How I got Sucked Into a Black Hole this Week
It all started innocently enough when I watched NOVA’s “The Fabric of the Cosmos – What is Space?” online. This was one of a four-part physics series hosted by Brian Greene, who I heard speak here in Boulder in 2009. The whole series is awesome and understandable, and if this sort of thing interests you, then it is well worth your time to view these four NOVA shows.
There are many physics concepts you can totally lose yourself in if you allow it. Each of the four shows presented challenging ideas … the multiverse concept, quantum physics, and time being explained as everything has already happened and there is no past or future.
But, what really got me going was the last five minutes of this particular show that I linked above…
Here is the transcript of those five minutes:
BRIAN GREENE: … surprising new clues are emerging that everything, you and I, and even space, itself, may actually be a kind of hologram.
That is: everything we see and experience, everything we call our familiar three-dimensional reality, may be a projection of information that’s stored on a thin, distant two-dimensional surface, sort of the way the information for this hologram is stored on this thin piece of plastic.
Now, holograms are something we’re all familiar with from the security symbol you find on most credit cards, but the universe as a hologram? That’s one of the most drastic revisions to our picture of space and reality ever proposed. And the evidence for it comes from some of the strangest realms of space: black holes.
LEONARD SUSSKIND: This is a real disconnect, and it’s very hard to get your head around: modern ideas, coming from black holes, tell us that reality is two-dimensional, that the three-dimensional world, the full-bodied three-dimensional world, is a kind of image of a hologram on the boundary on the region of space.
S. JAMES GATES, JR.: This is a very strange thing. When I was a younger physicist I would have thought any physicist who said that was absolutely crazy.
BRIAN GREENE: Here’s a way to think about this. Imagine I took my wallet and threw it into a black hole. What would happen? We used to think that since nothing, not even light, can escape the immense gravity of a black hole, my wallet would be lost forever, but it now seems that may not be the whole story.
Recently, scientists exploring the math describing black holes made a curious discovery. Even as my wallet disappears into the black hole, a copy of all the information it contains seems to get smeared out and stored on the surface of the black hole, in much the same way that information is stored in a computer.
So in the end, my wallet exists in two places: there’s a three-dimensional version that’s lost forever inside the black hole and a two-dimensional version that remains on the surface as information.
CLIFFORD JOHNSON (University of Southern California): The information content of all the stuff that fell into that black hole can be expressed entirely in terms of just the outside of the black hole. The idea, then, is that you can capture what’s going on inside the black hole by referring only to the outside.
BRIAN GREENE: And, in theory, I could use the information on the outside of the black hole to reconstruct my wallet.
And here’s the truly mind-blowing part: space within a black hole plays by same rules as space outside a black hole or anywhere else. So if an object inside a black hole can be described by information on the black hole’s surface, then it might be that everything in the universe, from galaxies and stars, to you and me, even space itself, is just a projection of information stored on some distant two-dimensional surface that surrounds us.
In other words, what we experience as reality may be something like a hologram.
LEONARD SUSSKIND: Is the three-dimensional world an illusion, in the same sense that a hologram is an illusion? Perhaps. I think I’m inclined to think yes, that the three-dimensional world is a kind of illusion and that the ultimate precise reality is the two-dimensional reality at the surface of the universe.
This idea is so new that physicists are still struggling to understand it. But if it’s right, just as Newton and Einstein completely changed our picture of space, we may be on the verge of an even more dramatic revolution.
Partly why this announcement (new to me, perhaps not to some of you astute readers out there) blew me away is because I’m pretty well-read on some aspects of Eastern Religion, and here I see these physicists proving mathematically what some Eastern Hindu and Buddhist gurus have known and taught all along … that life is an illusion — as these ancient Chinese sayings suggest … flowers in a mirror or the moon on water!
Take these two quotes, for example:
It is essential to realize now, in life, when we still have a body, that its convincing appearance of solidity is a mere illusion. ——Sogyal Rinpoche
And may I, recognizing all things as illusion, devoid of clinging, be released from bondage. … You will be aware that things are not as substantial and solid as they seem. The term “illusion” therefore points to the disparity between how you perceive things and how they really are. ——Dalai Lama
While what I’ve written so far might have been enough to think about for one week, at least, the black hole sucked me in further when I listened to a talk by Stephen Wolfram, designer of Wolfram Alpha. He received a Ph.D. in particle physics from the California Institute of Technology at age 20, you get the picture.
The talk by Wolfram linked in the above paragraph was a talk he gave at 92nd Street Y’s Singularity Summit. I enjoy the technological singularity subject on a casual level and am open minded to some of the possibilities these visionaries are predicting.
It is part of what keeps me blogging day after day, believing that our unprecedented modern communication, technology, and computing might evolve into something greater, perhaps the mass consciousness that so many expect.
But my world is converging mightily as I listen to Wolfram’s talk …. because … guess what? He’s saying a very similar thing to what Brian Greene and Leonard Susskind said in the transcript above, that the universe is perhaps written similarly to a computer program.
Here’s what Wolfram said:
It could be that the universe is run by a giant operating system. Or it could be a tiny program, just a few lines of code. In the past it would have seemed inconceivable that all the richness of our universe could be generated by just a few simple lines of code but once we’ve seen what’s possible and what’s out there in the computational universe it’s a whole different story. …
I think it’s far from impossible that in a limited time we’ll effectively hold in our hands a little program and be able to say this is our universe in precise detail. Just run it and you’ll grow our universe and everything that happens in it.
So what does any of this have to do with agriculture? Global food security? Environmental destruction? Geoengineering for climate change?
For the past couple of years it seems that every new team of global experts who come together to write a paper about how to solve the problem of how to feed the world, or solve climate change, they imagine some world order or set of standards that every country should follow. Given the right computational solving ability combined with mass communication, one can start to imagine how this could happen.
*nasa photo above: This composite NASA image of the spiral galaxy M81, located about 12 million light years away, includes X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue), optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (green), infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope (pink) and ultraviolet data from GALEX (purple). The inset shows a close-up of the Chandra image. At the center of M81 is a supermassive black hole that is about 70 million times more massive than the Sun.
A new study using data from Chandra and ground-based telescopes, combined with detailed theoretical models, shows that the supermassive black hole in M81 feeds just like stellar mass black holes, with masses of only about ten times that of the Sun. This discovery supports the implication of Einstein’s relativity theory that black holes of all sizes have similar properties, and will be useful for predicting the properties of a conjectured new class of black holes.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley and CfA/A.Zezas; Optical: NASA/ESA/CfA/A.Zezas; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J.Huchra et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA