Thursday, December 10, 2015

Universe Not a Hologram

From the "duh" files, a new experiment conducted at Fermilab shows that the universe is probably not a hologram. But you already knew that, right? Here's the deal - about two years ago, a computer simulation was set up showing that the complex dynamics found in cosmological models such as string theory could be modeled in only two dimensions and still produce correct results. This was actually a pretty important discovery, as it showed that you don't really need the 11 or 12 dimensions found in string theory to model physical behavior. It validated what I've been saying for a long time, that even if string theory puts forth an accurate model, it's far too baroque and complex to be the best possible representation.

Predictably, New Agers took the announcement of this discovery to proclaim some version of "the universe is a hologram!" which to their way of thinking translated back into their all time favorite tenet, "the universe is an illusion!" But that's not what the simulation implied at all. It just showed that a physical universe with only two dimensions could behave as if it had three or more. Take a look at a hologram sometime. It's true that the third dimension it shows is "illusionary," but the hologram itself is clearly a physical object with fixed properties. Just because the image it shows is created by the dynamics of light, it doesn't mean you can psychically control it with your mind or something.

The Fermilab researchers led by Craig Hogan were looking for signs of constructive or destructive wave interference within the fabric of space itself, using a device called a holometer. This sort of wave interference is what creates the three-dimensional appearance of holograms, and should be present if a third dimension is being projected in a similar manner.

It’s an extremely difficult thing to detect, because there are so many other things that could be mistaken for a jittery signal, including wind and traffic noise. The early signs weren’t promising when the first preliminary results (based on an hour or so of data) came in back in April. So it’s probably not all that surprising that the final analysis proved equally fruitless.

The $2.5 million experiment was controversial from the get-go, with the inventors of the holographic principle counting among the naysayers. So expect to see a bit of schadenfreude making the rounds of the theoretical physics community today. As Sabine Hossenfelder, a physicist at Nordita in Sweden and one of the more outspoken critics of the experiment, tweeted: “Holometer results are out: Nothing. Not surprising, as the idea underlying it is nonsense.”

But Hogan remains relentlessly optimistic. After all, a null result is still an advance of sorts, and it’s just his particular theoretical model of how this might work that has been ruled out. “This is just the beginning of the story,” he told Symmetry. “We’ve developed a new way of studying space and time that we didn’t have before. We weren’t even sure we could attain the sensitivity we did.”

The fact is that finding no interference is just as much a data point as finding interference would be. Also, as Hogan notes, the experiment did develop a completely new measuring instrument that probably will prove useful for future experiments. To a real scientist, a result is a result, whether it confirms or disproves your working hypothesis.

As far as the New Agers go, I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the "world as illusion" model is the result of mistranslating texts on Eastern mysticism in the late 1800's and early 1900's. For example, if you actually study Buddhism, you'll realize that while the tradition focuses on working with your mind, there is also the element of Karma - the "law of cause and effect." New Agers interpret this as unrelated bad stuff happens to you when you're bad, and unrelated good stuff happens to you when you're good, a sort of synthesis of Karma and Christian morality. But prior to them, no tradition ever believed that. Karma, as the law of cause and effect, refers to the behavior of the physical world itself.

Western magick has a much cleaner model for this than any of the New Age systems. Mind is microcosm, and the physical world is macrocosm. Your mind is always being influenced by sensory data received from the environment, and this is "illusionary" - but only in so much as your experience of the world is constructed by your brain from various sensory inputs. That does not imply that macrocosm isn't really out there as well, and the consistency of physical laws is a strong argument that what your brain is displaying to you is something other than an imaginary world.

Even the most skeptical scientists would agree with everything in the previous paragraph. Where I part company with them is that I believe changes at the microcosmic level can propagate back to the macrocosmic level - that is, that mind can influence matter. Note that I say influence, not "deterministically control" matter, as another very popular New Age error contends. Magick, like any other phenomenon, has limits. If it were all-powerful, you probably would seen practitioners running around shooting fireballs from their fingertips and so forth. Not because doing so is strictly necessary, but because it would be really fucking cool.

So at any rate, the evidence is in that we live in a three or four (depending on how you classify time) dimensional universe after all. Which, really, is just fine with me.

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Keith Strickland said...

Actually, I think the recent 'universe can be thought of as a hologram' idea sprang out of the debate on how information interacts with black holes:

Scott Stenwick said...

Yes, that is exactly where it came from. If quantum information going into a black hole has to be preserved, and light cannot escape, then the implication is that all the quantum information that goes into a black hole can in some fashion be extracted from the event horizon, which behaves like a two-dimensional sheet wrapped around the black hole at a specific distance.

It's actually a very cool principle, and if verified it would have a lot of implications for simplifying the number of dimensions required by the various cosmological theories - some of which currently require up to twelve separate dimensions in order to work propertly. Too bad the media wants to push the whole "hologram = illusion" nonsense.