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Why Black Holes Don’t Suck

In the world of science journalism, we writers and editors often walk along the edge of a very sharp sword.

On one side lies the realm of Pure Accuracy, filled with semantics and pedantry and enough qualifiers to turn the discovery of giant squid fossils on Mars into a 40-page report on “the theoretical life-cycle and behavioral dynamics of a novel Architeuthis species as revealed by spectroscopic analysis of Noachian coprolites in the Syrtis Major quadrangle.”


But on the other side of the sword’s edge lies Pandering Sensationalism, where almost every headline seems to end with an exclamation point [Missing Link Found!] and every discovery is hopelessly lacking in context.

Scientists rail about being misrepresented, misquoted, and full of misgivings when it comes to working with the press. Journos counter that if they don’t make science palatable for the average American, science coverage in general will promptly disappear in a puff of logic.

It’s a tough job finding the middle ground, for writers and for researchers.

For me, one of the hardest things to grapple with is the media’s perpetuation of popular myths.

Gentle metaphors may not always be 100% accurate, but they serve a purpose. Solar wind, for example, is not *technically* wind, but it’s a great, media-friendly name for the stream of ionized particles constantly emanating from the sun.

Some lay-language fallbacks, meanwhile, are totally wrong, totally unnecessary, and need to stop. Now.

Say it with me, now: Black holes DO NOT suck.


—Illustration of a star getting too close to a supermassive black hole courtesy NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Via Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: suck

Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): -ed/-ing/-s

Etymology: Middle English soken, souken, from Old English sumacrcan; akin to Old High German sumacrgan to suck, Old Norse sumacrga, Latin sugere to suck, Middle Breton sunaff juice, Greek hyei it is raining, Lithuanian sunkti to filter, ooze, Tocharian B swese rain transitive verb

1 a (1) : to draw (a liquid) into the mouth by a partial vacuum caused by motion of the mouth …

A vacuum is a total absence of matter, even molecules of air. By creating a partial vacuum, someone sucking through a straw makes the liquid move toward them because, that’s right, Nature abhors a vacuum and will want to fill the absence with whatever’s close at hand.

By contrast, a black hole is what’s left of a very massive star that went supernova. The darn thing is so dense that it exerts a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape.

Objects near the lip of the black hole, known as the event horizon, can be said to be getting pulled in or—since this is gravity we’re talking about—to be falling in to the black hole.

They are NOT being sucked in. Different effect entirely.

Even more exciting and just as poorly understood, matter needs to be in just the right place near a black hole for it to be affected. Galaxy Girl has a great explanation for why, if the sun suddenly became a black hole, Earth would not get pulled in.

And now we know that it definitely wouldn’t get sucked in.


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  3. Andrew
    July 15, 2009, 11:23 am

    Hear, hear! And while we’re at it, how about not calling them “holes” either, for exactly the same reason!