Clever Apes #16: New dimensions

August 9, 2011

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Theoretical physicist Craig Hogan is building a machine to see if the universe i

Do you ever get the feeling we’re all living in an illusion, man? And, like, what we see is really just a movie, you know, projected from the edge of the universe? And stuff? Hey, we out of Cheetos?

At some point, the line faded between adolescent/stoned/sci-fi speculation and high-order theoretical physics. The concept is this: All the stuff of the universe actually lives on a two-dimensional shell at its boundary. What we experience is a 3D holographic projection of that information. (And let me not be too flip – the theory is a product of very complex math that emerges from black hole physics. No bong hits involved, as far as I know.) If this idea sounds familiar to you, we did attempt to tackle it once before, in the very first episode of Clever Apes.

Listen to the current episode here:

Now, a year later, we chronicle how physicist Craig Hogan is looking to actually test this theory with an experiment in the lab. Not everyone believes he can do that. Scientists are digging so deep into the fundamentals of the universe that a lot of the ideas (string theory, for instance) may be impossible to verify in experiments. Meanwhile science, as you may recall from 7th grade, is all about testing hypotheses. So Hogan set out to do an end-run around the limits of our powers of observation by homing in on a little side effect of the holographic principle that we may, in fact, be able to detect. We’ll see if it works.

We stick with math (but not the scary kind!) for the second segment in this episode. The universe may be flat, but music, it turns out, has three- and even four-dimensional shape. That’s according to Princeton University music theorist and composer Dmitri Tymoczko. Music, he says, can be described by mathematical relationships that, in turn, can be plotted in a geometrical space. Granted, it’s a funny-looking geometrical space, but still. The result, for something like Chopin’s E minor prelude, can be seen here:


The idea here is not to turn art into cold data. Rather, it suggests that artists also have an intuitive grasp of the way sounds like to organize themselves. One cool consequence of this equivalence between music and geometry is that one can also go the other direction: You could imagine sculpture, landscapes, even dance being translated back into music. If you’re still confused, check out Tymoczko’s book or CD, to see and hear more.

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A conceptual drawing of the holometer (Courtesy of Fermilab / Symmetry)