World Of Illusion

Under one cosmic theory, we reside on a gigantic hologram.

The mere possibility that everything we know and love, including our own being, is the result of information projected on a 3D video resonates with the familiar plots of science fiction movies. However, this is exactly what physicists stumbled upon while exploring the known limits of the universe. If this ultimate illusion turns out to be true, shockingly, we reside on a gigantic hologram, and probably are a little more advanced than the holographic images we create now.


This outlandish idea, known as the holographic principle, suggests that our 3D world is a profound illusion, and is the pure materialization of natural laws painted on the distant cosmic surface. Our daily experience and life itself are just one of several ways by which this information takes shape in our world, and we perceive it the way we do, calling it reality.

All the actions occurring in our universe, in the form of matter, energy or even life, are the incidentals of information encoded on the cosmic edge. In other words, even we are characters of a holographic movie that unfolds as the cosmic wheel spins. The idea may sound absurd, but it is the natural extension of the vital knowledge we gained through the study of the cosmos and one of its most bizarre products — black holes. While it might send jitters and shatter the general sense of common folks, for researchers like Craig Hogan, director of Fermilab Center for Particle Astrophysics in Batavia, Ill., who is pursuing this rather strange idea encouraged by some recent experimental results, there is a strong possibility that “ We are all living in a cosmic hologram.”

Nearly a decade ago, in an effort to save one of the pillars of fundamental physics, namely, the law of conservation of energy, the famous Dutch theoretical physicist and Nobel Prize winner Gerard’t Hooft put forward a daring proposal on quantum gravity at the horizon of a black hole, which laid the foundations of the holographic principle.

Until then, a prolonged Black Hole war had been waged in theoretical physics for decades, threatening one of the foundations of quantum physics. While studying the strange features of black holes, the well-known British physicist Stephen Hawking, theoretically proved that the black holes are not really black because they emit radiations, now known as Hawking radiation. This emission could eventually destroy a black hole as it evaporates and disappears without any trail.


Hawking also asserted that this emitted radiation is featureless and devoid of any information. As a result, the complete evaporation of the black hole would erase all the past information permanently, including how it was formed in the first place, an idea that challenges one of the tenets of modern physics. Physicists may agree about the information scrambling, but not on information erasing, which is theoretically unacceptable. We can always construct the past picture of an object or action from the current information, however long and hard the road may be. Consider for instance an accident involving vehicles. It is possible, though often hard, to pinpoint what happened just before the accident. Similarly, physicists believe that we can always make a past construct from the current information and that information is never lost completely. Imagine how we could generate the big bang picture, even after 14 billion years, from the information that is remnant of the bang, though it was an extraordinarily hard task. To put it simply, permanent removal of information is impossible. “Thou shall not erase the information” was almost a commandment. Hawking’s argument posed a threat to this decree.

The echoes of the Black Hole information paradox still reverberate in the scientific community. With Leonard Susskind of the California Institute of Technology on one side and Hawking on the other, a battle had been waged for decades with both modern-day warriors of physics reluctant to concede. Finally, Hawking agreed that black holes are information scramblers rather than information erasers.

Improbably, physicists like paradoxes like the above one. The seemingly unsolvable paradoxes can lead to path breaking insights. When the black hole war was over, the ultimate winner was human intelligence and knowledge. It provided a completely new way of thinking how space and time could originate quantum mechanically. Space and time could emerge from the quantum convulsions, resulting in a remarkable paradigm shift about space, time, matter, and bits of information.


When physicists found they could save the conservation of information and it must be retrievable, it also provided the idea that this information must be recorded somewhere else. Again, the best possible place to look for it was in black holes. No one knows what happens exactly inside a black hole, but everyone agrees that the surface surrounding the black hole — the event horizon — provides information about the black hole. In other words, we can generate a picture of the black hole by retrieving the information etched in the two dimensional surface surrounding it. In fact, the so-called pictures of the black hole, we see, are basically the information that surrounds it. Without this information, there is no black hole — neither the picture nor the imagination.

