Are we living in a holographic universe? New study suggests it's possible

A team of international scientists believe that new data supports the idea that our universe could be a hologram.

'It's a new paradigm for a physical reality,' says researcher

Is our universe merely a hologram? (Illustris collaboration )

A team of international scientists believe that new data supports the idea that our universe could be a hologram.

That doesn't mean what we see and feel every day doesn't exist, just that we may have to rethink how we envision the universe around us.

Think about 3D movies: the images we see seem to have depth, but they're presented on a two-dimensional surface: the screen.

The concept of a holographic universe is similar, in that essentially we exist on a two-dimensional surface, but the information on that surface expresses itself in three dimensions. As well, gravity and time don't exist at the fundamental level, Kostas Skenderis, a co-author of the study, told CBC News.

It's a new paradigm for a physical reality.- Kostas Skenderis, University of Southampton

It's enough to make your head spin.

But the idea of a holographic universe isn't a new one. It was first proposed in the 1990s by scientists Leonard Susskind and Gerard 't Hooft in response to Stephen Hawking's black hole research. As of yet, there has been no conclusive evidence to support the theory.

The early universe

The new research looks back almost 14 billion years to a time when the universe was in its infancy.

"When we go into this concept of holography, it's a new way of thinking about things. Even the scientists who worked on this for the past 20 years don't have the right tools or the right language to describe what's going on," said Skenderis, with the faculty of mathematical sciences at the University of Southampton. "It's a new paradigm for a physical reality."

"When you combine quantum mechanics and general relativity — the best description in terms of this two-dimensional theory — one way to test this result is to take a look at the very early universe," Skenderis said.

The researchers studied data collected by the Planck space telescope which ceased operation in 2013. This telescope was able to map out cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. This radiation presents itself as heat left over from the Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago. It extends outward in every direction, but it's not all uniform. Researchers have looked at these small deviations and mapped them with unprecedented accuracy.

Cosmic background radiation mapped by the Planck telescope. (ESA, Planck Collaboration)

"The structure of these deviations encodes the physics of the very early universe," said Skenderis. "So then the question is, if you have a theory for the very early universe, can you predict the structure of the small deviations?" 

Using the holographic theory, the researchers used mathematical formulas to calculate the predictions. They agreed "extremely well" with their observations.

So while this isn't definitive proof, it can't be ruled out either.

A sketch of the timeline of the holographic universe. Time runs from left to right. The far left denotes the holographic phase and the image is blurry because space and time are not yet well defined. (Paul McFadden)

Lead author of the paper, Niayesh Afshordi of the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo, told CBC News that the theory doesn't mean there's not a third dimension. 

"We live in three dimensions, I can [illustrate] it very easily: I can jump up and down, I can go back and forth, I can go left and right," he said. "There are three dimensions out there, I can again say that with confidence."

The findings help bring the theories of quantum mechanics (the study of the very small) and general relativity (the study of the large) closer together, as currently the two are in conflict over how the universe works. Astrophysicists continue to search for the "unified theory" that would bring the two together. In this case, removing a spatial dimension helps reconcile the theories.

In 2015, a study conducted by the Fermilab found no evidence to suggest that we exist in a holographic universe. But Afshordi said that science is constantly growing and learning. Any theory — including theirs — could be tossed out as more evidence is gathered.

While the whole concept might be mind-blowing, Afshordi said that the theory is pretty straightforward.

"I would argue this is the simplest theory of the early universe. And so far, this is as simple as it gets. And it could help explain everything we see," Afshordi said.


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.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?