Welcome to Flatland, Population: You?

Is-the-universe-3-D-Or-just-a-hologramIn 1884, a schoolmaster by the name of Edwin Abbot wrote what he had considered a satire on both Victorian Culture and the Sciences titled Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions. The short novel is about the existence in a 2-dimensional world where the male inhabitants are geometric figures (depending on rank and status, from squares to the perfect circles), women are straight lines, and the world is governed by the Circles. The story is narrated by a square whose name is, not surprisingly, A. Square (this book could’ve easily been written in the 1960s). As readers, we learn about how practical life is in a 2-dimensional universe; everything is predictable, and life in this caste system goes along as expected. That is, until our Square comes to learn of a third dimension, and the inhabitants who dwell there. Although the book was published in 1884, the period the book’s story is set in is 1999.

At first, Square dismissed the dream as nothing more, that is, until he is visited by a being from the third dimension known as Spaceland. The visitor, Sphere, tries to explain to Square what a third dimension is, but, existing in a 2-Dimensional world, he had no common point of reference. But seeing is believing, and the Square is soon whisked away into the 3-Dimensional world of Spaceland, where it all becomes real. From his new vantage point, Square he can look down and see all the inhabitants of Flatland going about their business. He can watch them as they enter their houses, but of course, because their reality is two dimensional, he can look right inside. He also watches the Circles as they discuss how to suppress the knowledge of the 3rd dimension, and how they might prevent the world of Flatland from challenging their view of the world and their absolute power (think Spanish Inquisition).

As it turns out, this is not the Spheres first visit to Flatland, and we learn that he in fact visits on the eve of every new millennium to introduce the reality of the 3rd dimension in hopes of educating the population. Because of the period this book was written, it includes some not so well disguised statements on social conventions and the oppressive religious beliefs of the time, and when the Circles start arresting and integrating the other shapes, this soon leads to shapes informing on each other for heretical beliefs, and soon many are executed for questioning the Circles description of the world, including Square’s brother.

By the end of the book, we learned that Square has been returned to Flatland and is ridiculed and arrested as he attempt to spread his belief in a 3rd dimension. By now you are either interested in reading the book, or simply think it an interesting story about the social and religious morays of Victorian England (and some would argue modern America), but hardly worth a long discussion. But what if there is far more to the story than you might think?

Just for a moment, let us suppose that there is, at least some mathematical indications that we all live, not in a 3-Dimensional universe as we have come to understand, but a 2-dimensional one?

Right now you are reading this on a computer screen, which has only two dimensions (you may smile to yourself because I neglected to consider that you have printed this off, but you’re still reading it on a 2-Dimensional surface). Those of us who, for better or worse, indulge in the occasional video game (think Star Trek Bridge Commander), despite the complexity and 3-dimensional projection of the software, it is still a 2-Dimensional reality. But that is a game and we cannot say the same is true for the universe, which we can clearly see is 3-dimension. Right?

What if all that we can see in the universe is simply a hologram, a 2-Dimensional reality that only appears 3-Dimensional? In other words, our perception alone is 3-Dimensional. Before you begin to think that perhaps I have completely lost my mind, consider the problems of physics that seem to be currently insurmountable. In particular, the contradictions between Einstein’s General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. What if the 3-Dimensional reality we are familiar with is in fact, just a projection on a 2-Dimensional universe?

As it turns out, there are more than a few theoretical physicists that have begun to examine this question, with surprising results. For example, a group from Tu Wien in Austria published a study suggesting that 3-Dimensional spaces can be reduced (at least mathematically), to 2-Dimensional projections. This has come to be known as the Holographic Principle, and understanding the universe in this way helps to answer some fundamental problems in unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics. While relativity makes predictions based upon three spatial dimensions + time, there are some researchers who suggested this may not be the most accurate way of viewing the universe.

If the term Holographic Principal sounds familiar, it may be because it is. First considered as a solution to Steven Hawking’s Information Paradox nearly three decades ago, after Hawking suggested that black holes would swallow all energy and matter (including light). Fair enough, with infinite gravity and all.  But according to quantum theory, this would not be possible. However, if the universe is in reality 2-Dimensional, and what we experience as 3-Dimensions is actually only perception, how do we explain things like black holes and gravity? Could such a 2-Dimensional universe calculate physical capacities like gravity in a flat space? Could quantum mechanics answer these questions by using things like quantum entanglement to replace gravity?

Mathematically and theoretically, the holographic principle does describe a universe with far fewer inconsistencies concerning relativistic physics and quantum mechanics (including Hawking’s Information Paradox) perhaps the unsolvable questions of theoretical physics may become solvable? But what of it? Does it matter if the universe has three dimensions, as it appears, 11 dimensions as string theory suggests, or two dimensions, as the holographic principle propose? Maybe it does, particularly if the universe can be considered as a nearly infinite holographic projection.

Getting back to the games and simulations. How many of us have had to upgrade our systems to handle graphics or other data-hungry applications? What happens if we run out of storage space? Will our universe freeze up, or worse, crash? Back in 1993, a pair of particle physicists working independently came to the same conclusion: the universe must have a way of storing information. Today, quantum mechanics assumes that every nook and cranny of space is filled with information; however, any area of space with significant density may, under the right conditions, form a black hole.

Will that information be lost or destroyed as suggested by the Information Paradox, or is that data somehow retrievable? If we imagine the universe as infinite, then we should find little concern about storage space for the data of reality. However, if the universe is finite, as Albert Einstein, John Nash, and many others suggest, there is just so much room to store information (energy, matter).

Could we imagine then, Black Holes as the ultimate hard drive, compressing data infinitely dense, but still available for retrieval when needed? How that information would be retrieved is unknown. While it is not possible, at least yet, to fully understand the cosmology of the universe, it is nevertheless an exciting thought experiment, and a short break from the often-bleak world of health and medicine.

We now return you to the regularly scheduled medical mayhem.

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