“We live in a hologram,” the physicists say, but what do they mean? Is there a flat-world-me living on the walls of the room? Or am I the projection of a mysterious five-dimensional being and beyond my own comprehension? And if everything inside my head can be described by what’s on its boundary, then how many dimensions do I really live in? If these are questions that keep you up at night, I have the answers.
1. Why do some physicists think our universe may be a hologram?
It all started with the search for a unified theory.
Unification has been enormously useful for our understanding of natural law: Apples fall according to the same laws that keep planets on their orbits. The manifold appearances of matter as gases, liquids and solids, can be described as different arrangements of molecules. The huge variety of molecules themselves can be understood as various compositions of atoms. These unifying principles were discovered long ago. Today physicists refer to unification specifically as a common origin of the different interactions. The electric and magnetic interactions, for example, turned out to be two different aspects of the same electromagnetic interaction. The electromagnetic interaction, or its quantum version respectively, has further been unified with the weak nuclear interaction. Nobody has succeeded yet in unifying all presently known interactions, the electromagnetic with the strong and weak nuclear ones, plus gravity.
String theory was conceived as a theory of the strong nuclear interaction, but it soon became apparent that quantum chromodynamcis, the theory of quarks and gluons, did a better job at this. The idea of using strings gained second wind after physicists discovered it may serve to explain all the known interactions including gravity, and so could be a unified theory of everything, the holy grail of physics.
It turned out to be difficult, however, to get specifically the Standard Model interactions back from string theory. And so the story goes that in recent years the quest for unification has slowly been replaced with a quest for dualities that demonstrate that all the different types of string theories are actually different aspects of the same theory, which is yet to be fully understood.
A duality in the most general sense is a relation that identifies two theories. You can understand a duality as a special type of unification. In a normal unification, you merge two theories together to a larger theory that contains the former two in a suitable limit. If you relate two theories by a duality, you show that the theories are the same, they just appear different, depending on how you look at them.
One of the most interesting developments in high energy physics during the last decades is the finding of dualities between theories in a different number of space-time dimensions. One of the theories is a gravitational theory in the higher-dimensional space, often called “the bulk”. The other is a gauge-theory much like the ones in the standard model, and it lives on the boundary (sometimes called a “brane”) of the bulk space-time. This relation is often referred to as the gauge-gravity correspondence, and it is a limit of a more general duality in string theory.
To be careful, this correspondence hasn’t been strictly speaking proved. But there are several examples where it has been so thoroughly studied that there is very little doubt it will be proved at some point.
These dualities are said to be “holographic” because they tell us that everything allowed to happen in the bulk space-time of the gravitational theory is encoded on the boundary of that space. And because there are fewer bits of information on the surface of a volume than in the volume itself, fewer things can happen in the volume than you’d have expected. It might seem as if particles inside a box are all independent from each other, but they must actually be correlated. It’s like you were observing a large room with kids running and jumping but suddenly you’d notice that every time one of them jumps, for a mysterious reason ten others must jump at exactly the same time.
2. Why is it interesting that our universe might be a hologram?
This limitation on the amount of independence between particles due to holography would only become noticeable at densities too high for us to test directly. The reason this type of duality is interesting nevertheless is that physics is mostly the art of skillful approximation, and using dualities is a new skill.
You have probably seen these Feynman diagrams that sketch particle scattering processes? Each of these diagrams makes a contribution to an interaction process. The more loops there are in a diagram, the smaller the contributions are. And so what physicists do is adding up the largest contributions first, then the smaller ones, and even smaller ones, until they’ve reached the desired precision. It’s called “perturbation theory” and only works if the contributions really get smaller the more interactions take place. If that is so, the theory is said to be “weakly coupled,” and all is well. If it ain’t so, the theory is said to be “strongly coupled,” and you’d never be done summing all the relevant contributions. If a theory is strongly coupled, then the standard methods of particle physicists fail.
