Scientists Find First Observed Evidence That Our Universe May Be a Hologram

Physicists finds evidence from just after the Big Bang that supports the controversial holographic universe theory.

An international study claims to have found first observed evidence that our universe is a hologram.  


What is the holographic universe idea? It's not exactly that we are living in some kind of Star Trekky computer simulation. Rather the idea, first proposed in the 1990s by Leonard Susskind and Gerard 't Hooft, says that all the information in our 3-dimensional reality may actually be included in the 2-dimensional surface of its boundaries. It's like watching a 3D show on a 2D television.

"Imagine that everything you see, feel and hear in three dimensions (and your perception of time) in fact emanates from a flat two-dimensional field. 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,“ explained the study's co-author Professor Kostas Skenderis of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Southampton. 

That's still pretty mind-bending. 

The new study involved a team of theoretical physicists and astrophysicists from the U.K., Canada and Italy who studied the cosmic microwave background and discovered enough irregularities there that pointed to the holographic theory as a legitimate rival to the theory of cosmic inflation, the way these anomalies are usually explained.

The new analysis by the scientists was made possible by the advancement of telescope and sensing tech that can look for information in the "white noise" or microwaves that remain from the early universe right after the Big Bang. 

By studying and mapping data from the Planck space telescope, the team found that the observational data they found was largely predictable by the math of holographic theory. 

"Holography is a huge leap forward in the way we think about the structure and creation of the universe. Einstein's theory of general relativity explains almost everything large scale in the universe very well, but starts to unravel when examining its origins and mechanisms at quantum level. Scientists have been working for decades to combine Einstein's theory of gravity and quantum theory. Some believe the concept of a holographic universe has the potential to reconcile the two. I hope our research takes us another step towards this," added Professor Skenderis.

A sketch of the timeline of the holographic Universe where time runs from left to right. The holographic phase (far left) is where the image is blurry because space and time haven't been defined yet. After this phase comes to a close, the Universe goes into a geometric phase, which can be described by Einstein's equations. Credit: Paul McFadden

The implications of this study could lead the scientists to improved understanding of how time and space were created.

"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. "It's a new paradigm for a physical reality."

The study's lead author, Niayesh Afshordi of the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterlo, expressed a similarly positive sentiment about their finding:

"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.

You can read the paper by the researchers, from the University of Southampton (UK), University of Waterloo (Canada), Perimeter Institute (Canada), INFN, Lecce (Italy) and the University of Salento (Italy) here in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Cover photo: Satellites, planes and comets transit across the night sky under stars that appear to rotate above Corfe Castle on August 12, 2016 in Corfe Castle, United Kingdom. The Perseids meteor shower occurs every year when the Earth passes through the cloud of debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle, and appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus in the north eastern sky. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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