The universe as a hologram has recently found itself in the news because of the GEO600 gravitational wave detection experiment going on in the German countryside. The experiment was originally designed to detect the enormous gravitational waves sent out by very massive, dense bodies such as neutron stars and black holes. What they didn't expect to find were traces of background noise that may inform physicists of the fundamental limits of space-time itself - where it ceases to behave like the smooth continuum that Einstein described in his theory of relativity and dissolves into a sort of grainy picture filled with little bits of information about our universe. From the article from New Scientist:
According to Hogan, the holographic principle radically changes our picture of space-time. Theoretical physicists have long believed that quantum effects will cause space-time to convulse wildly on the tiniest scales. At this magnification, the fabric of space-time becomes grainy and is ultimately made of tiny units rather like pixels, but a hundred billion billion times smaller than a proton. This distance is known as the Planck length, a mere 10-35 metres. The Planck length is far beyond the reach of any conceivable experiment, so nobody dared dream that the graininess of space-time might be discernable.The researchers at GEO600 had no idea what they were detecting had any real significance until Craig Hogan, a Fermilab physicist at Batavia, Illinois, who had previously predicted that such noise exists, informed the research team that the noise implies we are all living in a giant hologram: that our entire universe and everything in it is a 3D reflection of what is a 2D reality - just as a hologram is a 2D surface appearing to be a 3D image. I am no physicist so I won't attempt a more in depth explanation, (the article linked above provides a pretty good one) but suffice to say that if Hogan is right, all of the "information" of the universe is stored in bits bigger than the Planck length, but which represent information the size of the Planck length in our visible universe, and that the universe we inhabit every day - from atoms and molecules to stars and galaxies - is a sort of "reflection" of the 2D bits. This is useful for understanding the "wholeness" of the universe rather than simply the reductionist version of "leaves for the tree." The source of the theory actually dates further back than this experiment at GEO600 to at least the late 70s, when Stephen Hawking and Jacob Bekenstein discovered that black holes emit radiation, but convey no information about their interior. Once the black hole is gone, all of the physical information about its existence is gone with it. This breaks the physical law that physical information cannot be destroyed and is known as the black hole information paradox. According to the holographic universe theory, the information is actually contained in these bits of information on the sphere - the very noise that the GEO600 may be detecting.
That is, not until Hogan realised that the holographic principle changes everything. 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.
The researchers are quick to point out that this is not "proof" that such a model of the universe is accurate, but that the evidence that it should be taken seriously is mounting. The implications for the scientific community are, of course, staggering, but what of the metaphysical ones? Major discoveries in science are often accompanied with major philosophical reinterpretations of the universe - heliocentricism, evolutionary theory, the modern genetic synthesis, relativity have all affected humanity's outlook on its place in the universe. What of this theory? After some research, I found it extraordinarily interesting that, even though it is only recently that evidence has begun to accumulate to support the holographic theory, the notion has been around among both scientific and philosophical minds alike for several decades now.
Prior to the GEO600 experiment, the most recent synthesis of the holographic universe has been put on display in Michael Talbot's book The Holographic Universe, written in 1991. Talbot writes in the intellectual tradition of Fritjof Capra and Frank Tipler, in the sense that much of his work is characterized by an attempt to reconcile various physical phenomena with supernatural mysteries and mystical religious experiences. Capra, in his Tao of Physics, wrote of the striking similarities between what modern particle physics revealed about the nature of the cosmos and the mystical veins in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Tipler believes that the the Omega Point theory implying a quantum singularity at the end of the universe implies that life after death and the immortality of the conscious mind is a reality. In fact, Tipler says in the introduction to his book Physics and Immortality, that "theology is a branch of physics, that physics can infer by calculation the existence of God, and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead at the end of time..." What all of these theories have in common, of course, is the unique human penchant for inserting ourselves into the cosmos when most of the scientific evidence points the other way: The universe is a cold, unknowing place, a place of Aristotle's unmoved mover, where physical laws operate as if the universe were a giant machine and all the particles cogs. Quantum physics shows us, though, that merely the act of observing particles can change their behavior, so removing conscious perception from equation is equally erroneous since we too are a part of the universe. So, is a middle ground possible? There is certainly a great deal of evidence not explained by the materialistic view of the universe. How can electrons thousands of light years away from each other affect one another? Alain Aspect's 1982 experiment seems to defy Einstein's theory of relativity by showing that "communication" between particles travels faster than the speed of light. From another article on the holographic principle:
Aspect's experiment is related to the EPR Experiment, a consciousness experiment which had been devised by Albert Einstein, and his colleagues, Poldlsky and Rosen, in order to disprove Quantum Mechanics on the basis of the Pauli Exclusion Principle contradicting Special Relativity.
Aspect and his team discovered that under certain circumstances subatomic particles such as electrons are able to instantaneously communicate with each other regardless of the distance separating them. It doesn't matter whether they are 10 feet or 10 billion miles apart.
Somehow each particle always seems to know what the other is doing. The problem with this feat is that it violates Einstein's long-held tenet that no communication can travel faster than the speed of light. Since traveling faster than the speed of light is tantamount to breaking the time barrier, this daunting prospect has caused some physicists to try to come up with elaborate ways to explain away Aspect's findings. But it has inspired others to offer even more radical explanations.
University of London physicist David Bohm, for example, believes Aspect's findings imply that objective reality does not exist, that despite its apparent solidity the universe is at heart a phantasm, a gigantic and splendidly detailed hologram.
The article goes on to give the example, within the framework of the holographic principle, of a watching a fish swimming in a fish tank on two television screens, each showing slightly different angles. One would assume, if the screens were the only information available, that there were two separate fish, but once closer observations revealed corresponding movement, one would realize the the fish had something in common. Perhaps these corresponding electrons are not "communicating" but actually the same electron, separated by our perception of reality as three dimensional. How can human perception be reconciled with physical reality? Is there a true bridge between the mind and matter or is human consciousness some cosmic accident? According to Talbot at least, the holographic principle of the universe seems to answer, or at least answers better than other theories, many of these questions. From perusing just a few of the many articles on the web about the holographic principle, I've found an extraordinary list of phenomena it purports to explain:
- Like Fritjof Capra, this theory is one of "interconnectedness" and at its foundation, the less conservative proponents appear to believe that this will inevitably lead to a new field of science combining neurobiology, psychology, cognitive science, physics, cosmology, astronomy, and possibly even theology.