A Holographic Universe: The World We Live in May Be an Illusion

Ever since the beginning of human history there has been an innate fascination with the Heavens above. We also throughout time have pondered about our existence and what it all means. We have sought answers through religion, metaphysics and philosophy; and we have relied on faith and a higher power to explain our consciousness. This journey still continues today through science and over the last few decades we have come to understand more about our world and our place in it. A new approach to viewing our universe and how it works has given us another fascinating perspective called quantum physics. A look into the stars, and more specifically black holes, should prove that all we know may be nothing more than a mere holographic projection.

Physics, since its conception with Isaac Newton, has been the scientific endeavor to understand the laws that govern how the physical world around us works. Many Newtonian formulas are used in modern day applications still but the way we use physics has changed drastically. One of the most notable figure heads in the modern physics, Albert Einstein, gave the world a spring board into a new way of understanding the physical laws. Essentially the discovery of General Relativity quantified the interconnectedness of time and space, and how matter exerted its influence upon it (Kabatek, 2011). Imagine that we exist in a vast matrix or fabric woven from the threads of time and space and everything that we know moves within this substance. The average human would affect this fabric very little, because on a cosmic level, we have infinitesimal mass; but take something like a planet or a star with considerable mass and you have a different story (Greene, The Hidden Reality, 2011). Objects with a great deal of mass warp times-pace much like if you were to suspend a sheet in midair and place a soft ball in the middle. The sheet would sink around the soft ball, and if you were to take smaller objects such as marbles, they would naturally fall towards the heavy object. This illustration is similar to the effects of mass on time-space and how it generates gravity. Black holes as we understand them today are objects with an incredible amount of mass packed into a very small region. Their mass is so incredible in fact that they warp time-space to the extent of generating a gravitational pull strong enough that light cannot escape its grasp.

Einstein had envisioned a universe with a unified set of governing laws. These laws, he felt, would be applicable to all systems at all times. During the time he made these postulations America was boasting the invention of nuclear energy or more specifically the atomic bomb, so Einstein was also well aware of how his theories on energy and mass met with physical deterioration on a sub atomic level. His quest for unification unfortunately never met its fruition within his lifetime but he did have contemporaries who continued on. Between the time of Einstein’s death and the early 70’s most research on physics was being done on the atom and vast amount of power it held. This was the developmental stage for quantum mechanics (Kabatek, 2011). During this scientific renaissance of sorts humanity was making huge advancements in other disciplines like biology and chemistry. Our need for answers became even more pertinent and progressively we began to construct a more deterministic worldview. Things that once relied on faith began to form in a more concrete and empirical sense.

A bit of focus was lost on unification but as new theories such as Quantum Fields Theory were being devised, Einstein’s zeal for a bigger explanation was resurrected. Noble prize winner Sheldon Glashow made profound contributions towards the refinement of Quantum Fields theory which basically states that “any field, despite what it substance is, is comprised of tiny points or elementary particles”. For example a field of light would be made of photons, or a field of gravity would be made of gravitons. Of course this is a gross over- simplification of the theory but for our purposes it is the minimal understanding necessary. When classical mechanics meets this quantum mechanical theory the math falls apart, thus the revitalized need for unification. Gravity and its eloquent explanation simply do not work within a subatomic range. Everything however is made up of atoms and elementary particles so why would the math not be consistent?

In general the issue between quantum and classical mechanics does not bear much significance because classical deals with the very large and quantum deals with the very small. Rare is the situation in which very large and very small things converge (Greene, The Hidden Reality, 2011). As humanity’s eyes once again turned upward and outward into space these worlds began to collide. Other postulations on the origins of the universe or the workings of black holes brought about scenarios where the subatomic meets the cosmic scales. With advances in technology for space travel and exploration the need for answers became ever more imperative. To contend with this dilemma physicists came up with a unique solution that not only brought us one step closer to unification but also open a gate into new possibilities. Super String theory helped resolve the breakdown of mathematics between quantum and classical mechanics. String theory for short, involves extremely sophisticated math but its concept is easy to grasp. To recall, Quantum Fields theory presupposed that any field is made up of elementary particles or tiny points that are indivisible. String theory built upon that saying that those points are actually tiny strings that vibrate; and the manner in which the strings vibrate, and their difference in frequency actually determines the type of energy or matter that we experience (Greene, The Hidden Reality, 2011). Objects with less mass vibrate less energetically and inversely objects with more mass vibrate more energetically. Along with the development of String theory new dimensions also emerged; ten to be specific. The theory also allows for the discovery and integration of new particles. The way that it also resolved issues with gravity on a subatomic level was to help quantify a quantum gravitational field. The distinct vibrational pattern of a string that was the heart of the graviton was now possible to mathematically explain.

