2 - The Cosmos as Hologram
The path that led Bohm to the conviction that the universe is structured like a hologram began at the very edge of matter, in the world of subatomic particles. His interest in science and the way things work blossomed early.
As a young boy growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he invented a dripless tea kettle, and his father, a successful businessman, urged him to try to turn a profit on the idea. But after learning that the first step in such a venture was to conduct a door-to-door survey to test-market his invention, Bohm’s interest in business waned.1
This is difficult for most of us to imagine because everything at our own level of existence possesses dimension. And yet if you try to measure the width of an electron, you will discover it’s an impossible task. An electron is simply not an object as we know it.
The electron, like some shape-shifter out of folklore, can manifest as either a particle or a wave.
Physicist Nick Herbert, a supporter of this interpretation, says this has sometimes caused him to imagine that behind his back the world is always,
But whenever he turns around and tries to see the soup, his glance instantly freezes it and turns it back into ordinary reality. He believes this makes us all a little like Midas, the legendary king who never knew the feel of silk or the caress of a human hand because everything he touched turned to gold.
Quanta, is the plum! of quantum. One
electron is a quantum. Several electrons are a group of quanta. The
word quantum is also synonymous with wave particle, a term that is
also used to refer to something that possesses both particle and
In fact, so little was made of it that one of the most famous examples of interconnectedness lay hidden in one of quantum physics' basic assumptions for a number of years before anyone noticed it was there.
Physicists have found compelling evidence that the only time electrons
and other “quanta” manifest as particles is when we are looking at them.
At all other times they behave as waves.
This is as strange as owning a bowling ball that traces a single line down the lane while you are watching it,
but leaves a wave
pattern every time you blink your eyes.
He found Bohr’s conclusion that a particle’s properties don’t exist until they are observed particularly objectionable because, when combined with another of quantum physics' findings, it implied that subatomic particles were interconnected in a way Einstein simply didn’t believe was possible.
Because a positron is the electron’s antiparticle opposite, the two eventually annihilate each other and decay into two quanta of light or “photons” traveling in opposite directions (the capacity to shapeshift from one kind of particle to another is just another of a quantum’s abilities). According to quantum physics no matter how far apart the photons travel, when they are measured they will always be found to have identical angles of -polarization. (Polarization is the spatial orientation of the photon’s wavelike aspect as it travels away from its point of origin.)
In it they explained why the existence of such twin particles proved that Bohr could not possibly be correct. As they pointed out, two such particles, say, the photons emitted when positronium decays*, could be produced and allowed to travel a significant distance apart.
* Positronium decay is not the subatomic process Einstein and his colleagues employed in their thought experiment, but is used here because it is easy to visualize.
Then they could be intercepted and their angles of polarization measured. If the polarizations are measured at precisely the same moment and are found to be identical, as quantum physics predicts, and if Bohr was correct and properties such as polarization do not coalesce into existence until they are observed or measured, this suggests that somehow the two photons must be instantaneously communicating with each other so they know which angle of polarization to agree upon.
The problem is that according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, let alone travel instantaneously, for that would be tantamount to breaking the time barrier and would open the door on all kinds of unacceptable paradoxes. Einstein and his colleagues were convinced that no “reasonable definition” of reality would permit such faster-than-light interconnections to exist, and therefore Bohr had to be wrong.3
Their argument is now known as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox,
EPR paradox for short.
They were part of an indivisible system, and it was meaningless to think of them otherwise.
This was curious, for although Bohr had designed his argument to counter Einstein’s attack on quantum theory, as we will see, Bohr’s view that subatomic systems are indivisible has equally profound implications for the nature of reality.
Ironically, these implications were also ignored, and once again the potential importance of interconnectedness was swept under the carpet.
After graduating from Pennsylvania State College, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, and before receiving his doctorate there in 1943, he worked at the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory.
There he encountered another striking example of quantum interconnectedness.
Although their individual movements appeared random, vast numbers of electrons were able to produce effects that were surprisingly well-organized. Like some amoeboid creature, the plasma constantly regenerated itself and enclosed all impurities in a wall in the same way that a biological organism might encase a foreign substance in a cyst.4 So struck was Bohm by these organic qualities that be later remarked he’d frequently had the impression the electron sea was “alive.” 5
Bohm called such collective movements of
electrons plasmons, and their discovery established his
reputation as a physicist.
