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Is the Universe a Giant Hologram?

February 11, 2009 on 3:21 pm | In Quantum, String Theory, cosmology |

Some days the questions I get are easy, and some days I get questions from our longtime reader, Ben. This past week, there have been reports all over the news that our world may be a giant hologram. Let’s take a look at what’s going on.

In Hanover, Germany, there’s an experiment called GEO600. These are two perpendicular lasers, and they shoot out for thousands of feet, get reflected, and come back to their original location to make an interference pattern.

Now the reason this is important is because gravitational waves cause ripples in space in a certain way. These perpendicular lasers are particularly sensitive to what gravitational waves do, and the interference pattern will shift in a very particular way if gravitational waves pass through them. This is the same idea that’s behind the upcoming LISA mission.

Now, GEO600, like every laser interferometer we’ve ever built, has not seen any evidence for gravitational waves. But it has seen something that it can’t explain, and that’s always interesting for an experiment.

It found some extra noise, above and beyond what can be predicted/explained by things like the vibrations of the Earth, temperature fluctuations, or instrumental noise. What does this look like? Whenever you do your experiment, you do your best to understand what noise you expect to see, and then you look for deviations from this. GEO600 saw something like this:

So there are two possibilities now: either there’s a source of noise they haven’t figured out, or something physically interesting and novel is causing this. Now, historically, whenever experiments are done, it’s almost always unexpected noise that causes something like this to happen. But once in awhile, there really is a new effect that we have going on.

It’s very important to state, clearly and unambiguously, before we go any further, that this may simply turn out to be noise. This may not be a physical effect at all, and that no other similar experiments (such as LIGO) see these effects.

But if it is a physical effect, Craig Hogan of Fermilab has come up with an extremely interesting possible explanation. He says that this excess noise could be a sign that our Universe has an extra dimension to it. How does this work? Let’s think of a hologram:

A hologram has all the information you could ever want about the dimensions of a 3-D object, but it has it all in two dimensions. For instance, you could tell some object’s (or someone’s) length, width, and depth just from looking at a 2-D hologram. All of the information is encoded in there.

Well, our Universe may be the same exact way. We know about our 3 space dimensions and our 1 time dimension. But we may have more dimensions of space than we know about; many interesting theories have them. One possible consequence is that these extra dimensions could cause extra “blurring” of our 3 regular space dimensions at very small lengths.

Now, this is very interesting, because the noise we see in the GEO600 experiment causes the laser light to blur on scales of about 10-16 meters and below. This is smaller than the size of a single proton, but amazingly, our technology is sensitive enough that we can detect it! But is this blurring due to extra dimensions? Let’s see what the people connected with the experiment say about Craig Hogan’s idea:

However Danzmann is cautious about Hogan’s proposal and believes more theoretical work needs to be done. “It’s intriguing,” he says. “But it’s not really a theory yet, more just an idea.” Like many others, Danzmann agrees it is too early to make any definitive claims. “Let’s wait and see,” he says. “We think it’s at least a year too early to get excited.”

The longer the puzzle remains, however, the stronger the motivation becomes to build a dedicated instrument to probe holographic noise. John Cramer of the University of Washington in Seattle agrees. It was a “lucky accident” that Hogan’s predictions could be connected to the GEO600 experiment, he says. “It seems clear that much better experimental investigations could be mounted if they were focused specifically on the measurement and characterisation of holographic noise and related phenomena.”

So it looks like this is worth further investigation, but it’s way too early to draw any definitive conclusions. But it’s a possibility, and for something as grand as this, for something that would forever change the way we view our Universe, I think it’s worth investigating further, and so does the entire GEO600 team.

What do you think?


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  1. That’s crazy to think about, but I’m no theoretical physicist… I’m more worried about the classical optics and electrostatics that will show up on my physics exam next Wednesday!

    Comment by Andrew — February 11, 2009 #

  2. As discussed by Paul Davies, then at Australian Centre for Astrobiology, Macquarie University, (now at Arizona?) in “The implications of a holographic universe for quantum information science and the nature of physical law”;
    Jacob Bekenstein proposed that the surface area of a black hole serves as a measure of its entropy (Bekenstein 1973. Phys. Rev. D 8, 2333.), confirmed a few years later by Stephen Hawking in a detailed calculation (Hawking 1975Comm. Math. Phys. 43, 199.).
    Entropy has long been regarded as a measure of information (or information loss) so the Bekenstein-Hawking formula relates the total information content of a region of space to the area of the surface encompassing that volume.
    The idea of associating entropy and information with horizon area can be extended to include all event horizons, not just those surrounding black holes. If the universe becomes dominated by dark energy, which some current astronomical observations suggest it might, it will continue to expand at an accelerating rate which creates a cosmological event horizon, (a roughly spherical surface that bounds the region of the universe to which we have causal and informational access).
    ’t Hooft (1993, ‘Dimensional reduction in quantum gravity,’ gr-qc 9310026.) and Susskind (1995, J. Math. Phys. (NY) 36, 6377.) have proposed the so-called holographic principle, according to which the information content of the entire universe is captured by an enveloping surface that surrounds it. A simple calculation of the size of our universe’s event horizon today based on the size of the event horizon created by the measured value of dark energy gives an information bound of about 10^122 bits.
    It would seem then, that an extra dimension is not necessary for for the universe to be a giant hologram. However, the minimum length considered in most holographic theories of which I am aware is the planck length (about 10^-35m), which is 19 orders of magnitude smaller than the 1.6×10^-16m that you mention. (I wonder if there is some phenomenon that might relate these two lengths?) Perhaps the “blurring” suggested here is evidence of some universal information bound.

