Is the Universe a Hologram Even in Brooklyn?

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Early in Annie Hall, young, Brooklyn-born Alvy Singer is depressed because he’s just learned that the universe is expanding, meaning that everything is being pulled ever farther apart from everything else. It was a reasonably new concept in the WWII era of Alvy’s childhood, as it was only in 1929 that Edwin Hubble made the measurements that proved that the Andromeda galaxy is receding from us Milky Way folk, and we from it.

Alvy grasps that this matters only at the galactic level, but he’s still depressed by the idea that the universe will, as he puts it, “break apart, and that would be the end of everything.” His mother, though, is more pragmatic. “What has the universe got to do with it?” she kvetches. “You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!”

But what would Alvy’s mom say were they to reply their parley a half-century later and Alvy fell into a funk about the idea that our universe is just a hologram?

That idea came to us by way of a succession of superstring theorists—Charles Thorn, Gerard ‘t Hooft, Leonard Susskind, et al.—working on a method of reconciling inconsistencies between general relativity and quantum physics. But it was Juan Maldacena who in 1997 proposed what’s come to be known as the holographic principle, which Nature describes as “an audacious model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. The mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity.”

Now comes the culmination of a series of papers by Yoshifumi Hyakutake and his team of researchers at Ibaraki University, which provides what Nature calls “compelling evidence” supporting the holographic principle.

What is that evidence? Look, I’m just an ant, and ants don’t get nearly enough math in school to follow the argument. But let’s pretend that not only is Hyakutake’s math good, he has stone cold proven that our universe is indeed a hologram. What does that mean for us here in Brooklyn?

It might mean determinism is definitely the case. Consider Brian Greene’s statement that if the holographic principle is fact, “the universe’s most fundamental ingredients […] would reside on a bounding surface and not in the universe’s interior. What we experience in the ‘volume’ of the universe—in the bulk, as physicists often call it—would be determined by what takes place on the bounding surface, much as what we see in a holographic projection is determined by information encoded on a bounding piece of plastic. The laws of physics would act as the universe’s laser, illuminating the real processes of the cosmos—processes taking place on a thin, distant surface—and generating the holographic illusions of daily life” (The Fabric of the Cosmos, pp. 482–483).

Naturally, a deterministic universe means we’ve got no real freedom here in Brooklyn. But determinism’s disconcerting implications exist only if we’re bound and determined to wrap ourselves up in concepts of past and future and to break up our world into separate parts, just like NYC is broken up into boroughs, a way of seeing that can for some purposes be useful but should be seen as a manmade construct and not an inherent reality.

In 1980, when holography was still in its infancy, theoretical physicist David Bohm was already using the hologram to make just this point. As he explains in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, “The key new feature of [the hologram] is that each part contains information about the whole object (so that there is no point-to-point correspondence of object and recorded image). That is to say, the form and structure of the entire object may be said to be enfolded within each region of the photographic record. When one shines light on any region, this form and structure are unfolded to give a recognizable image of the whole object once again” (pp. 224–225, italics in original).

For Bohm, the upshot of this consideration is a new notion he called “the implicate order, by which “one may say that everything is enfolded into everything. This contrasts with the explicate order now dominant in physics in which things are unfolded in the sense that each thing lies only in its particular region of space (and time) and outside regions belonging to other things” (p. 225, italics in original).

What that means in Brooklyn is that there is no Brooklyn, at least not as far as that Brooklyn is (t)here or now. It’s all how we perceive it, “we” being just another of those perceptions that falsely break up the whole.

Naturally, to some degree Alvy, his mom, and the rest of us can’t help it. But only to some degree. As Bohm points out, groundbreaking infant research by Jean Piaget

has made it clear that a consciousness of what to us is the familiar order of space, time causality, etc. (which is essentially what we have been calling the explicate order) operates only to a small extent in the earliest phases of life of the human individual. [… F]or the most part infants learn this content […] One reason why we do not generally notice the primacy of the implicate order is that we have become so habituated to the explicate order, and have emphasized it so much in our thought and language, that we tend strongly to feel that our primary experience is of that which is implicate and manifest. […] This then contributes to the formation of an experience in which these static and fragmented features are often so intense that the more transitory and subtle features of the unbroken flow (e.g., the ‘transformations’ of musical notes) generally tend to pale into such seeming insignificance that one is, at best, only dimply conscious of them. Thus, an illusion may arise in which the manifest static and fragmented content of consciousness is experienced as the very basis of reality[,] and from this illusion one may apparently obtain proof of the correctness of that mode of thought in which this content is taken as fundamental. (pp. 261–262)

The potential payoff of such considerations, Bohm says, is no less than a paradigm shift in how humans relate to our existence:

[W]idespread and pervasive distinctions between people (race, nation, family, perception, etc., etc.), which are now preventing mankind from working together for the common good, and indeed, even for survival, have one of the key factors of their origin in a kind of thought that treats things as inherently divided, disconnected, ‘broken up’ into yet smaller constituent parts. […] When man thinks of himself this way, he will inevitably tend to defend the needs of his own ‘Ego’ against those of the others; or, if he identifies with a group of people of the same kind, he will defend this group in a similar way. He cannot seriously think of mankind as the basic reality, whose claims come first. Even if he does try to consider the needs of mankind he tends to regard humanity as being separate from nature, and so on. […] If he thinks of the totality as constituted of independent fragments, that is how his mind will tend to operate, but if he can include everything coherently and harmoniously in an overall whole that is undivided, unbroken, and without a border (for every border is a division or break) then his mind will tend to move in a similar way, and from this will flow an orderly action within the whole. (pp. xii–xiii)

So yeah, it turns out that one way or another Brooklyn is a hologram, in that it’s a projection—by us, from the brane, whatever. But we see it, we feel it. And whether or not we really have free will, as far as we’re concerned we seem to have some say in how we Brooklynites put together the whole shebang.

So why not make it more harmonious? That’s probably how it really is, anyway. What have we got to lose?

Love and formic acid,
G.I.ant

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G.I.ant is tired. You can contact him (but don't wake him! Blessed are the sleepers, for they may dream of a better world) at greggory@greggorymoore.com.

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