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A Braiding Of Stories: Buddhist, Taoist & Physics

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To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

~ William Blake

“The phenomenal universe is perceived ‘without’ whereas it should be apperceived ‘within’ -- as every sage and prophet, including Jesus, has pointed out, and wherein it becomes ‘the kingdom of Heaven’.”

~ Wei Wu Wei

So, in penning those lines (from his poem “Auguries Of Innocence”) is William Blake simply exercising his poetic license -- demonstrating a wild breadth of imagination -- or is he offering what is actually a more-or-less true description of how things really are: a vision of a holographic universe? Or, perhaps, both?

Several days ago, a friend invited me to join her in viewing a couple episodes of Morgan Freeman’s Through The Wormhole: explorations of some of the most mind-bending aspects of contemporary physics. The one that really piqued my interest was The Riddle Of Black Holes. Fascinating stuff. If you’re not up for watching the entire episode (though I’d highly recommend it), you can skip to the 35-minute mark, and just take in the final ten minutes -- which relate most directly to this essay, and include a couple of very fun thought experiments.

Mr. Freeman begins this particular episode by recounting his own fascination, as a young boy, with a deep well, in his back yard, into which he loved to gaze, and into which, one day, he launched a small plastic toy-person, tethered to a white cloth which served as a makeshift parachute, watching it drift down and then disappear. It was a perfect image, to set the stage for an exploration of black holes: cosmic sinkholes, whose gravitational pull is so great that not even light can escape.

For some time, physicists believed that whatever was drawn into a black hole was not only lost forever from the realms of the non-black-hole universe, but -- even more disturbingly -- lost forever from the universe itself, at the time of the black hole’s final dissolution. This was the conclusion reached, in particular, by physicist Stephen Hawking, and which challenged a foundational principle of modern physics: the conservation of information (or matter/energy).

Eventually another physicist -- Leonard Susskind -- rescued this “conservation of information” principle, by establishing that matter/energy which entered a black hole did not in fact disappear entirely, but rather left a two-dimensional holographic image of itself, distributed along the boundary of the black hole (known as the “event horizon”). It was this encoded information which was the source of co-called “Hawking radiation” -- subtle emanations from the event horizon, which previously had been hypothesized (by Mr. Hawking) to be unrelated to the content of the black hole. The main point here, which Susskind established, was that for every three-dimensional object drawn to the core of a black hole, there exists a corresponding two-dimensional holographic image of it, along the event horizon.

~ * ~

But back to the deep well in the childhood back yard of Morgan Freeman. Hearing this reminded me of a Chinese parable, which appears originally in the writings of the Taoist sage Zhuangzi (in On The Nature Of The Tao, chapter 17: “Autumnal Floods”). It’s a story of of frog living in just such a well. The frog is quite happy with his well, and its small pool of water, feels that it is quite wonderful, and relishes his mastery of its environment. Then one day a sea-turtle appears at the rim of the well. The frog invites him in, but turtle can’t quite squeeze his turtle-sized body through the well’s entrance, so is forced (with regrets) to decline the invitation. Nevertheless, he hangs out there at the well’s entrance long enough to share with the frog a description of the deep and wide and infinitely expansive ocean: a description which leaves the little frog thoroughly awestruck.

In relation to this parable, Zhuangzi then writes (Giles translation here):

Limited by space, a frog in the well has no idea what is the ocean.
Limited by time, an insect in summer has no idea what is ice.
Limited by intellect, a man in life has no idea what is Consciousness.

~ * ~

The story of black holes recording two-dimensional holographic images of the three-dimensional objects drawn into them would, in and of itself, be really interesting. What makes it even more interesting -- to the point of being rather mind-boggling -- is that the space of the universe as a whole behaves in a way analogous to the space within black holes. Given this parallel, the implications of Susskind’s discovery become truly revolutionary: pointing to the possibility that what we experience as our “three-dimensional world” is simply a holographic projection of two-dimensional information inscribed on the boundary of the universe (the so-called “cosmological horizon”). As Mr. Freeman puts it:

"In a sense, three-dimensional space is just one version of reality; the other version exists on the flat holographic film billions of light years away at the edge of the cosmos. Why these two realities seem to coexist is now the biggest puzzle physics needs to solve.”

Continued On Page Two

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