a black hole whipping a galaxy into shape or just doing its thing and not caring if anyone can see it.

Regina Barber, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AYANNA SONG, "GIRLFRIEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.