The universe as a hologram?

June 24th, 2011

The topics were broad and varied: From artificial intelligence to the dark side of the universe, from the latest thinking on dreaming to an exploration of genius. I had only one night open during the 4th Annual World Science Festival (WSF) held June 1-5 in New York City. So which leading-edge-of-thought program would I choose?

As I scrolled through the event listing, I found a most captivating title: “A Thin Sheet of Reality: The Universe as a Hologram” along with this description:

“What if life as we know it reflects only one side of the full story? Some of the world’s leading physicists think that this may be the case. They believe that our reality is a projection—sort of like a hologram—of laws and processes that exist on a thin surface surrounding us at the edge of the universe. Although the notion seems outlandish, it’s a long-standing theory that initially emerged years ago from scientists studying black holes; recently, a breakthrough in string theory propelled the idea into the mainstream of physics. Join us for an intriguing discussion on the cutting-edge results that may just change the way we view reality.”

I was all in when I read the who’s who of theoretical physicists on the panel:

Gerardus ’t Hooft was born on July 5, 1946, Den Helder, the Netherlands. He received his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1972 at Utrecht University His work there would later earn him, together with his advisor Martinus Veltman, the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Leonard Susskind is the Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, and one of the discoverers of string theory, a candidate for a theory that unifies all laws of physics. An award-winning author, he is a proponent of the idea that our universe is one of an infinite number.

Raphael Bousso is recognized for discovering the general relation between the curved geometry of space-time and its information content, known as the “holographic principle.”

Herman Verlinde is renowned for his influential contributions to string theory and its application in mathematics, particle physics, cosmology, and black hole physics, His research has been recognized through several awards and fellowships from the Packard Foundation, the Sloan Foundation, and the Royal Dutch Academy of Science.

Much of the discussion that night was beyond anything I’d heard before. I find the holographic principle sublimely fascinating. And according to Leonard Susskind, it’s clearly the wildest idea since quantum physics. And that puts us on the cusp of a major paradigm of how we view the world.

I continue to ponder a few other provocative ideas presented by these scientists who embrace and challenge the mysteries and “laws” of nature. I think often about two ideas in particular.

The first was from Raphael Bousso who explained that information encoded in light rays that have traveled for millions of years can carry bits of information from the past. “Information is not lost,” he said.

And the idea I think about the most was Gerard ‘t Hooft’s: “There must be something under quantum mechanics…Perhaps a pre-quantum world of information.” He said there are mysteries in the standard model theories of what happens in the world. And the only way to understand nature is to “ask nasty, confusing questions.” He thought that statement would be good copy for a holographic principle t-shirt. Professional energizer that I am, I know I’d wear it!

For related reading, please check out Scientific American magazine editor George Musser’s WSF blog for his pre-Festival interview with Leonard Susskind.

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2 Responses to “The universe as a hologram?”

  1. Nojjie says:

    Science rules; rational thought rocks; and we owe everything to the bravest of all explorers. Where would the world be without explorers – people willing to poke their heads out of caves to see what’s over the next hill?

  2. Julie Tarney says:

    Thanks very much for your kind comments. And for your advice, too!