After three years of teaching the subject at Princeton he decided to improve his understanding by writing a textbook. When he finished he found he still wasn’t comfortable with what quantum physics was saying and sent copies of the book to both Bohr and Einstein to ask for their opinions.
He got no answer from Bohr, but Einstein contacted him and said that since they were both at Princeton they should meet and discuss the book. In the first of what was to turn into a six-month series of spirited conversations, Einstein enthusiastically told Bohm that he had never seen quantum theory presented so clearly. Nonetheless, he admitted he was still every bit as dissatisfied with the theory as was Bohm. During their conversations the two men discovered they each had nothing but admiration for the theory’s ability to predict phenomena.
What bothered them was that it provided no real way of conceiving of the basic structure of the world. Bohr and his followers also claimed that quantum theory was complete and it was not possible to arrive at any clearer understanding of what was going on in the quantum realm.
This was the same as saying there was no deeper reality beyond the subatomic landscape, no further answers to be found, and this, too, grated on both Bohm and Einstein’s philosophical sensibilities.
Over the course of their meetings they discussed many other tilings, but these points in particular gained new prominence in Bohm’s thoughts. Inspired by his interactions with Einstein, he accepted the validity of his misgivings about quantum physics and decided there .had to be an alternative view. When his textbook Quantum Theory was published in 1951 it was hailed as a classic, but it was a classic about a subject to which Bohm no longer gave his full allegiance.
His mind, ever active and always looking for deeper explanations, was already searching for a better way of describing reality.
He also assumed that there was a deeper reality beneath Bohr’s inviolable wall, a subquantum level that still awaited discovery by science. Building on these premises he discovered that simply by proposing the existence of a new kind of field on this subquantum level he was able to explain the findings of quantum physics as well as Bohr could. Bohm called his proposed new field the quantum potential and theorized that, like gravity, it pervaded all of space.
However, unlike gravitational fields, magnetic fields, and so on, its influence did not diminish with distance. Its effects were subtle, but it was equally powerful everywhere. Bohm published his alternative interpretation of quantum theory in 1952.
One was the widely held assumption that it was possible for any single theory, such as quantum theory, to be complete. Bohm criticized this assumption by pointing out that nature may be infinite. Because it would not be possible for any theory to completely explain something that is infinite, Bohm suggested that open scientific inquiry might be better served if researchers refrained from making this assumption.
But a complete list of all the causes that contributed to Lincoln’s death would have to include all of the events that led to the development of the gun, all of the factors that caused Booth to want to kill Lincoln, all of the steps in the evolution of the human race that allowed for the development of a hand capable of holding a gun, and so on, and so on.
Bohm conceded that most of the time one
could ignore the vast cascade of causes that had led to any given
effect, but he still felt it was important for scientists to
remember that no single cause-and-effect relationship was ever
really separate from the universe as a whole.
As he looked more carefully into the meaning of the quantum potential he discovered it had a number of features that implied an even more radical departure from orthodox thinking. One was the importance of wholeness.
Classical science had always viewed the state of a system as a whole as merely the result of the interaction of its parts. However, the quantum potential stood this view on its ear and indicated that the behavior of the parts was actually organized by the whole. This not only took Bohr’s assertion that subatomic particles are not independent “things,” but are part of an indivisible system one step further, but even suggested that wholeness was in some ways the more primary reality.
As Bohm states, such,
Once again he notes that,
An even more surprising feature of the quantum potential was its implications for the nature of location. At the level of our everyday lives things have very specific locations, but Bohm’s interpretation of quantum physics indicated that at the subquantum level, the level in which the quantum potential operated, location ceased to exist. All points in space became equal to all other points in space, and it was meaningless to speak of anything as being separate from anything else.
Physicists call this property “non locality.”
When you look at the two television monitors you might mistakenly assume that the fish on the screens are separate entities. After all, because the cameras are set at different angles, each of the images will be slightly different. But as you continue to watch you will eventually realize there is a relationship between the two fish. When one turns, the other makes a slightly different but corresponding turn.
When one faces the front, the other faces the side, and so on. If you are unaware of tile full scope of the situation, you might wrongly conclude that the fish are instantaneously communicating with one another, but this is not the case. No communication is taking place because at a deeper level of reality, the reality of the aquarium, the two fish are actually one and the same.