Now, Susskind and Gerard ‘t Hooft extended this argument, refining the mathematics, to picture a cosmic black hole. Scientists have known for long time that information plays a key role in the creation of a system. Our computers and robots are just metals and wires if no information is exchanged in the form of bits. Our brain is inanimate if no information is carried by the neurons. Our genes are futile if no information is available from DNA that instructs how to function. In everything we know information is the key.

Similarly the entire information about our universe must be encoded elsewhere. Like a hologram on our credit cards, which contains the information in a thin film, and can generate 3D objects when viewed in proper light, the reality we tempt to believe is actually just one way of viewing information printed on a distant cosmic film. What we see and experience as reality are the shadows of the truth.

This is reminiscent of a metaphor in which the Greek philosopher Plato portrayed his views of human ignorance in The Republic, using an allegory called the parable of the cave. In the allegory, Plato compares humans to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. To the back of the prisoners, under the defense of the parapet, lie the puppeteers who are casting shadows on the wall in which the prisoners are perceiving reality. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not really see. They would mistake the appearance of objects for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) are real, and they would know nothing about the original objects. Those who escape the cave could go out and recognize the true reality, but they would be treated as madmen by their fellow prisoners if they returned and explained what they saw. The world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a pitiable copy of it, and the real world can only be comprehended intellectually. Perhaps, this parable is meant to indicate mankind’s struggle to know the truth through reasoning.


The majesty and beauty of our universe is the projection of data that exists outside our accessible universe! How could this be true? We not only see and hear our world, but experience it through other senses as well. We can touch the objects but not the hologram images — a reason we call them virtual. Listen to what researchers say. In the coming years, we will be able to interact with 3-D holograms in real time. As we march forward, technology will bring movies and TV shows in 3D and the cameras that generate them will get more compact, even fitting into cell phones. At that point, we will be able to interact with photos, browse the Web and chat in entirely different ways that is considered off limits now.

The 3D telepresence is not very far. It has been reported that researchers from the University of Tokyo have developed 3D holograms that can be touched with bare hands. There is no law of nature that prohibits such a scenario. With sufficient time and technology we could simulate our own images and interact with them. This, as the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom suggests, opens up the probability that we are living in a simulated environment created by an advanced civilization. An advanced civilization that existed somewhere in the universe that had our current capabilities, say, millions of years ago, and if we exist long enough we might do the same.

But, for the physicists that is a purely philosophical exercise. For them, it must be possible to gauge or at least find the clues to the true nature of the universe in a scientific fashion. The gravitational wave detectors are one of the most sensitive scientific equipments that can measure ripples in the space-time fabric caused by cosmic events, such as star collapse. One such detector known as GEO 600, which can detect a fluctuation of an atomic radius over a distance from the Earth to the sun, recently recorded a noise that kept researchers scratching their heads for a while.

Craig Hogan of Fermilab thinks this as a vindication of what he has suggested earlier. According to him, the noise could be from the lowest possible units of space and time that can exist, called Planck scales. He suspects this fuzziness is emerging from the smallest units of the ingredients of the universe, and the universe is not continuous as Einstein thought, but discrete units of space and time. The holographic noise the detector is receiving is an indication that on smaller scales space-time is quantized instead of smooth and continuous.

The grand picture of the universe we see is the result of the quantum graininess that lies at the bottom of reality. Imagine we zoom in a picture, and as we zoom more and more, we come across the pixels that make up the picture and then it becomes fuzzy. The tiny discrete pixels generate a continuous and smooth picture for us on a larger scale. All the information we can conceive about that picture is encoded on the pixels, which are not continuous, but distinct. Just as a big picture emerges from the pixels, our universe is the culmination of bits of information that exist at the quantum level and so do we. Particles and energy are nothing but carriers of this information to create the universe.


At present, the holographic principle is in its hypothetical stage motivated by black hole theory. But at Fermilab scientists led by Hogan have devised a holographic interferometer to advance further observation.

It is a stretch of wild imagination to state the we are holograms, but we cannot completely rule it out either. But the choice is clear: as some prisoners did in Plato’s cave, we should venture out and seek the truth about reality or we could continue to say the shadow is real. Maybe we will find that our universe itself is embedded in a cosmic black hole and acting according to the information inscribed on its surface. Unless we get out, no light will reach us from beyond the event horizon.


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