As the hot debate over whether the next "Miss Universe" beauty pageant will take place in 2014, 2015 or not all, the real question we should be asking ourselves is: what actually is the Universe? Is it the vast, limitless vacuum of space that we conventionally perceive it to be, or could it be…a hologram?

And if it was, would we ever know?

A unusual experiment, conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in Batavia, Illinois, is attempting to find the answers to this and other mind-blowing questions regarding the universe we live in. Using a unique device called the Holometer, scientists have begun to collate data that is trying to detect the smallest unit in the universe.

The Holometer is the world’s most sensitive laser interferometer, designed to measure the quantum movements that occur in what we believe to be just "space." According to the Oxford English dictionary, in 1696, a Holometer was "A Mathematical Instrument for the easie measurement of any thing whatever."

“We want to find out whether space-time is a quantum system just like matter is,” said Craig Hogan, director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics and the developer of the holographic noise theory. “If we see something, it will completely change ideas about space we’ve used for thousands of years.”

The Holometer comprises a pair of interferometers placed in close proximity to one another, each sending a one-kilowatt laser beam (the equivalent of 200,000 laser pointers) at a beam splitter and down two perpendicular 40-meter arms. The beams of light are then reflected back to the beam splitter where the two beams recombine. If there any motion is detected, then variations in brightness will occur. These fluctuations in the returning light are analyzed to determine whether the beam splitter is moving in a certain way, and being influenced by the movements of space itself.

This type of “Holographic noise” is always expected to be present at all frequencies, but the real challenge is to try and isolate this from any other type of movement. As the Holometer operates at incredibly high frequencies – millions of cycles per second – the primary background noise is most likely to be due to radio waves emitted by nearby electronics, so the Holometer experiment is designed to identify and eliminate such interference.

“If we find a noise we can’t get rid of, we might be detecting something fundamental about nature – a noise that is intrinsic to space-time,” said Fermilab physicist Aaron Chou, lead scientist and project manager for the Holometer. “It’s an exciting moment for physics. A positive result will open a whole new avenue of questioning about how space works.”

So how will this experiment illustrate whether or not we are living in a 2D holographic universe?

Scientists are approaching the question from a quantum perspective; in quantum theory, it is considered to be impossible to know the exact location and the exact speed of subatomic particles. If indeed space is in 2D form, then it would also operate under this type of quantum uncertainty. Just as matter in the form of quantum waves still jitters when cooled to absolute zero, "digital" space would have vibrations coded into even its lowest energy state.

If this is the case, and our apparently 3D environment is merely a 2D simulation, scientists argue that we would be none the wiser. They believe that the information contained within the universe could be similar to the pixels used in a TV screen, which are not obvious to the observer until viewed from very close quarters.
The Fermilab press release explains the concept in the following terms:

"Much like characters on a television show would not know that their seemingly 3-D world exists only on a 2-D screen, we could be clueless that our 3-D space is just an illusion. The information about everything in our universe could actually be encoded in tiny packets in two dimensions."

The natural “pixel size” of space is considered to be roughly 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom, a distance that physicists refer to as the Planck scale.

The Holometer experiment was launched at the end of August, and is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and other sources. It is expected to gather data over the coming year, and information about the ongoing experiment is available here: http://holometer.fnal.gov/.

The idea of the universe as a digital simulation is not a new one: check out Unknown Country’s previous stories on this fascinating subject.
 

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