Universe may have formed from a hologram, study finds

A new study by an astrophysicist with the University of Waterloo and Perimeter Institute has found evidence that the universe was two-dimensional prior to the big bang 14 billion years ago.

University of Waterloo researcher finds evidence universe was 2D prior to big bang

An artist’s image of a quasar with a supermassive black hole in the distant Universe. (Zhaoyu Li/Shanghai Astronomical Observatory)

The universe may have been two-dimensional – in other words, a hologram – before the big bang gave it the shape it has today, a new study suggests.

International researchers, including University of Waterloo and Perimeter Institute astrophysicist Niayesh Afshordi, have found the theory of a two-dimensional universe makes sense when trying to understand how the universe was formed.

"Things that appear to be three-dimensional at some point, they're not really there. They're just an illusion," Afshordi told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris.

He said when you look into the universe and look back to the big bang, which took place about 14 billion years ago, things were more complicated "because gravity and quantum mechanics didn't talk to each other very well back then."

He said their research shows that it makes more sense to consider a 2D world prior to the big bang. After the bang, the world became 3D, or 4D if you count time as a dimension.

What remains a mystery is exactly "what banged," he said.
A lifelike digital projection of the late rapper Tupac Shakur performed alongside Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images )

Like a hologram on a credit card

When people think of holograms, they might think of when rapper Tupac Shakur performed as a hologram with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at the Coachella festival in 2012. Maybe Star Trek fans think of The Doctor from the series Voyager.

Afshordi said the hologram he's talking about is similar to that, in that it's still an illusion where you think you see something in 3D, but it's not real.

Kostas Skenderis, a math professor at the University of Southampton in England, likened it to a hologram on a credit card.

"The idea is similar to that of ordinary holograms where a three-dimensional image is encoded in a two-dimensional surface, such as in the hologram on a credit card. However, this time, the entire universe is encoded," Skenderis said in a release about the research.

The study involved scientists from England, Canada and Italy, and the findings were published Jan. 27 in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Researchers say the early universe isn't unlike when Princess Leia appears as a hologram in Star Wars in that it looked 3D, but was really 2D. ((Lucasfilm Ltd & TM/Associated Press))

'Pretty sure' we live in 3D

Afshordi said there's no real debate that this world is in 3D.

"Today, it might be a hologram. I don't think we're sure about that," he said. "I can jump up and down, go back and forth, turn left and right. I'm pretty sure there are three dimensions now."

But as they learn more about the universe, "what we're more sure about is what happened in the early universe."

They'll be able to be even more sure in the near future, he said, and the amazing thing about the universe is there is so much more to learn.

"There are satellites that are going up that are going to map the big bang much better. They're going to map the sky much better," he said.

That includes the Canadian hydrogen intensity mapping experiment, a telescope being built at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia that will help scientists understand why the universe's expansion is happening at an increasing rate, and what role dark energy plays in that.

For those still unsure whether this world is all that it seems, Afshordi offered some assurance about your existence.

"As far as you're concerned, you do exist," he said.

Listen to the whole interview with astrophysicist Niayesh Afshordi on The Morning Edition:


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.