A Fermilab scientist works on the laser beams at the heart of the Holometer experiment. Photo: Fermilab
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Particle accelerator experiment begins search for evidence that we live in a hologram

A US particle physics and accelerator laboratory recently announced an exciting new project to answer the question of whether our universe is a giant two-dimensional hologram.

Look around you; weird as it might seem, all this could just be a hologram. According to scientists, it’s possible that our three-dimensional reality is a projection of the information contained in the two-dimensional surface of our universe.

The idea that we may live in a holographic universe stems from String Theory, which attempts to reconcile the relationship between the four fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. String Theory proposes that in all elementary particles exist long thin one-dimensional vibrating filaments of energy - hence "strings" - which are the most fundamental particles. The states of the particles we normally think of as the most fundamental, from protons and neutrons down to quarks and electrons, are actually determined by the quantum states of energy strings.

String Theory was developed by scientists like Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking, and includes the holographic principle - the theory that all of the information within a defined area (like a black hole) is "encoded" along its edges (the event horizon). Accepting this solves a problem with theories about the nature of black holes, but in the process also implies that the same thing is true on a much larger scale. It could be that the universe as we know it is merely a hologram "projected" from the edge of the observable universe, like a film projected against a screen to give the illusion of depth and perspective.

Fermilab, the US particle physics and accelerator laboratory, is now searching for evidence for our holographic universe, in the first experiment of its kind. Physicists there will use a device called a "Holometer" to measure a very specific "holographic noise". Allegedly the most sensitive scientific device ever built, the Holometer works by using two separate interferometers situated on top of one other. Each interferometer sends a one-kilowatt laser beam (the equivalent of 200,000 laser pointers) at a beam splitter. Then, once the light beams are split, they travel down two perpendicular 40 metre arms. Next, the light is reflected off a mirror back to the beam splitter, where the two beams finally recombine. However, during this journey, even the tiniest vibrations can interfere with the light's frequency, causing fluctuations in the brightness of light.

For scientists, the analysis of light fluctuations is critical since it enables them to discover whether space itself is vibrating. However, pinpointing how many of those vibrations are holographic noise, and which has come from other sources, is a difficult task. This is why the Holometer will run tests at millions of cycles per second, in order to avoid interference from other vibrations which shouldn't be present at those frequencies.

Fermilab physicist and lead project manager Aaron Chou explains: "If we find a noise we can’t get rid of, we might be detecting something fundamental about nature – a noise that is intrinsic to space-time. It’s an exciting moment for physics. A positive result will open a whole new avenue of questioning about how space works."

Physicists such as Yoshifumi Hyakutake and colleagues of Ibaraki University in Japan have previously provided convincing evidence for the idea of holographic universes. However, although their observations are compelling, this experiment will seek to provide the first experimental data to explore the theory of a holographic universe.

If the findings from Fermilab's experiment demonstrate that space itself is vibrating, just as matter does, it would support the idea of a holographic universe. The Holometer is now operating at full power and is expected to uncover exciting data about the nature of our universe over the coming year. Craig Hogan, developer of the holographic noise theory and director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, concluded: "We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just like matter is. If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years."

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Why the philosophy of people-rating app Peeple is fundamentally flawed

The app claims that “character is destiny”, and that we should be constantly judged based on our past interactions with others. But do we really believe that? 

Yesterday, you were probably one of the millions around the world who recoiled from their screen in blank-eyed horror at the news: Peeple, an app to be launched in November, will let others rate you, publicly, on the internet, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't opt out, and you don't need to join in order to be rated on a scale of one to five by colleagues, friends, and romantic partners. That boy whose girlfriend you stole? He can review you. The boss you swore at as you quit? Her, too. Those people in your life who think you're just a bit average? Expect a lukewarm three stars from them.

Of all the online rage at the app's announcement, perhaps the most was directed at the fact that you can't remove your own profile. Other users need only submit your mobile number and name to create your page, and you have no control about who posts on there. Reviews of two stars or less are invisible to the public for 48 hours, and you have the chance to review them and try to "work it out" with the rater. Once that time is up, though, the negative reviews appear for all to see. You can comment on them to defend your corner, but unless they break the app's rules, you can't delete them.

There are all kinds of problems with Peeple's premise. Despite its founders' promises that bullying and harassment won't be tolerated (helped slightly by the fact that users must be over 21 and use their full name and Facebook profile to comment), it seems impossible that they'll be able to moderate this effectively. And as we've learned from sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, the majority of reviews are from those seeking to boost the company's reputation, rivals, or angry customers - it's rare to see one that's balanced and helpful.

Yet the biggest flaw of all is the assumption that public rating and shaming has a place, or is even acceptable, in our society. There's something fundamentally broken in the app's presmise, which is summarised in its tagline, "character is destiny".  As western society has moved on from earlier ages where people were fundamentally changed in the eyes of the law and public into "criminals" by virtue of their deeds, or a time where a woman was utterly defined by her sexual acts, we've ceased to accept this as truth. The app's whole set-up assumes that someone who has offended a co-worker is likely to do it again, or a positive review from a partner makes it likely you'll enjoy a good relationship with them. As a society, we accept that some violent criminals are likely to re-offend, but we also see the value of rehabilitation, and can accept that people make mistakes they're unlikely to repeat. 

The dark side of social media is that it moves us backwards on this front. It allows permanent imprints of our online lives to be seen by everyone, to the extent where they seem to represent us. Victims of cyberbullying terrified that naked photos of them will be released, or people who make public gaffes on social media, become reduced to and defined by single acts. The mental health deterioration (and sometimes  suicide) that follows these shamings hints at how unnatural it is for single actions to change lives in such disproportionate ways. 

Jon Ronson, author of So you've been publicly shamed, which cleverly links the current culture of internet shaming with a legal past where criminals were shamed indefinitely as criminals for a single illegal act, seems chilled by the prospect of Peeple:

As one review of Ronson's book noted:

As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. In fact, having researched the history of public shaming in America in the Massachusetts Archives, he can only conclude that Lehrer, for one, was humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century, the Puritans of New England having seemingly worked out that to ruin a person in front of his fellows is also to refuse him a second chance in life.

As Ronson explores in his book, extreme public shaming doesn't make us better people, or encourage us not to repeat offend: it shuts us down and exiles us from society in a way that benefits no one. (This makes Peeple's URL – forthepeeple.com – seem grimly ironic). What Ronson calls "chronic shame" occurs when our regretted actions harden into something far greater, something we allow to become part of ourselves. As Gershen Kaufman, a scholar of shame, notes:  "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

We also shouldn't be forever defined by a clutch of "good" actions, or people who see some benefit in leaving us gushing reviews. Those who measure their worth through social media come to rely on the endorphins sparked by small online interactions and boosts to their confidence, at the expense of the more slow-burning satisfaction of real life. A single person's thoughts about us are relatively inconsequential, whether positive or negative - but they're given far greater weight on the internet  by virtue of their permanence and publicity.

In Mary Gordon's novella The Rest of Life, a character wishes that someone had told her earlier that "the world is large and will absorb the errors you innocently make". If we're to avoid tearing each other to pieces, we need to make sure that this remains the case. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.