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The Universe’s Pixels and Holographic Reality?

This is a fascinating news item. Hold on to your beanie hats with the propellers on them.

Scientists may have actually detected the grain or pixels of the universe. This may mean that our reality, everything we see and do, our entire universe in fact, is like a 3-dimensional holographic image of sorts projected from somewhere else. Talk about a one-two punch.

This story starts at a German-British gravity wave detector called GEO600 in northern Germany. They’ve been trying to find Einstein’s theorized gravity waves for 7 years. It is believed these waves in space-time itself are created by titanic events in the universe like supernovae or collisions of black holes or neutron stars. The detectors work by splitting a beam of light and sending it in two directions perpendicular to each other, bouncing the light off of mirrors, and then recombining it to look for any changes in the interference pattern. If this pattern shifts, if might have been caused by one of the perpendicular pathways being stretched or squeezed by a passing gravity wave. The group that detects these waves first will be the first gravitational wave astronomers.

These researchers ran into a problem though. Their detectors kept getting this background noise that would not go away.

Enter Craig Hogan, physicist at the Fermilab particle physics lab in Batavia, Illinois and recent appointee as director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics

He’d been thinking long and hard about what’s called the Holographic Principle. The idea here is that the total amount of information or entropy a space can contain depends on its surface or the boundary of that space and not its volume as you might suppose. So as an analogy,  the amount of plastic used in a beach ball would be directly related to the amount of information that there can be on the inside of the ball.

This sounds counterintuitive but this mathematical principle actually works when calculating the entropy of a black hole. In 1972, Physicist Jacob Bekenstein discovered that a black hole’s entropy or information content, is proportional to the surface area of its event horizon. The progenitor star that exploded and became the black hole then could have all the information about its 3D structure encoded in the 2D event horizon.

In the early 90’s, physicists Leonard Susskind and Gerard ‘t Hooft extrapolated the holographic principle from a black hole’s event horizon to the cosmological horizon which is essentially the boundaries of the observable universe.

This would mean that the universe could essentially be described as a 2-dimensional construct embedded in boundaries of the cosmological horizon (observable universe). Our visible universe could then be seen as a 3-dimensional representation of processes happening on that distant 2-dimensional surface. The analogy with a hologram is not perfect but it does help a bit. A normal hologram on your credit card is a piece of plastic with a 2D pattern etched into it. When light shines on it a 3D pattern emerges.

Ok, back to Hogan. He realized that if this principle could be applied to the universe, then each tiny bit of our horizon would be linked or mapped to our reality somewhere inside. The tiniest bit of anything allowed by quantum theory is called a planck length which is 1.6 x 10 -36 meters. That’s  a hundred billion billion times smaller than a proton. This is as small as small can get folks. This is the fundamental unit of length or grain allowed in space-time. Any fraction of it therefore has no meaning. Half of a planck length makes no physical sense. It would be like half of an electron.

Needless to say, this is so unimaginably small that there’s no conceivable way to examine the universe at this scale. We may, though, have a workaround…

Since, in general, surface area is less than its associated volume, each grain in the surface of our horizon must correspond to a bigger grain in our world. Imagine dots on our beach ball. Each dot would map to a much bigger dot inside the ball in order for the 1 to 1 relation to hold. That’s the key concept right there. This is what Hogan realized. He figured, that if we had a measuring instrument detailed enough, we could potentially see the pixels or grain or planck length of space-time because the holographic version of them in the universe would have to be much bigger than they really are on the surface.

Hogan even predicted that GEO600 would be sensitive enough to detect the grain of the universe. He approached the company before he knew they were getting noise. When they sent Hogan a plot of the noise it matched his prediction.

“It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” says Hogan.
The other bit of intriguing evidence supporting this idea comes from theorist Juan Maldacena. He actually showed that a hypothetical universe of 5 dimensions has physics inside it that match the physics on its 4 dimensional boundary. I don’t know how he did it but the particles that interact on the surface corresponded exactly with the interacting strings on the interior. The trick now of course is to apply this to our non-hypothetical universe.

As compelling as some of this evidence is, keep in mind that no one knows if it is true yet. Most scientists consider this more of an idea or hypothesis than a theory.
If it’s true it’s a double-edged sword. It would mean we may never see gravity waves because the resolution of the universe is too low. Gravity waves have great potential and I’d hate to see them impossible to verify.

The other side of that sword is pretty cool though. What if all this is true?

Hogan has said:

“Forget Quantum of Solace, we would have directly observed the quantum of time…It’s the smallest possible interval of time – the Planck length divided by the speed of light.”

The elusive theory of everything (quantum gravity) could also get quite a boost from this. Certain approaches to string theory tie in nicely to this theory and some don’t. Cutting away some of the non-holographic trash would aid greatly in this endeavor.