The strong nuclear force for example has the peculiar property of “asymptotic freedom,” meaning it becomes weaker at high energies. But at low energies, it is very strong. Consequently nuclear matter at low energies is badly understood, as for example the behavior of the quark gluon plasma, or the reason why single quarks do not travel freely but are always “confined” to larger composite states. Another interesting case that falls in this category is that of “strange” metals, which include high-temperature superconductors, another holy grail of physicists.
The gauge-gravity duality helps dealing with these systems because when the one theory is strongly coupled and difficult to treat, then the dual theory is weakly coupled and easy to treat. So the duality essentially serves to convert a difficult calculation to a simple one.
3. Where are we in the holographic universe?
Since the theory on the boundary and the theory in the bulk are related by the duality they can be used to describe the same physics. So on a fundamental level the distinction doesn’t make sense — they are two different ways to describe the same thing. It’s just that sometimes one of them is easier to use, sometimes the other.
One can give meaning to the question though if you look at particular systems, as for example the quark gluon plasma or a black hole, and ask for the number of dimensions that particles experience. This specification of particles is what makes the question meaningful because identifying particles isn’t always possible.
The theory for the quark gluon plasma is placed on the boundary because it would be described by the strongly coupled theory. So if you consider it to be part of your laboratory then you have located the lab, with yourself in it, on the boundary. However, the notion of ‘dimensions’ that we experience is tied to the freedom of particles to move around. This can be made more rigorous in the definition of ‘spectral dimension’ which measures, roughly speaking, in how many directions a particle can get lost into. The very fact that makes a system strongly coupled though means that one can’t properly define single particles that travel freely. So while you can move around in the laboratory’s three spatial dimensions, the quark gluon plasma first has to be translated to the higher dimensional theory to even speak about individual particles moving. In that sense, part of the laboratory has become higher dimensional, indeed.
If you look at an astrophysical black hole however, then the situation is reversed. We know that particles in its vicinity are weakly coupled and experience only three spatial dimensions. If you wanted to apply the duality in this case then we would be situated in the bulk and there would be lower-dimensional projections of us and the black hole on the boundary. This would constrain our freedom to move around, if in such a subtle way that we don’t notice. However, the bulk space-times that are relevant in the gauge-gravity duality are so-called Anti-de-Sitter spaces, and these always have a negative cosmological constant. The universe we inhabit however has to our best current knowledge a positive cosmological constant. So it is not clear that there actually is a lower-dimensional system that can describe the black holes in our universe.
Many researchers are presently working on expanding the gauge-gravity duality to include spaces with a positive cosmological constant or none at all, but at least so far it isn’t clear that this works. So for now we do not know whether there exist projections of us in a lower-dimensional space-time.
4. How good does this duality work?
The applications of the gauge-gravity duality fall roughly into three large areas, plus a diversity of technical developments driving the general understanding of the theory. The three areas are the quark gluon plasma, strange metals, and black hole evaporation. In the former two cases our universe is on the boundary, in the latter we are in the bulk.
The studies of black hole evaporation are examinations of mathematical consistency conducted to unravel just exactly how information may escapes a black hole, or what happens at the singularity. In this area there are presently more questions than answers. The applications of the duality to the quark gluon plasma initially caused a lot of excitement, but as of recently some skepticism has spread. It seems that the plasma is not as strongly coupled as originally thought, and using the duality is not as straightforward as hoped. The applications to strange metals and other classes of materials are making rapid progress as both analytical and numerical methods are being developed. The behavior for several observables has been qualitatively reproduced, but it is as present not very clear exactly which systems are the best to use. The space of models is still too big, which leaves too much room for useful predictions. In this area there are more answers than questions.
Holography is an incredible idea, and mathematically, there are a large number of compelling reasons and consistencies that indicate our Universe might well be a hologram. But as for new insights into what we can observe in our three-dimensional reality? The journey and our investigations continue.