Now that physics had potentially found it’s unifying theory we now encroach on a new way to consider physical laws and their influence on the natural world. John Wheeler, an American theoretical physicist who was also noted as having responsibility for reviving the interest in unification and mentored some of the world’s most gifted young minds, suggested that the next approach to be considered dealt in the realms of information (Greene, The Hidden Reality, 2011). It is possible to consider matter as an elaborate information processor. He believed that information; where the particle is, whether it is spinning one way or another, whether its charge is negative or positive and so on; forms an irreducible kernel at the heart of reality. That having such information is instantiated in real particles, occupying real positions, having definite spins and charges, is something like actualizing an architect’s blueprints for a skyscraper (Greene, Our Universe May Be A Giant Hologram, 2011). Another way to consider Wheeler’s vision is to consider the universe and its progression through time. The physical realm takes information on how things exist now and produces more information on how things will be in the next now, and this process repeats itself eternally. Humans, or any other conscious being within the scope of their senses, detect these changes over time as changes in the physical environment. Information in a sense could be likened to a higher power that shapes the terrain of existence.

Whether or not physics takes on Wheeler’s angle on the physical dimension remains to be seen; none the less his foresight is fascinating and how it pertains to a previously mentioned area where classic and quantum physics once sought resolution. Black holes have inspired stories of parallel universe from science fiction authors and fanatics and rightly so. They are physical phenomena that still partially escape explanation by scientists. To give a brief synopsis of what a black hole is thought to be, we can return to Einstein and his theory of general relativity, and the illustration using the sheet and softball. Instead of using a soft ball lets use a marble but also imagine this marble to be so incredibly dense and heavy that the sheet almost collapses in on itself trying to bear the weight. This is a black hole. A piece of matter so dense that it creates a radical torsion in the time-space continuum from which nothing can escape, and as the black hole pulls more and more matter into itself it grows and compacts the matter so tightly that perpetuates its need to feed.

Black holes seem to generate ultimate entropy. Entropy is an explanation of order that measures the randomness of the microscopic constituents of a thermodynamic system. To assist in visualizing entropy let’s look at water and its different forms. A cloud has a high level of entropy because you could rearrange its constituents and it would not affect its overall appearance. Take an ice cube with low entropy and do the same thing, and the rearrangement would dramatically change its structure. The arrangement or the information on the infrastructure to each ice cube varies. This is comparable to the analogy of no two snowflakes being the same. According to the second law of thermo dynamics anything that has entropy also has a temperature, and anything that has temperature should radiate. That being said if nothing escapes a black hole’s grasp then how could something procure ultimate entropy and radiate? This was one issue facing scientists in their efforts to understand this cosmic anomaly, until recently when our generation’s voice on physics discovered a new type of radiation.

Stephen Hawking along with Jacob Bekenstein discovered Hawking Radiation, which is a stream of positrons that fight desperately to escape the massive gravitational pull of a black hole. Positrons are the positively charged counterpart of an electron and it is also considered an antiparticle. Normally when these pairs erupt out of time-space they quickly find and neutralize each other out of existence, except in the case where they form next to the horizon of a black hole. Although we can distantly observe this effect as radiation the electrons also have an impact on the black hole in the shape of a reduction in size. When a black hole consumes something with positive energy its mass increases and thus its horizon expands. When it consumes something with a negative charge then its mass decreases, as does the reach of the black hole. As if this wasn’t amazing enough the zenith of Hawking’s discovery came when he outlined the method for calculating a black hole’s entropy; and that was by the surface area of its event horizon (Adam, 2004).

Generally when you think of storage, you think of volume. Even when it comes down to information storage we never cease to be amazed by how small a flash drive or mp3 player has become. In any case it is natural to relate the idea of size or volume to that of information storage capacity. So when it comes to black holes, if we equate entropy to a form of information about an object’s individual properties you can see why surface area as a means of storage is so perplexing. To elaborate, let’s consider what information actually is. Information answers questions and the simplest questions usually come in the form of those which can be answered with yes’s or no’s. This simple form of datum is called a bit, short for binary digit. The possible number of arrangements for each constituent is either a yes or a no, or in binary terms a 0 or a 1. To give a more definitive explanation of entropy as information consider a system’s entropy the number of yes/no questions that its microscopic details have the capacity to answer, and so entropy is a measure of the systems hidden information content (Greene, The Hidden Reality, 2011). Stephen Hawking mapped out the methods for measuring a black hole’s information storage capacity through surface area and provided an algorithm for calculating it. The method is pretty straightforward; simply take the event horizon and divide into a grid like pattern, each section being a Planck (10-33 cm) length long. The total number of sections needed to cover the hole’s horizon is equal to its entropy (Adam, 2004). The next question raised is whether or not this means that the information is actually stored on the surface area itself or if this is simply just a numerical accounting? In order to understand this we must consider some other theoretical workings by a man named Juan Maldacena.