    Comment by Tim E — February 12, 2009 #

  3. Note to my comments above: I notice that in the article that you link to, “Cardiff researchers could herald a new era in fundamental physics” the figure they quote is the planck length, 1.6×10^-35.
    I am not clear on where your figure of 10^-16 applies.

    Comment by Tim E — February 12, 2009 #

  4. Nice post Ethan. Definitely putting effort into figuring out whether other higher order dimensions exist or not is worth our time and effort.

    One science program I saw explained dimensions really clearly to me. Basically what I got out of that was that living in 3 spatial dimensions, we can’t see any higher order dimensions. Just like how a 2D organism can’t look up to see the 3rd dimension and so we might be limited to never seeing any higher order dimensions. But, we might be able to detect their influence on our 3 dimensions. Am I right there?

    The program explained how if you pass a 3D apple through a 2D plane, they wont be able to see the 3D apple but they will see the changing outline of something moving through their plane.

    What does this imply for our future of finding higher order spatial dimensions?

    Comment by Jammin — February 12, 2009 #

  5. Hmmm. How do holographs actually work?

    I know I’ve read it in the past, but all I can think of now is it’s not possible to have a continuous, bijective map between spaces of different dimenstions.

    What’m I missing?

    Comment by Sili — February 13, 2009 #

  6. Tim, I think what they’re doing is considering the Planck Area (Planck Length squared) as the smallest feature size on the event horizon. That determines how many bits can be encoded on the total area of the event horizon, which, so the theory goes, is then the total number of bits that can be encoded in the volume WITHIN the event horizon. Then comparing that with the volume gives the (apparent) minimum feature size of the 3D region, which is the ~10^-16m figure.

    Comment by benhead — February 13, 2009 #

  7. Thanks benhead. It would appear that IF Craig Hogan’s suggestion turns out to be correct, it provides some support for Paul Davies speculations in “Emergent Biological Principles and the Computational Properties of the Universe” where he compares the cosmological result that “that the universe never contained, and never will contain, more than about 10^122 bits of information” with the amount of information that can be encoded in a human gene, or even many proteins and finds that these biological structures can encode more information then the physical universe, thus concluding that “life is an emergent property”; i.e. “The results suggest that the key molecules for life - nucleic acids and proteins - become biologically efficacious at just about the threshold predicted by the Landauer-Wheeler limit corresponding to the onset of emergent behaviour, and that therefore their efficacy may be traced in part to the operation of as-yet-to-be-elucidated biological organizing principles, consistent with, but not reducible to, the laws of physics operating at the micro-level.”
    The philosophical implications of this would be extremely important for biology as well as for physics.

    Comment by Tim E — February 13, 2009 #

  8. It also sounds like a form of cosmic censorship. If the noise is smeared states related to Planck’s constant h then it looks like canonical General Relativity will start having a tough time at this scale. On the religion side of things is this the limit point where the manifest ends and the unmanifest resides? The Sanskrit term ‘bindhu’ describes such a point (but only intellectually) in the Upanishads, Puranas etc. The holographic noise if it exists would be a contact with the Divine (related to the beginning time).

    Comment by mark a. thomas — February 13, 2009 #

  9. A little suspicious that LIGO hasn’t seen this. Evidence for higher dimensions would be very exciting, but my money is on noise.

    Comment by Derek — February 13, 2009 #

  10. This is basically looking at the “fundamental scale”, or when can you start to see the effects of low-energy extra dimensions.

    People are excited about low-energy extra dimensions because they’re the only kind we’ll be able to see. There’s no great motivation that they exist, just that if they do, we’ll be able to see them.

    My money, all of it (FWIW), would be that the best explanation of this is noise. LIGO used to see extra things, but they were all noise, and they’re now operating at design sensitivity.

    And for comparison on the information front, if you add everything up, quarks, electrons, neutrinos, dark matter, photons, etc., there are “only” about 10^90 particles in the entire Universe. So 10^122 is a very big number!

    Comment by ethan — February 17, 2009 #

  11. What a great discussion, thanks! The holographic feature of the Whole being in each part is deeply resonant. The only thing we are certain of is being itself, based on our awareness/consciousness — and is, I suggest, outside the reach of the plank constant. The I in I AM — identity — is only applicable when it refers to that which is being. Who or what, exactly, is aware, and what it is aware of — other than being itself — is uncertain enough to satisfy any Schroedinger. St. Francis of Assisi’s comment is relevant: “What we are looking for is what is looking.” Comment by Odys — September 05, 2009


    Comment by odys — September 6, 2009 #

  12. You will want to look into Nassim Haramein’s formulation of grand unification.

    Comment by Mike Goldman — October 2, 2009 #

  13. If the analogy from the 2D hologram of a 3D object is appropriate for a 4D universe to a 5D universe than what would be the analogous “light source” in a 4D universe? What could be that “light of the world”?

    Comment by James Biergiel — May 8, 2010 #

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