This, says Bohm, is precisely what is going on between particles such as the two photons emitted when a positronium atom decays (see fig. 8).
Bohm believes subatomic particles are connected in the same way as the images of the fish on the two television monitors.
Although particles such as electrons appear to be separate from one another,
on a deeper level of
reality - a level analogous to the aquarium - they are actually just
different aspects of a deeper cosmic unity.
Indeed, because the quantum potential permeates all of space, all particles are non-locally interconnected.
More and more the picture of reality Bohm was developing was not one in which subatomic particles were separate from one another and moving through the void of space, but one in which all things were part of an unbroken web and embedded in a space that was as real and rich with process as the matter that moved through it.
As he later said,
Bell also realized that Bohm’s theory implied the existence of non-locatity and wondered if there was any way of experimentally verifying its existence.
The question remained in the back of his mind for years until a sabbatical in 1964 provided him with the freedom to focus his full attention on the matter. Then he quickly came up with an elegant mathematical proof that revealed how such an experiment could be performed. The only problem was that it required a level of technological precision that was not yet available.
To be certain that particles, such as those in the EPR paradox, were not using some normal means of communication, the basic operations of the experiment had to be performed in such an infinitesimally brief instant that there wouldn’t even be enough time for a ray of light to cross the distance separating the two particles.
This meant that the instruments used in the experiment had to perform all of the necessary operations within a few thousand-millionths of a second.
There, along with a young research student named Yakir Aharonov, he discovered another important example of nonlocal interconnectedness. Bohm and Aharonov found that under the right circumstances an electron is able to “feel” the presence of a magnetic field that is in a region where there is zero probability of finding the electron.
This phenomenon is now known as the Aharonov-Bohm effect, and when the two men first published their discovery, many physicists did not believe such an effect was possible. Even today there is enough residual skepticism that, despite confirmation of the effect in numerous experiments, occasionally papers still appear arguing that it doesn’t exist.
In an interview conducted some years later he offered a simple summation of the philosophy underlying his courage:
Nevertheless, the limited response to his ideas about wholeness and non-locality and his own inability to see how to proceed further caused him to focus his attention in other directions. In the 1960s this led him to take a closer look at order. Classical science generally divides things into two categories: those that possess order in the arrangement of their parts and those whose parts are disordered, or random, in arrangement.
Snowflakes, computers, and living things are all ordered. The pattern a handful of spilled coffee beans makes on the floor, the debris left by an explosion, and a series of numbers generated by a roulette wheel are all disordered.
Perhaps their order is of such an “indefinitely high degree” that they only appear to us as random (interestingly, mathematicians are unable to prove randomness, and although some sequences of numbers are categorized as random, these are only educated guesses).
The device was a specially designed jar containing a large rotating cylinder. The narrow space between the cylinder and the jar was filled with glycerin - a thick, clear liquid - and floating motionlessly in the glycerin was a drop of ink. What interested Bohm was that when the handle on the cylinder was turned, the drop of ink spread out through the syrupy glycerin and seemed to disappear.
But as soon as the handle was turned back in the opposite direction, the faint tracing of ink slowly collapsed upon itself and once again formed a droplet (see fig. 9).
When a drop of ink is placed in a jar full of glycerin and a cylinder inside the jar is turned,
the drop appears to spread out and disappear.
But when the cylinder is turned in the opposite direction,
the drop comes back together.
Bohm uses this
phenomenon as an example of how order can be either manifest
(explicit) or hidden (implicit).
This discovery excited Bohm greatly, for it provided him with a new way of looking at many of the problems he had been contemplating.
Soon after coming across the ink-in-glycerin device he encountered an even better metaphor for understanding order, one that enabled him not only to bring together all the various strands of his years of thinking, but did so with such force and explanatory power it seemed almost tailor-made for the purpose. That metaphor was the hologram.
But this was not the only insight the hologram provided.
He transfigured them into a new way of looking at reality that was as breathtaking as it was radical.
Underlying it is a deeper order of existence, a vast and more primary level of reality that gives birth to all the objects and appearances of our physical world in much the same way that a piece of holographic film gives birth to a hologram.
Bohm calls this deeper level of reality the implicate (which means “enfolded”) order, and he refers to our own level of existence as the explicate, or unfolded, order. He uses these terms because he sees the manifestation of all forms in the universe as the result of countless enfolding and unfolding between these two orders.
For example, Bohm believes an electron is not one thing but a totality or ensemble enfolded throughout the whole of space. When an instrument detects the presence of a single electron it is simply because one aspect of the electron’s ensemble has unfolded, similar to the way an ink drop unfolds out of the glycerin, at that particular location. When an electron appears to be moving it is due to a continuous series of such enfoldments and enfoldments.
A piece of holographic film and the image it generates are also an example of an implicate and explicate order. The film is an implicate order because the image encoded in its interference patterns is a hidden totality enfolded throughout the whole. The hologram projected from the film is an explicate order because it represents the unfolded and perceptible version of the image.
According to Bohm, both aspects are always enfolded in a quantum’s ensemble, but the way an observer interacts with the ensemble determines which aspect unfolds and which remains hidden. As such, the role an observer plays in determining the form a quantum takes may be no more mysterious than the fact that the way a jeweler manipulates a gem determines which of its facets become visible and which do not.
Because the term hologram usually refers to an image that is static and does not convey the dynamic and ever active nature of the incalculable enfolding and unfoldings that moment by moment create our universe, Bohm prefers to describe the universe not as a hologram, but as a “holo-movement.”
Hence, if the universe is organized according to holographic principles, it, too, would be expected to have nonlocal properties.
Because everything in the cosmos is made out of the seamless holographic fabric of the implicate order, he believes it is as meaningless to view the universe as composed of “parts,” as it is to view the different geysers in a fountain as separate from the water out of which they flow. An electron is not an “elementary particle.”
It is just a name given to a certain aspect of the holo-movement. Dividing reality up into parts and then naming those parts is always arbitrary, a product of convention, because subatomic particles, and everything else in the universe, are no more separate from one another than different patterns in an ornate carpet.
But careful scrutiny reveals that it is impossible to determine where any given whirlpool ends and the river begins. Thus, Bohm is not suggesting that the differences between “things” is meaningless.
He merely wants us to be aware constantly that dividing various aspects of the holo-movement into “things” is always an abstraction, a way of making those aspects stand out in our perception by our way of thinking. In attempts to correct this, instead of calling different aspects of the holo-movement “things,” he prefers to call them “relatively independent subtotalities.”10
For instance, we believe we can extract the valuable parts of the earth without affecting the whole. We believe it is possible to treat parts of our body and not be concerned with the whole. We believe we can deal with various problems in our society, such as crime, poverty, and drug addiction, without addressing the problems in our society as a whole, and so on.
In his writings Bohm argues passionately that our current way of fragmenting the world into parts not only doesn’t work, but may even lead to our extinction.
One is the effect consciousness seems to
have on the subatomic world. As we have seen, Bohm rejects the idea
that particles don’t exist until they are observed. But he is not in
principle against trying to bring consciousness and physics
together. He simply feels that most physicists go about it the wrong
way, by once again trying to fragment reality and saying that one
separate thing, consciousness, interacts with another separate
thing, a subatomic particle.
In fact, Bohm believes that consciousness is a more subtle form of matter, and the basis for any relationship between the two lies not in our own level of reality, but deep in the implicate order. Consciousness is present in various degrees of enfoldment and enfoldment in all matter, which is perhaps why plasmas possess some of the traits of living things.
As Bohm puts it,
Similarly, he believes that dividing the universe up into living and nonliving things also has no meaning.
Animate and inanimate matter are inseparably interwoven, and life, too, is enfolded throughout the totality of the universe. Even a rock is in some way alive, says Bohm, for life and intelligence are present not only in all of matter, but in “energy,” “space,” “time,” “the fabric of the entire universe,” and everything else we abstract out of the holo-movement and mistakenly view as separate things.
We could also find Cleopatra meeting Caesar for the first time, for in principle the whole past and implications for the whole future are also enfolded in each small region of space and time. Every cell in our body enfolds the entire cosmos.
So does every leaf, every raindrop, and every dust mote, which gives new meaning to William Blake’s famous poem:
The Energy of a Trillion Atomic Bombs in Every
Cubic Centimeter of Space
Bohm has a suggestion.
According to our current understanding of physics, every region of space is awash with different kinds of fields composed of waves of varying lengths. Each wave always has at least some energy. When physicists calculate the minimum amount of energy a wave can possess, they find that every cubic centimeter of empty space contains more energy than the total energy of all the matter in the known universe!
