Is the Universe One Big Hologram?

universe_nightsky“You know how I can tell we’re not in the Matrix?  If we were, the food would be better.” Thus spoke Sheldon Cooper, the socially-challenged nerd from The Big Bang Theory. And yet, there is actually a scientific theory that posits that the universe itself could be a 2D hologram that is painted on some kind of cosmological horizon and only pops into 3D whenever we observe it (aka. always).

And in what may be the most mind-boggling experiment ever, the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) seeks to test this theory for the first time. Their tool for this is the Holometer, a device which has been under construction for a couple of years. It is now operating at full power and will gather data for the next year or so, at which time it will seek to uncover if the universe is a hologram, and what it’s composed of.

big_bangThe current prevailing theories about how the universe came to be are the Big Bang, the Standard Model of particle physics, quantum mechanics, and classical physics. These hypotheses and models don’t fully answer every question about how the universe came to be or continues to persist – which is why scientists are always investigating other ideas, such as supersymmetry or string theory.

The holographic universe principle is part of string theory – or at least not inconsistent with it – and goes something like this: From our zoomed out vantage point, the universe seems to be a perfectly formed enclave of 4D spacetime. But what happens if you keep zooming in, past the atomic and subatomic, until you get down to the smallest possible unit that can exist in the universe?

fermi_holometer-3In explaining their theory, the scientists involved make much of the analogy of moving closer to an old-style TV until you can see the individual pixels. The holographic principle suggests that, if you zoom in far enough, we will eventually see the pixels of the universe. It’s theorized that these universal pixels are about 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom (where things are measured in Planck units).

The Holometer at Fermilab, which on the hunt for these pixels of the universe, is essentially an incredibly accurate clock. It consists of a twin-laser interferometer, which – as the name suggests – extracts information from the universe by measuring interference to the laser beams. Each interferometer directs a one-kilowatt laser beam at a beam splitter and then down two 40-m (130-ft) arms located at right-angles to one another.

holometer-interferometer-diagramThese beams are then reflected back towards the source, where they are combined and analyzed for any traces of interference. As Craig Hogan, the developer of the holographic noise theory and a director at Fermilab, explained:

We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just like matter is. If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years.

After any outside influences are removed, any remaining fluctuations – measured by slightly different frequencies or arrival times – could be caused by the ever-so-slight quantum jitter of these universal pixels. If these universal pixels exist, then everything we see, feel, and experience in the universe is actually encoded in these 2D pixels. One major difficulty in such a test will be noise – aka. “Holographic noise” – which they expect to be present at all frequencies.

fermi_holometerTo mitigate this, the Holometer is testing at frequencies of many megahertz so that motions contained in normal matter are claimed not to be a problem. The dominant background noise of radio wave interference will be the most difficult to filter out, according to the team. As Holometer lead scientist Aaron Chou explained:

If we find a noise we can’t get rid of, we might be detecting something fundamental about nature – a noise that is intrinsic to space-time.

This would have some serious repercussions. For a start, it would mean that spacetime itself is a quantum system, just like matter. The theory that the universe consists of matter and energy would be annulled, replaced with the concept that the universe is made of information encoded into these universal pixels, which in turn create the classical concepts of matter and energy.

fermi_holometer-1And of course, if the universe is just a 3D projection from a 2D cosmological horizon, where exactly is that cosmological horizon? And does this mean that everything we know and love is just a collection of quantum information carrying 2D bits? And perhaps most importantly (from our point of view at least) what does that make us? Is all life just a collection of pixels designed to entertain some capricious audience?

All good and, if you think about it, incredibly time-honored questions. For has it not been suggested by many renowned philosophies that life is a deception, and death an escape? And do not the Hindu, Buddhist and Abrahamic religions tells us that our material existence is basically a facade that conceals our true reality? And were the ancient religions not all based on the idea that man was turned loose in a hostile world for the entertainment of the gods?

Well, could be that illusion is being broadcast in ultra-high definition! And getting back to The Big Bang Theory, here’s Leonard explaining the hologram principle to Penny, complete with holograms:


Evidence for the Big Bang

planck-attnotated-580x372The Big Bang Theory has been the dominant cosmological model for over half a century. According to the theory, the universe was created approximately 14 billion years ago from an extremely hot, dense state and then began expanding rapidly. After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled and began to form various subatomic particles and basic elements. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars, galaxies, and eventually planets.

