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Planets in space
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The Observable Universe

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Far-Out Physics

Are We Living in a Hologram?

Why you should care

Because reality as we know it — ourselves included — might actually be an illusion.

If the Tupac hologram at Coachella blew your mind, chew on this: Recent research supports the theory that we may be living inside a hologram. In simplest terms, our reality — the region of the universe we can observe — might just be a 3-D depiction of reality.  

Two dimensions, zero gravity

What space is like outside the boundaries of our known universe, according to the holographic theory

But first, a mini physics lesson. The universe we inhabit has three spatial dimensions: length, width and depth. A hologram is basically a three-dimensional image of an object laser-imprinted onto a two-dimensional surface, which has length and width, but no depth — in other words, a flat surface, like a sheet of paper. The 3-D image appears when light hits the 2-D surface at a cetain angle. Although they look very different, both the 3-D image and the flat 2-D surface are depictions of the same object.

So what does it mean to be in a hologram? Simply put, it means that our known universe — the part we inhabit and can scientifically observe — and a simpler, 2-D region far beyond it depict the same reality. Neither is real; both are representations of reality.

Dig even deeper into the science: Click on the Why You Should Care box to reveal more.

Sounds freaky, but that theory is gaining traction after the release of two studies led by Ibaraki University physicist Yoshifumi Hyakutake last November. In one study, he created a computer model of a 10-dimensional universe containing a black hole — a region where gravity prevents anything, even light, from escaping. He then computed the black hole’s internal energy and compared it to that of a one-dimensional, gravityless outer region, described in a separate paper. Sure enough, the calculations matched.

Artist rendition of black hole

Yes, you could say [we are] an illusion, or an emergent phenomenon.

— Theoretical astrophysicist Juan Maldacena 

Hyakutake’s model doesn’t quite resemble our universe, but it hints at a tantalizing possibility. His observation that the two vastly different worlds in his model can depict the same reality could also hold true for our known 3-D universe and a 2-D, gravityless plane far, far beyond it.

Hyakutake’s findings have caused a stir among physicists, since they might help yield the long-sought “Theory of Everything” that would finally reconcile the field’s two most central theories. The first, general relativity, describes how the gravitational pulls of planets and other massive objects can warp time and space. Meanwhile, quantum mechanics explains atomic and subatomic phenomena, which behave very differently — but it doesn’t explain gravity. The holographic theory suggests that space, time, gravity, and all the other complicated stuff in a universe that follows the laws of general relativity could correspond to a much simpler, gravityless model governed by quantum mechanics.

If the holographic theory does apply to our universe, would that mean reality as we know it is actually an illusion? “Yes, you could say [we are] an illusion, or an emergent phenomenon,” says Juan Maldacena, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Insitute for Advanced Study. “If we lived in such a universe we would be, in some sense, approximate descriptions.” It’s not just philosophical mumbo-jumbo — it’s physics. 

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Meet The Author Melissa Pandika

Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with eye to all things science, medicine and more. Like? Distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.

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