An article published in the January 15th, 2010 issue of New Scientist proposes that yes, perhaps we are. Writer Marcus Chown reports on this provocative new theory, which I, having failed even the gut class “Physics of Music” requirement as an undergraduate, can barely grasp, even after my husband tried to explain it to me this morning. So I’ll excerpt a few introductory passages from the article to spark your curiosity:

“If this doesn’t blow your socks off, then [Craig] Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: “If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.”

The idea that we live in a hologram probably sounds absurd, but it is a natural extension of our best understanding of black holes, and something with a pretty firm theoretical footing. It has also been surprisingly helpful for physicists wrestling with theories of how the universe works at its most fundamental level.

The holograms you find on credit cards and banknotes are etched on two-dimensional plastic films. When light bounces off them, it recreates the appearance of a 3D image. In the 1990s physicists Leonard Susskind and Nobel prizewinner Gerard ‘t Hooft suggested that the same principle might apply to the universe as a whole. Our everyday experience might itself be a holographic projection of physical processes that take place on a distant, 2D surface.

The “holographic principle” challenges our sensibilities. It seems hard to believe that you woke up, brushed your teeth and are reading this article because of something happening on the boundary of the universe. No one knows what it would mean for us if we really do live in a hologram, yet theorists have good reasons to believe that many aspects of the holographic principle are true.”

I’ll admit, the we-are-all-just-reflected light particles theory totally weirds me out. It was like waking up to discover that I’ve been living in Whoville all my life. I don’t want to be just a refraction, dammit! I was literally chewing my own arm this morning to prove to my husband that I was indeed three dimensional flesh and blood. He told me I didn’t really get it.

At any rate, political blogger Matthew Yglesias thinks we shouldn’t sweat this whole hologram thing:

“…instead of saying “everything we thought we knew about the world is wrong and it’s all fake!” we could just say “aha, this is an interesting new fact.” After all, at one point it was determined that what we thought we knew about solid objects was all wrong. Solid objects, it turned out, aren’t actually solid at all-they’re made up of atoms, and the atoms are composed of protons and neutrons and electrons and are actually mostly empty space.

But people didn’t run around freaking out at the discovery that the world is fake and actually it’s all just a bunch of empty space. Instead, we learned that molecules are made of atoms and atoms are made of protons and neutrons and electrons. Further discoveries about the nature of sub-atomic particles are, similarly, interesting and important scientific discoveries but they’re not taken to somehow debunk our previous knowledge of the existence of macroscopic objects. Similarly, if subatomic particles are “really” a reflection from a different 2D surface I think the important thing is to take the revelation in stride, as we have a whole series of scientific revelations about the nature of matter.”

Perhaps if this theory takes hold, all of those under-appreciated holographic artists will suddenly find their work in high demand. Get in now while the market’s still cool.

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.