“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.
The 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?
In 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.
These 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.
To 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.
And 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: