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Tl;dr: Results are inconclusive.
When string theorists say we live in a hologram, they don’t mean we are shadows in Plato’s cave. They mean their math says that all information about what’s inside a box can be encoded on the boundary of that box – albeit in entirely different form.
The holographic principle – if correct – means there are two different ways to describe the same reality. Unlike in Plato’s cave, however, where the shadows lack information about what caused them, with holography both descriptions are equally good.
Holography would imply that the three dimensions of space which we experience are merely one way to think of the world. If you can describe what happens in our universe by equations that use only two-dimensional surfaces, you might as well say we live in two dimensions – just that these are dimensions we don’t normally experience.
It’s a nice idea but hard to test. That’s because the two-dimensional interpretation of today’s universe isn’t normally very workable. Holography identifies two different theories with each other by a relation called “duality.” The two theories in question here are one for gravity in three dimensions of space, and a quantum field theory without gravity in one dimension less. However, whenever one of the theories is weakly coupled, the other one is strongly coupled – and computations in strongly coupled theories are hard, if not impossible.
The gravitational force in our universe is presently weakly coupled. For this reason General Relativity is the easier side of the duality. However, the situation might have been different in the early universe. Inflation – the rapid phase of expansion briefly after the big bang – is usually assumed to take place in gravity’s weakly coupled regime. But that might not be correct. If instead gravity at that early stage was strongly coupled, then a description in terms of a weakly coupled quantum field theory might be more appropriate.
This idea has been pursued by Kostas Skenderis and collaborators for several years. These researchers have developed a holographic model in which inflation is described by a lower-dimensional non-gravitational theory. In a recent paper, their predictions have been put to test with new data from the Planck mission, a high-precision measurement of the temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background.
- From Planck data to Planck era: Observational tests of Holographic Cosmology
Niayesh Afshordi, Claudio Coriano, Luigi Delle Rose, Elizabeth Gould, Kostas Skenderis
Phys. Rev. Lett. 118, 041301 (2017)
In this new study, the authors compare the way that holographic inflation and standard inflation in the concordance model – also known as ΛCDM – fit the data. The concordance model is described by six parameters. Holographic inflation has a closer connection to the underlying theory and so the power spectrum brings in one additional parameter, which makes a total of seven. After adjusting for the number of parameters, the authors find that the concordance model fits better to the data.
However, the biggest discrepancy between the predictions of holographic inflation and the concordance model arise at large scales, or low multipole moments respectively. In this regime, the predictions from holographic inflation cannot really be trusted. Therefore, the authors repeat the analysis with the low multipole moments omitted from the data. Then, the two models fit the data equally well. In some cases (depending on the choice of prior for one of the parameters) holographic inflation is indeed a better fit, but the difference is not statistically significant.
To put this result into context it must be added that the best-understood cases of holography work in space-times with a negative cosmological constant, the Anti-de Sitter spaces. Our own universe, however, is not of this type. It has instead a positive cosmological constant, described by de-Sitter space. The use of the holographic principle in our universe is hence not strongly supported by string theory, at least not presently.
The model for holographic inflation can therefore best be understood as one that is motivated by, but not derived from, string theory. It is a phenomenological model, developed to quantify predictions and test them against data.
While the difference between the concordance model and holographic inflation which this study finds are insignificant, it is interesting that a prediction based on such an entirely different framework is able to fit the data at all. I should also add that there is a long-standing debate in the community as to whether the low multipole moments are well-described by the concordance model, or whether any of the large-scale anomalies are to be taken seriously.
In summary, I find this an interesting result because it’s an entirely different way to think of the early universe, and yet it describes the data. For the same reason, however, it’s also somewhat depressing. Clearly, we don’t presently have a good way to test all the many ideas that theorists have come up with.