Cogito ergo sum… a hologram?

by Brian Keaney

As an undergrad at a school with a great philosophy program I heard lots of bad jokes.  Most philosophy majors were either on their way to becoming lawyers or priests, neither of which is known for their sense of humor.  Perhaps the most common was the standard Saturday night AIM away message of “Bibo ergo sum.”  I drink, therefore I am.

It was a play on Descartes‘ famous maxim that cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am.  I still remember pondering the implications of this statement when I read it in my own philosophy class.  Could it be possible that everything I’ve ever known is a hoax? That the laptop in front of me doesn’t really exist?  Niether does my Jeep, or my bowl of Cheerios, or my mother?  That this is all just some big cosmic joke?

Turns out, it might just be.  New Scientist magazine is reporting that our entire universe might be a hologram (registration required).  No one is saying for certain, but it does explain some background noise researchers have been getting while trying to measure gravitational waves.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard ‘t Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The “holographic principle” challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.

Of all the sciences, physics has always been my favorite.  I have a copy of Einstein’s book explaining the special and general theories of relativity to laymen like myself – and I even understood it.  I still have plenty of questions, and even a pecking order for them.  At the top of the list is about the structure of the atom (all the empty space shouldn’t work, and how electrons get from one orbit to another) and how the universe could possibly curve and thus provide a boundry (by definition it seems it should be infinite).

This, however, has to jump to near the top of the list.  I always assumed one day I would get the opportunity to ask a physicist about them.  Now I’m back to worrying that just because I can ask the question, that doesn’t mean she will be able to answer it.  After all, she might not really be standing in front of me.

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