Why the holographic principle is so exciting
OREANDA-NEWS. One of the most cutting-edge theories in theoretical physics, the holographic principle, holds holds that the universe is 3D image projected off a 2D surface, much like a hologram emerges from a sheet of photographic film.
“In my view, the discovery of holographic entanglement and its generalizations has been one of the most exciting developments in theoretical physics in this century so far,” says Matthew Headrick, associate professor of physics at Brandeis University. “What other new concepts are waiting to be discovered, and what other unexpected connections? We can’t wait to find out.”
If Headrick and his colleagues can prove the holographic principle, they will have taken a major step toward achieving the holy grail in theoretical physics, a grand unified theory that can explain all the laws and principles governing reality. “We’re not there yet,” Headrick says, “but we’re making progress.”
Since 2016, Headrick has served as deputy director of the It from Qubit: Quantum Fields, Gravity and Information project, an effort of 18 scientists and their labs to determine whether the holographic principle is correct. The Simons Foundation funds the work.
Here’s the intro
We’ll start small, very small. It’s long been thought that the universe at its most fundamental level is made up of subatomic particles like electrons or quarks. But now physicists believe those particles are made up of something even smaller—information.
When physicists talk about information, they mean the data that describe physical phenomena. The mass of an object, the direction of the spin of an electron, and e=mc^2 are all units of information.
If you gathered all the information that’s out there, you would have the complete instruction booklet for building everything in our universe.
Qubits are bizarre
The tiniest levels of the universe are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. Here things start to get very weird and counterintuitive.
Units of information in the realm of quantum mechanics are called qubits.
Headrick studies the quantum entanglement of qubits, a very strange phenomenon unique to the realm of quantum mechanics.
Suppose you have two qubits whose values can be either 1 or 0. When the qubits are entangled, their values become correlated. When you measure the first qubit, its value might turn out to be 0. Check the other qubit, its value might be 0, too. But what if the first qubit has a value of 1? The second qubit’s value could also change to 1.
It’s as if the qubits communicate with each other, with the first telling the second, “Hey, this physicist over here just found out I’m a 1. You better be a 1, too.” Amazingly and bizarrely, this communication can happen over vast distances with messages seemingly relayed faster than the speed of light.
Also, qubits are flat
In most cases, when you drop an object into a jar—we’ll use a jelly bean—it will fall inside and take up space. Put in another jelly bean, the amount of unfilled space shrinks and the volume of the jelly beans increases.
It doesn’t work this way with qubits. Qubits won’t fall into the jar but instead spread out on a surface. Add a qubit, it will adhere to the side of the jar. Add another qubit, it will do the same. Increasing the number of qubits doesn’t increase the volume. Instead, it increases the surface area the qubits take up.
More and more qubits spreading out across a flat surface—this is how you get the two-dimensional plane described by the holographic principle.
So how do you get three dimensions?
Once you move beyond the realm of the teeny-tiny, the laws of quantum mechanics no longer work. Strange as it sounds, on the macrocosmic level, you need a different set of laws of physics to explain what’s going on.
Enter Einstein’s theory of relativity. To calculate cosmic events like the path followed by light or the orbit of Mercury around the sun, you need the theory of relativity.
The building blocks of relativity are also units of information. Now though, they’re called bits.
And bits behave in a way that’s much more familiar to us. They exist in three dimensions.