Holographic Universe

blog post photo
photo credit: Eric Leiser

Remember that classic exchange between two stoned college students in the movie Animal House, in which one of them comes to the startling epiphany that the solar system could be “one tiny atom in the fingernail of some other giant being”? Well, this idea is even more mind-blowing, and you even don’t need illegal substances to contemplate it. What if the universe and everything that exists and happens in it, is just a hologram depicting physicals processes that actually are occurring on an incredibly distant two-dimensional surface?

As this 2009 New Scientist article explains, scientists at the German-British Gravitational Wave Detector project in Germany, who’ve been searching for ripples in space-time thrown off by super-dense astronomical objects such as neutron stars and black holes, have stumbled upon what may be evidence that the universe is, well, the equivalent of that vaguely creepy apparition of TV correspondent Jessica Yellin that was generated in CNN’s studio on election night 2008. More details:

For many months, the GEO600 team-members had been scratching their heads over inexplicable noise that is plaguing their giant detector. Then, out of the blue, a researcher approached them with an explanation. In fact, he had even predicted the noise before he knew they were detecting it. According to Craig Hogan, a physicist at the Fermilab particle physics lab in Batavia, Illinois, GEO600 has stumbled upon the fundamental limit of space-time — the point where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into “grains,” just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” says Hogan.

If this doesn’t blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: “If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.”

Like most intriguing notions, the concept of a holographic universe actually has been floating around in the ether for a while. Originally conceived three decades ago by quantum physicist David Bohm, it was spread by writer Michael Talbot. (Here’s a vintage television interview in which he explains the concept.)

New Scientist explains that in Hogan’s conception, here’s how the holographic universe would work.

If space-time is a grainy hologram, then you can think of the universe as a sphere whose outer surface is papered in Planck length-sized squares, each containing one bit of information. The holographic principle says that the amount of information papering the outside must match the number of bits contained inside the volume of the universe.

Since the volume of the spherical universe is much bigger than its outer surface, how could this be true? Hogan realised that in order to have the same number of bits inside the universe as on the boundary, the world inside must be made up of grains bigger than the Planck length. “Or, to put it another way, a holographic universe is blurry,” says Hogan.

I’m guessing that you’re still struggling to wrap your frontal lobes around all this. Nevertheless, there’s an even more bizarre wrinkle to the holographic universe. Physicists have long theorized that the universe has more than the four observable dimensions. But now, instead, according to this 2009 Science Daily article physicists at the Vienna University of Technology say it actually has fewer dimensions, not more.

At this point, you may be wondering: if reality as we know it is just a projection, then how come you’re seemingly able to reach out and touch objects? As it turns out, according to this 2009 Physorg.com article, scientists at the University of Toyko have developed a holographic projection that provides tactile feedback.