Are We Living In A Hologram?...Get Real!
Some scientists (or perhaps journalists) are claiming that our three-dimensional reality may be an illusion, that we all live in a hologram…and that they may have the experiment to prove it.
You read that right. Is our universe just a hologram? Are we ultimately as ethereal and insubstantial as those goofy projected 3D images that they still (#[email protected]&%*!) haven’t perfected yet? And what is this experiment you’re talking about?
Ok, you may need to gird your loins first. The experiment was devised by scientists at the renowned Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. It wasn’t designed to prove this hologram idea though. It was designed to answer questions about the fundamental nature of space.
The device to test these theories is called a Holometer or holographic interferometer. This interferometer is a device that superimposes waves of light onto each other creating bright and dark spots which can reveal the tiniest movements of the apparatus.. In this experimental setup, two interferometers send powerful laser beams (200,000 laser pointers worth) to a beam-splitter which, you guessed, splits the beams and sends them down multiple tunnels at right angles to each other. This light returns to the beam-splitter which then recombines that light (a beam-combiner I guess).
The idea is to hopefully detect a “quantum jitter to space” or holographic noise which is an incredibly subtle and irreducible movement of space and hence all matter in it. This theoretical movement would minutely jostle the splitter causing bright and dark areas in the combined light as it no longer perfectly matches up. This result would be a historic milestone, revealing the quantum grainy nature of space itself, meaning that it is not continuous like a sheet appears but is actually composed of indivisible units of space. These grains or particles of space would be somewhat small and by “somewhat” I mean 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom. Try this on for size. Look at the period at the end of this sentence. Imagine the entire visible universe in that dot. A single gtain of space would be another period inside that universe. Got it?At these distances (called the Planck Length) physics as we know it breaks down (I hate when that happens) and length loses all meaning when you try to conceive of anything smaller.
This would mean space itself is a quantum (granular) system and therefore subject to what’s called quantum indeterminacy (The Uncertainty Principle) just like matter and energy are. This means that you can’t know with arbitrary certainty, for example, the position AND momentum of a subatomic particle at the same time regardless what hyper-advanced technology you’re using. This is why atoms move a little even at absolute zero because if it were perfectly still, then we could know exactly where it was and how it was moving, which is impossible. These quantum fluctuations that affect the tiniest bits of matter then should also affect space itself causing it to skitter around a little and therefore move everything in it as well.
One difficulty as you might imagine is subtracting all the other subtle vibrations infesting our environment whether its from the shaking of machinery, people walking, or even doors slamming. The researchers use very high frequency waves (millions of cycles per second or megahertz) and this tends to render conventional lower frequency vibrations moot. Other frequencies like the radio waves emitted by electronics can be a problem though but they are identified and accounted for as well.
So where does this bizarre idea come from that we live in a hologram? Well, holographic noise is related to the Holographic Principle which states that a complete description of our 3 dimensional space could be somehow encoded in a 2 dimensional boundary around that space. This is similar to a flat pane of glass having the information inside it needed to create a 3D image when you look through it. If you look closely at a conventional hologram like this though, the bigger the pixels are, the fuzzier the 3D image. It is this fuzziness of reality itself that the holometer hopes to detect.
It would be pretty cool and amazingly ground-breaking if this were true but I hold very little hope that holographic noise is real. This is primarily because researchers in the field of quantum gravity have not widely accepted these theories and a telling citations to any of this work. This may be due to the fact that much of this research goes against many string theory calculations. Even worse, some experiments looking at ancient gamma rays claim that this quantum graininess should have a noticeable twisting effect on this highly energetic light. When they looked, it wasn’t there even well below the scale that Fermi lab scientists are predicting. The graininess of space could still be there but if it is, it may have to exist at even far smaller scales.
What if proponents of this theory are correct though and our universe really is some kind of 3D manifestation of some underlying 2 dimensional substrate? Even then, it still wouldn’t mean we’re simply a meaningless hi-resolution holographic mirage.
Fermilab researcher quote:
“…when physicists say the universe is “really” two-dimensional, they don’t mean the third dimension doesn’t exist. Rather they mean it’s an emergent rather than fundamental property of spacetime. If you zoom in far enough, a solid doesn’t look very solid at all, but this doesn’t make “solid” any less real or valid a category for describing our day-to-day experience”
Our 3 dimensional existence then would not be merely an illusion even if their wild contention were true. 3D-ness would just be an aspect of reality that emerges only at scales much larger than the Planck realm. This is like consciousness emerging from a large-scale collection of neurons which is not evident by just looking at one neuron. This doesn’t make our cognition any less real or meaningful.
My take then is that all this talk about us living in a hologram is that it’s sensationalistic at best but I sure bet the clicks went through the roof, which was probably the point.
Image Credit: BBC TWO
Thanks again to Physicist Brian Wecht for catching subtle (and not so subtle) technical issues with my post