And while it has its detractors, most of whom subscribe to the alternate Steady State Theory – which claims that new matter is continuously created as the universe expands – it has come to represent the scientific consensus as to how the universe came to be. And as usual, my ol’ pal and mentor in all things digital, Fraser Cain, recently released a video with the help of Universe Today discussing the particulars of it.

big_bangAddressing the particulars of the Big Bang Theory, Cain lists the many contributions made over the past century that has led this so-called theory to become the scientific consensus has come to exist. They are, in a nutshell:

  1. Cosmic Expanion: In 1912, astronomer Vesto Slipher calculated the speed and distance of “spiral nebulae” (galaxies) by measuring the light coming from them. He determined most were moving away. In 1924, Edwin Hubble determined that these galaxies were outside the Milky Way. He postulates that the motion of galaxies away from our own indicates a common point of origin.
  2. Abundance of Elements: Immediately after the big bang, only hydrogen existed and compressed into a tiny area of space under incredible heat and pressure. Like a star, this turned hydrogen into helium and other basic elements. Looking out into the universe (and hence back in time) scientists have found that great distances, the ratios of hydrogen to basic elements is consistent with what is found in star’s interiors.
  3. Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation: In the 1960’s, using a radiotelescope, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered a background radio emission coming from every direction in the sky, day or night. This was consistent with the Big Bang Theory, which predicted that after the Big Bang, there would have been a release of radiation which then expanded billions of light years in all directions and cooled to the point that it shifted to invisible, microwave radiation.
  4. Large Scale Structure: The formation of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmos are very similar. This is consistent with belief that after the initial Big Bang, the matter created would have cooled and began to coalesce into large collections, which is what galaxies, local galactic groups, and super-clusters are.

These are the four pillars of the Big Bang Theory, but they are no means the only points in its favor. In addition, there are numerous observational clues, such as how we have yet to observe a stars in the universe older than 13 billion years old, and fluctuations in the CMB that indicate a lack of uniformity. On top of that, there is the ongoing research into the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, which are sure to bear fruit in the near future if all goes well.

big_bang1In short, scientists have a pretty good idea of how the universe came to be and the evidence all seems to confirm it. And some mysteries remain, we can be relatively confident that ongoing experimentation and research will come up with new and creative ways to shed light on the final unknowns. Little reason then why the Big Bang Theory enjoys such widespread support, much like Evolution, Gravity, and General Relativity.

Be sure to check out the full video, and subscribe to Universe Today for additional informative videos, podcasts, and articles. As someone who used to write for them, I can tell you that it’s a pretty good time, and very enlightening!

Creating Dark Matter: The DarkLight Project several decades now, the widely accepted theory is that almost 27% of the universe is fashioned out of an invisible, mysterious mass known as “dark matter”. Originally theorized by Fritz Zwicky in 1933, the concept was meant to account for the “missing mass” apparent in galaxies in clusters. Since that time, many observations have suggested its existence, but definitive proof has remained elusive.

Despite our best efforts, no one has ever observed dark matter directly (nor dark energy, which is theorized to make up the remaining 68% of the universe). It’s acceptance as a theory has been mainly due to the fact that it makes the most sense, beating out theories like Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), which seek to redefine the laws of gravity as to why the universe behaves the way it does., MIT recently green-lighted the DarkLight project – a program aimed at creating tiny tiny amounts of dark matter using a particle accelerator. In addition to proving that dark matter exists, the project team has a more ambitious goal of figuring out dark matter behaves – i.e. how it exerts gravitational attraction on the ordinary matter that makes up the visible universe.

The leading theory for dark matter used to be known as WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles). This theory stated that dark matter only interacted with normal matter via gravity and the weak nuclear force, making them very hard to detect. However, a recent research initiative challenged this view and postulates that dark matter may actually consist of massive photons that couple to electrons and positrons. do this, DarkLight will use the particle accelerator at the JeffersonJefferson Lab’s Labs Free-Electron Laser Free Electron Lase in Virginia to bombard an oxygen target with a stream of electrons with one megawatt of power. This will be able to test for these massive photons and, it is hoped, create this theorized form of dark matter particles. The dark matter, if it’s created, will then immediately decay into two other particles that can be (relatively) easily detected.

At this point, MIT estimates that it will take a couple of years to build and test the DarkLight experiment, followed by another two years of smashing electrons into the target and gathering data. By then, it should be clear whether dark matter consists of A prime particles, or whether scientists and astronomers have barking up the wrong tree these many years. if we can pinpoint the basis of dark matter, it would be a monumental finding that would greatly our enhance our understanding of the universe, and dwarf even the discovery of the Higgs Boson. After that, the only remaining challenge will be to find a way to observe and understand the other 68% of the universe!