Anything that helps us figure out how space-time bubbles out of quantum theory is awesome in my book.

My only question now is should I return my Hi-Def TV if we live in a low-res universe?

12 comments to The Universe’s Pixels and Holographic Reality?

  • gr8googlymoogly

    This is sofa king cool!! Awesome article, Bob!!

  • […] Evidence we live in a holographic reality? Whoa! – Okay, probably not. But this is interesting all the same. […]

  • Thanks googly, good to know someone’s reading this.

  • Belgarath

    Hi Bob,

    In your reading of this was there much discussion of how to test it and differentiate it from String Theory?

    It is very cool!

  • irishjazz

    Very intriguing… but it is hard to tell from this article whether the noise is just the limits of resolution of the instruments or something like the CMB found at Bell Labs. It seems to be a big jump between encoding the 3 dimensional structure of a star on the two dimensional event horizon to encoding a dynamic, changing, complex universe on a higher dimension.

    I think I found the article you were referring to on New Scientist. It went on to say:

    “No one – including Hogan – is yet claiming that GEO600 has found evidence that we live in a holographic universe. It is far too soon to say. “There could still be a mundane source of the noise,” Hogan admits.

    Gravitational-wave detectors are extremely sensitive, so those who operate them have to work harder than most to rule out noise. They have to take into account passing clouds, distant traffic, seismological rumbles and many, many other sources that could mask a real signal. “The daily business of improving the sensitivity of these experiments always throws up some excess noise,” says Danzmann. “We work to identify its cause, get rid of it and tackle the next source of excess noise.” At present there are no clear candidate sources for the noise GEO600 is experiencing. “In this respect I would consider the present situation unpleasant, but not really worrying.”

    For a while, the GEO600 team thought the noise Hogan was interested in was caused by fluctuations in temperature across the beam splitter. However, the team worked out that this could account for only one-third of the noise at most.

    Danzmann says several planned upgrades should improve the sensitivity of GEO600 and eliminate some possible experimental sources of excess noise. “If the noise remains where it is now after these measures, then we have to think again,” he says.”

    Perhaps I have developed a certain sensitivity to wild theories looking for possible proofs after Kaku’s enthusiasms last week. Measuring distances less than the width of a proton is a daunting task (far more difficult than detecting a radio signal from the cosmos)and the experimenters themselves seem a bit more reserved than Hogan. Can’t blame him really- especially with the troubles at Fermilab maintaining funding. But this is just the first whisper of what may turn out to be evidence of universal graininess, or it might just be a bit of noise.

    But very cool story in any case. Thanks for the heads up.

  • jakeybob

    Although very (extremely!) interesting, I think this is still very much at the /pinch of salt/ stage.
    It’s kind of like hearing a strange clicky noise in your car, having a mechanic look at it and not find anything, still hearing the noise, and then attributing it to magical gnomes. Sure it /could/ be the magical gnomes, and discovering a race of magical gnomes would be pretty interesting but … it’s not the most likely explanation.

    Also I don’t believe it’s at all well understood (yet) how this effect actually couples into the GEO output. The instrument is composed of many optical elements, all presumably affected by the holographic effect, and the interactions between all these elements is not included in the estimate.

    Still though, as the detector improvements come online, this effect can (start to) be ruled out – or not – both results are interesting!

  • Brian

    This is definitely a fascinating hypothesis that redefines “cool” in my book. The idea of a higher dimensional object that when “illuminated” gives rise to our 4-dimensional observable universe inside of it just rocks to the core. Maybe I’m just weird, but it seems to make a sort of sense.

    This article provides a little different perspective on the physics here, and explains the theories regarding black holes that has led to this hypothesis. It also explains why Bob should not ride elephants…:)

  • JohnFrost

    Thanks for covering this, Bob. I know New Scientist can get a little sensationalist, so it’s good to see a skeptic’s take; that the hypothesis, at least, is sound. Very cool story.

  • Anya1987

    It`s so interesting ! Thank you very much , Bob .

  • uhhhhh my mind is blown. way cool

  • Aragon

    This is a comment taken from an earlier post of mine on a somewhat related subject. http://www.theskepticsguide.org/sgublog/?p=156

    See also, point of interest, http://www.theskepticsguide.org/sgublog/?p=99 which involves a discussion of quantum entanglement

    By Aragon on Mar 10, 2008 | Reply
    Aragonads, Indeed!
    bottomlayer.com rocks!
    As of three months ago I was comfortable that I had exhausted all manner of philosophical inquiry into the realm of spiritualism or more pointedly into the realm of “something existing outside of a universe governed by mechanistic, predictable, quantifiable, laws”. Then, I came across bottomlayer’s fantastic explanation of quantum mechanics’ experimental results.

