May 17, 2002

On Holograms and Encoding

A last bit o’ intellectual fun, as we scatter to the edges of the world after UMD shakes us from her branches. This is a rerun, yes, but I rewrote it a bit and promised Starlarva that I’d post it again. This one’s for you, my philosophical love peach.

Holograms are 3D images encoded on 2D surfaces. A laser beam of coherent light is split into two separate beams, one which is reflected off the object onto a photographic plate, and the other aimed directly at the plate. All the information is located on a single two-dimensional layer, but manages to represent a three-dimensional object. The encoding looks nothing like the original object, but it contains the information needed to reproduce the light that originally came from the object.

The universe potentially has four-dimensions; the X, Y, Z axes and space-time. When you move on a sphere it appears to you that you are traveling in a straight line in two dimensions, though anyone observing your movement from off the sphere would see that you are moving in an arc, dropping away in the third dimension. When you travel through space you move in three dimensions, but it is possible that the universe arcs in the fourth dimension, such that if you were to travel in one direction long enough you would curve around and eventually retrace your path.

If the universe is indeed a four-dimensional sphere it is completely self-contained and doesn’t need to exist in anything. Even if it does exist in something, the something would be outside our comprehension (and universe) and it would be foolish of us to talk about it. It is like Heidegger’s life-after-death, which would be silly for us to discuss because we have no experience with it. Wittgenstein would call utterances about this outer something meaningless, as it is beyond verification and cannot be proved true or false.

But back to holograms. What if our universe is just the four-dimensional encoding of a five dimensional reality? Our reality would be nothing but a long groove on a wax cylinder and we have no access to the phonograph. However, if one were able to look at the universe from the outside and decode it, it would look like something entirely different; a Reality II.

To speculate on the implications of this possibility involves delving into metaphysics, an activity that will raise the hackles of any analytic philosopher, but one I find quite entertaining as a mental exercise. To accurately encode a representation of Reality II requires that the grooves be laid down in a logical manner that can be translated by a decoder, and this logic would become the framework of our universe. If the universe is encoding another reality it demands that there is an order to why things happen the way they do; a divine and guiding hand of sorts. There would need to be an underlying logic that dictates all movement, all thoughts, all history. Unfortunately the predestination that results from the need of an ordered structure is immediately troubled by free-will. How can I be representative of the same Reality II if I jump out the window or not?

Ignoring that serious wrinkle in the encoding theory, one of the more interesting considerations is that of time. Holograms can only represent a moment in time, and thus are limited in the amount of information they can store. While the theory of relativity definitely screws up any absolute measurement of time, it is obvious some kind of passage of time must exist in our universe. If the universe is an encoding of Reality II, that means the position and velocity of every atom needs to have a logical meaning that can be translated on the other side. Meaning is not only attributed to the position and velocity of every atom at a moment, but their attributes at every moment since the universe came into existence. The sheer amount of information that can be stored in this relationship is overwhelming.

I wish the most delightful summer to you all!

Maybe the universe is like the matrix, a bunch of reversed Japanese Kanji characters on a crappy monitor…. mmmm… tastes like chicken!