Juan Maldacena is a theoretical physicist from Buenos Aires and an associate professor at Harvard University and is most renowned for his work uncovering the holographic principal (Juan Martin Maldacena, 2011). One way to look at the universe and other possible ones is to look at them as slices of bread that exist in line with each other. This is known as Brane theory. Each slice is the region of space in which a continuously expanding universe is contained and it has its own time-space properties governing how matter moves through its boundaries. Maldacena discovered the correlation between what is bulk physics (string theory) and boundary physics (quantum field theory) (Juan Martin Maldacena, 2011). As their name suggests, bulk physics encompasses the execution of natural laws within a region of space, and boundary physics does the same only for occurrences on the boundaries of that region. To illustrate how this might appear imagine a region of space encapsulated by a boundary of permeable time-space fabric; much like a bubble. Now remember that quantum field theory states that all fields are made up of elementary particles and string theory states that these particles are actually strings. Now these particles moving within the bubble appear to be strings because they have a three dimensional matrix to exist and travel through, but on the two dimensional surface they appear to be just points or simple particles. Now to tie in how this relates to entropy measured on the surface of a black holes event horizon, consider the Planck length units that account for entropy to be comparable to elementary particles on a two dimensional surface (Greene, The Hidden Reality, 2011). As Maldacena’s research has shown, the amount of information stored within a region of space is always less than the surface area surrounding the region. If it exceeds that then we come upon a black hole. Information can be fully encoded onto a surface surrounding a region, and the surface is where the actual physical processes take place and the reflection or those processes are then projected into a three dimensional matrix. In essence our three dimensional reality is a holographic representation of two dimensional physical processes. Much like how a holographic image works in an arcade game there is a flat image usually scribed in layers of plastic which may look much different than the end result image once lights has been shown through it.

Plato suggested in his theory of forms that humans experience the world of appearances while there was a separate world of forms, or a world of fundamental reality. While Plato was metaphorically speaking of the difference between illusion and truth it, could be argued that he wasn’t too far off point. Even though most of what we have come to deduce with theoretical physics is strictly theoretical, it is amazing to think that much of what occurs in our universe actually is governed by processes on the boundary light years away. From Einstein’s quest for unification to String theory, the journey for understanding our universe has been a long one and is still underway. General relativity gave us our first palpable understanding of cosmic structure while Glashow later refined our world in a sub atomic light with quantum fields. String Theory unified the math between the two schools of physics and helps us understand how the universe is constructed. The cosmic anomaly of black holes, because of their unique properties give physicists clues as to how macro scale occurrences reverberate within the quantum level of existence and how this equates to the holographic principle. Considering the evolution of physics and the metaphysical ramifications, it is becoming more difficult to deny our interconnectedness with the rest of the world. It also begs the question of what connotates a universe. Would it be possible to create one using the same holographic principles in a laboratory? Many scientists think it is possible, especially with the optimization of information processing and storage capabilities of today. We could in theory create virtual simulations capable of replicating a big bang much like the one that created our universe. Of course it would be a simulation, but if you think about it what conceivably would be the difference between that and our holographic universe?

Works Cited

Adam, D. (2004, July 21). Hawking: I’ve Solved the Black Hole Riddle. The Guardian .

Discovery. (2011, September 04). Parallel Universes: Are They Real. Curiosity .

Greene, B. (2011). Our Universe May Be A Giant Hologram. Discover Magazine .

Greene, B. (2011). The Hidden Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Juan Maldacena. (2011). Retrieved November 03, 2011, from Institute for Advanced Study: http://www.ias.edu/people/faculty-and-emeriti/maldacena

Juan Martin Maldacena. (2011, November). Retrieved November 03, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Martín_Maldacena

Kabatek, M. (2011, September 30). Quantum Summary. (L. Holland, Interviewer)

Khulman, M. (2006, June 22). Quantum Feild Theory. Retrieved October 2011, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/quantum-field-theory/

Wikipedia. (2011, November 10). Archibald Wheeler. Retrieved October 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Archibald_Wheeler

Reported by Lindsey Holland

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3 Responses to A Holographic Universe: The World We Live in May Be an Illusion

  1. Ronald August 30, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    The Maldacena Conjecture (of a holopraphic universe) is indeed worth reporting. Actually, it was worth reporting 14 years ago when it first appeared in print: J. Maldacena, “The Large N limit of superconformal field theories and supergravity”, Adv.Theor. Math. Phys. 2:231, 1998, hep-th/9711200

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