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28 August 2014updated 02 Sep 2014 3:02pm

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.

By Fiona Rutherford

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.

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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.”

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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.”