From an electron’s point of view such flaws would appear as pieces of “matter” floating in a sea of nothingness, but this is not really the case. The nothingness and the pieces of matter do not exist independently from one another. They are both part of the same fabric, the deeper order of the crystal.
The universe is not separate from this cosmic sea of energy, it is a ripple on its surface, a comparatively small “pattern of excitation” in the midst of an unimaginably vast ocean.
In other words, despite its apparent materiality and enormous size, the universe does not exist in and of itself, but is the stepchild of something far vaster and more ineffable. More than that, it is not even a major production of this vaster something, but is only a passing shadow, a mere hiccup in the greater scheme of things.
Because the implicate order is the foundation that has given birth to everything in our universe, at the very least it also contains every subatomic particle that has been or will be; every configuration of matter, energy, life, and consciousness that is possible, from quasars to the brain of Shakespeare, from the double helix, to the forces that control the sizes and shapes of galaxies. And even this is not all it may contain. Bohm concedes that there is no reason to believe the implicate order is the end of things.
There may be other undreamed of orders beyond it, infinite stages of further development.
Even disregarding the implicate sea of energy, space is filled with light and other electromagnetic waves that constantly crisscross and interfere with one another. As we have seen, all particles are also waves. This means that physical objects and everything else we perceive in reality are composed of interference patterns, a fact that has undeniable holographic implications.
Then in 1982 physicists Alain Aspect, Jean Dalibard and Gerard Roger of the Institute of Optics at the University of Paris succeeded. First they produced a series of twin photons by heating calcium atoms with lasers. Then they allowed each photon to travel in opposite directions through 6.5 meters of pipe and pass through special filters that directed them toward one of two possible polarization analyzers.
It took each filter 10 billionths of a second to switch between one analyzer or the other, about 30 billionths of a second less than it took for light to travel the entire 13 meters separating each set of photons. In this way Aspect and his colleagues were able to rule out any possibility of the photons communicating through any known physical process.
Furthermore, as physicist Paul Davis of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, observes, since all particles are continually interacting and separating,
Aspect’s findings do not prove that Bohm’s model of the universe is correct, but they do provide it with tremendous support. Indeed, as mentioned, Bohm does not believe any theory is correct in an absolute sense, including his own. All are only approximations of the truth, finite maps we use to try to chart territory that is both infinite and indivisible.
This does not mean he feels his theory is not testable. He is confident that at some point in the future techniques will be developed which will allow his ideas to be tested (when Bohm is criticized on this point he notes that there are a number of theories in physics, such as “superstring theory,” which will probably not be testable for several decades).
For example, Yale physicist Lee Smolin simply does not find Bohm’s theory “very compelling, physically.”14 Nonetheless, there is an almost universal respect for Bohm’s intelligence.
The opinion of Boston University physicist Abner Shimony is representative of this view.
Such skepticism notwithstanding, there are also physicists who are sympathetic to Bohm’s ideas, including such big guns as Roger Penrose of Oxford, the creator of the modern theory of the black hole; Bernard d’Espagnat of the University of Paris, one of the world’s leading authorities on the conceptual foundations of quantum theory; and Cambridge’s Brian Josephson, winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in physics.
Josephson believes Bohm’s implicate order may someday even lead to the inclusion of God or Mind within the framework of science, an idea Josephson supports.16
How is the brain (which itself is composed of frequencies of matter) able to take something as insubstantial as a blur of frequencies and make it seem solid to the touch?
In other words, the smoothness of a
piece of fine china and the feel of beach sand beneath our feet are
really just elaborate versions of the
phantom limb syndrome.
Which one is real and which is illusion?
This state of affairs is not limited to china cups. We, too, have two very different aspects to our reality.
We can view ourselves as physical bodies moving through space. Or we can view ourselves as a blur of interference patterns enfolded throughout the cosmic hologram. Bohm believes this second point of view might even be the more correct, for to think of ourselves as a holographic mind/brain looking at a holographic universe is again an abstraction, an attempt to separate two things that ultimately cannot be separated.19
We are part of the hologram...
The implications of this view are just one of the subjects that will be examined as we explore the effect Bohm and Pribram’s ideas have had on the work of researchers in other fields.