Archive for September 11th, 2008

A Holographic Universe?

For years now I’ve been awaiting yesterday morning’s big event: the large hadron collidor at CERN (on the border of France and Switzerland) was turned on, with the goal of recreating conditions just after the big bang (as in a millionth of a second after). It’s not clear what will be found, but given the puzzles and uncertainties in existing particle physics, it’s virtually certain that we’ll discover a lot about the nature of our reality.

I’ve had a fascination with modern physics, in particular particle physics, for quite some time. I don’t understand the math, and the concepts are often really tricky. From renormalization to quantum chromo dynamics and the electro-weak theory (including quantum electro-dynamics) trying to figure out what is going on and what it means is difficult, especially for us lay people on the outside. Yet it is important for anyone truly curious about what this world is all about, what is the nature of reality.

It appears that ‘matter,’ or ‘particles’ are actually just ripples in fields. Moreover, these ripples are probabilistic, meaning that they don’t have any particular fixed state. Somehow they seem to fix in our experience of reality, but we’re not really sure why. Also, they have mass — some are quite massive (relatively speaking), others have no mass (like a photon or electron). Moreover, photons traveling at the speed of light do not experience time or space. Is a photon ‘everywhere all the time’ or ‘nowhere none of the time’? Our language can’t really capture the state of affairs.

One theory on why there is mass is that while we know about electro-magnetic fields and in fact a variety of different fields, there could be a field we don’t know about, called the Higgs field. The Higgs field would permeate all of reality (i.e., the space-time reality we experience) and mass would come basically because things are slowed down by that field, much as how moving through air is easier than moving through molasses. If the field exists, a particle called the Higgs particle should be produced at the energies the new accelerator can achieve.

Since I’m not a physicist, I don’t want to get too deep into the science here. Rather, for me the interesting thing it to reflect on what all this means for understanding our world. First, the more I learn about modern physics and particle physics, the more I realize that the world we experience of solid objects that operate according to precise laws is more or less an illusion. Solid matter is almost completely made up of empty space, and all laws are probabilistic. There are other weird things such as non-locality (a particle can affect another particle a long distance away instantaneously, apparently sending information faster than the speed of light, something which should be impossible) and quantum tunneling. There is a absurdly low probability my computer could suddenly tunnel through my desk — that would require the zillions of particles to all at once do the improbable thing of tunneling simultaneously. But some tunneling does occur, our sun depends on it.

So what does this all mean? Back in 1991 I bought the book The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot, and after having read it once I put it aside. Last spring I was talking to a friend, a former student here who transferred down to Georgetown, and she noted how she took a course with Karl Pribram, the 90 year old neurosurgeon who developed the idea of seeing the brain as a hologram. That caused me to recall the book (which discusses the ideas of Pribram and physicist David Bohm extensively), and start re-reading.

I’ve never felt comfortable with the notion that “things” are “out there” as separate objects from myself. First of all, experience itself is very subjective. It is a series of sensations which I interpret into pictures, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. The only reason we believe there is something external to ourselves is because of causality and lack of volitional control over our reality. I cannot choose to fly or stay young, aging and gravity will always pull me down. If I jump out my window, the fall will cause me injury or death. Therefore, how can there not be something external to myself which limits what my mind can experience, or what I can or cannot do?

From quantum physics, however, it seems that almost everything is possible, you simply have different probabilities. Moreover, the observer seems to matter. While some hold on to the interpretation that says everything is in a state of flux until it is observed, that seems a pretty weak assumption. What is meant by observe? Why is human observation/measurement so important? While one can simply accept it and do the calculations (well, I can’t do that kind of calculation!), it’s more plausible to believe that all exists in every probability at the same time. Probabilities may depend upon the way the universe is being looked at. And that’s where the hologram theory comes in.

Like a holographic image, you can get a lot from a little, and angles matter. Pribram looked at memory, and notes that memory doesn’t seem to be located within any particular place in a brain (coincidentally, I heard a story on NPR about how catepillars retain memories when they become moths, despite having their entire system, including the brain, essentially disintegrated during metamorphisis). Bohm saw the universe as much like an information stream, which we interpret, presumably from a particular angle or perspective.

What I like about all of this is how it meshes with the kind of philosophy I’ve been leaning towards: the absolute idealism of someone like Berkeley (for whom the ‘hologram’ is projected from the mind of God), and unity of all by people like Plotinus, or the eastern philosophies. Now, believing a controversial scientific theory because it complements my pre-existing philosophical biases isn’t likely to persuade others who hold different beliefs. Yet there is something about how this kind of image conforms to my experience of reality — not just the physical experience, but my subjective/intuitional experience — that is compelling. It also is far better able to deal with things like how photons do not experience time or distance, how subatomic particles seem to break down to being nothing more than ripples in fields. All of this, combined with quantum puzzles, the space-time continuum as an entity that is unified, etc., push towards a radically different view of reality than we’ve had before.

And, if ideas are the stuff of the universe, if our material reality is a kind of illusion that at some level we create, and if there is an interconnected unity to all of existence, what does that mean for our experience of life? I know for many that’s just an irrelevant tangent, a meaningless contemplation in a world where bills must be paid, people fight wars, and it’s obvious other people are different and there are a variety of things and elements in this world which we cannot control. I’m compelled to read more, think about these issues, and try to find their relevance to my life. After all, what’s the point in living if you don’t try to contemplate what this life is all about?! And it seems to me the more I think about these things and try to learn more about them, the easier it is to find some kind of satisfaction and happiness in my day to day routine. I’m not really sure why, but looking at the world this way works for me. But I’ll keep trying to learn, and eagerly await the new insights the LHC at CERN will present.