    For years I had followed the experimental results of quantum mechanics and, though not a physicist, I nonetheless understood the truly odd and illogical nature of these results. Something was definitely wrong. Bottomlayer not just confirmed this but made even wronger.

    Look, before you classify me as “out there” with the other guy your reference, know the following: Remember Star Trek? Well, I always wanted to be Spock. Ever read the Dune novels? Well I always fancied myself the Mentat. Remember “Lost in Space”? Well I never wanted to be that ugly 50’s looking robot thing, I do have my standards. And finally, when I went to Berkeley I originally wanted to major in Logic, but, of course, there was no such major. In any event, I am a 40 something year old adherent to logic and its rational dictates. So, I’m not real inclined to go all spiritual and the like. And yes, I know that comparing myself to fictional characters does little for my credibility :).

    What wrongness do Quantum Mechanics (QM) and the Experimental Results (ER) reveal? The universe knows when you are observing it and will change its appearance accordingly. For instance, we all know that photons act both as waves and particles. But what is weird is that photons will act as a wave or a particle depending upon whether or not you are looking. Allow me to stress the point here, “whether or not you are looking at it”. Now, a bunch of you idiots, because I used to be one, would say ohhhh that is the observational effect (uncertainty principle)… in other words the instrument used to measure “it” necessarily had an effect on “it”, !!NO, NOT, WRONG!! Get it, NO, NOT, WRONG!! Your mistake is an understandable assumption but it is Wrong.

    The above explanation of the experimental results (ER) is crude at best. A better explanation perhaps, the universe reveals itself (i.e. direction of electrons spin, wave vs. particle behavior of electrons/protons…, location vs. speed of particles, etc.. ) in different ways depending upon whether or not you are looking. More accurately, if you have a means to gain knowledge (know) information, about say, what a particular electron/proton/.. is doing then the fact of your knowledge will predictably, repeatedly, and consistently influence the actions, characteristics, etc… of that particular electron/proton/… Get that, “predictably, repeatedly and consistently”, these are the hallmarks of the scientific method.

    It wasn’t until I went to the bottomlayer site and forced myself to read through a thorough step by step explanation, or rather, description (explanations are lacking), of the experimental results that I realized how profound those results truly were. It literally turned my world upside down. I thought I knew it all, apparently not.

    My wife, who is wicked smart and my partner in intellectual matters, tried to get me to explain my so called revelations as taken from the QMER. I told her, “there is no way you can understand me unless you have actually gone and immersed yourself in the experimental results.”. Lay explanations just cannot communicate the implications of these ER unless the listener is already somewhat versed in the area of QM. She was not so versed nor had I been. But, because she is my wife, I tried to explain things to her conversationally. She called me a “loon”. I told her to read, for herself, the ER and scientific literature on same. She did. Now she is a “loon”.

    I can’t believe I’ve spent so much on this topic. And I’ve gone off subject. Do I think that QM has anything to do with the observed anomalies in question, no. Do I think that QM and the ER call into question everything, yes. Look, the guy you referenced believes in simulations. And simulation is indeed a concrete possibility. It cannot be logically discounted. But it is not the only explanation. The following site has an extremely entertaining set of comments on the possibilities associated with a simulation: http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/even-if-life-is-but-a-computer-simulation/#comment-45414.

    But, I’d recommend going to BottomLayer.com first. However, you have to actually invest intellectual energy if you wish to really get it. And yes, what you read there about the ER is true. Go to “http://www.bottomlayer.com/bottom/reality/RealityFrame1.html”.

    Bye the way, anyone who wonders more about my wife’s reaction after reviewing the ER of QM, she now questions, if in fact, when I am out of sight, I exist at all. The confounding factor here is that we have been married for 13 years.

    The Rogue’s Gallery and its members are uniquely adapted to discuss, in depth, the implications of QM and the ER. It is the funnest inquiry I’ve followed since my college days.

    Aragonads merely wish to serve you!

    How does the above relate to the current discussion. From the results of QM experiments one can intuit that the universe is an informational processing system which has limited storage capacity. Hence, the need for complimentary properties/states and other odditites associated with the ER of QM.

    Also, the new super collider in Europe which is supposed to find the God Particle, wont. This is because there is no mass!


  • That was an interesting article, Brian. As near as I can understand it–and that’s not very well at all–it seems that the same way Einstein showed us that time is relative to an observer, these new theories are showing us that even location in space is relative to an observer.

    Back on topic–I’ve listened to the latest podcast now, but I’m still just as confused as ever.
    But the real question that I didn’t hear y’all address is: What does the holographic universe mean for science fiction?

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