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Space Is an Elaborate Illusion

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suitcase being hugged from behindEditor’s Note: This post was intially published May 12 on the World Science Festival’s Web site.

My dad took a peculiar pleasure in fitting the maximum amount of stuff into the smallest possible space. Whenever we went on a family trip, he packed our suitcases like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, ensuring there wasn’t a single wasted inch—a laudable skill as far as I was concerned, since I could take all the toys I wanted and he’d find room for them. (The bags weighed a ton, but those were the days of free baggage check.) Later, when I drove off to my first apartment, he managed to get a household’s worth of stuff into a two-door car. He always denied there’s any limit on how much stuff you can pack into a certain volume. It was just a question of ingenuity.

Alas, the theoretical physicists speaking at A Thin Sheet of Reality: The Universe as a Hologram at this year’s World Science Festival have bad news: there is a limit. If you exceed it, the gravitational force exerted by the contents of your suitcase will become so intense that the suitcase collapses into a black hole, and you’ll never see your stuff again. Admittedly, this ultimate limit is pretty forgiving. An airplane roll-on could hold a Jupiter’s worth of highly compressed material before you ran into trouble with black holes. (The TSA is another matter.)

A limit, per se, might not seem terribly surprising. No amount of paternal ingenuity can overcome the fact that material objects unavoidably take up space; however hard you squeeze, you can’t compress them to nothing. But what’s strange about the ultimate packing limit is that it depends on the size of the container. Bigger containers can hold proportionately less stuff than smaller ones. A two-door car, as wide as two suitcases, has room for eight suitcases in all. If I pack each suitcase to its ultimate limit and then jam them all into the car, I will exceed the car’s overall limit and lose the lot. The most I can put in is two. The car promises so much extra room, but as soon as I try to avail myself of it, nature stops me. It is as if the space is a mirage.

This limit on packing is one aspect of what physicists call the Holographic Principle by analogy to a hologram, which, like my old car, gives the illusion of depth. What happens when you pack things together is one of the most important thought experiments for physicists today. When I dropped by Stanford University in February to chat with one of the participants in this festival event, Lenny Susskind, he told me, "I think it’s the most radical lesson that we’ve learned about physics since the Uncertainty Principle."

What makes it so radical is that the density of matter was supposed to depend only on how compressed each individual scrap of matter can become. It shouldn’t make any difference how many scraps you pile up. That is true not just of density but of other key properties such as how much information each scrap of material can encode. The whole is just the sum of its parts. This intuition is formalized in the modern theory of matter, known as quantum field theory. But the propensity to form black holes means that what one scrap of matter is capable of doing depends on what all the other scraps are doing. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Physicists have suspected for over half a century that quantum field theory needs to give way on extremely small scales, eventually becoming unified with the other great pillar of modern physics, Einstein’s general theory of relativity. That is why they have built giant particle accelerators, which act as powerful microscopes to zoom in on the sub-subatomic world. But the Holographic Principle means that quantum field theory also breaks down on large scales. Whereas no suitcase on Earth is at risk of collapsing to a black hole, the limit become pressing as size increases. Objects with the dimensions of the solar system max out at the density of liquid water. The cosmos is filled with black holes that formed when natural processes attempted to pack too much material too tightly. It’s one thing to expect a breakdown of quantum field theory on small scales, quite another to make sense of it on a large scale.

The Holographic Principle also shows that space isn’t what it appears to be. I don’t mean outer space, the realm of astronauts and asteroids, but the space all around us, the space in our suitcases and cars, the space that separates lovers when they part. Space is pulling a bait-and-switch on us: it seems to have plenty of room to hold stuff, yet it doesn’t. The Holographic Principle is one of several clues suggesting that the concept of “space” is an elaborate illusion—or, to be more precise, that it emerges from a deeper spaceless reality, much as living organisms emerge from inanimate matter.

What breathes life into a lifeless jumble of chemicals is the way those pieces fit together and work together. Likewise, the world may develop a spatial structure from the way its most fundamental ingredients fit together and work together. The best-developed theory for how this can happen goes by the somewhat technical name of “gravity/gauge duality,” which uses the concepts of quantum field theory to do the fitting and working. The force of gravity turns out to be a by-product of the process. One implication is that spatial notions such as distance are derivative. Objects that appear to be far apart may actually be lying right on top of each other, when considered in some deeper sense—which perhaps offers some consolation to the separated lovers of the world.

This panel brings together Susskind and the other father of the Holographic Principle, Nobel laureate Gerard ’t Hooft, along with two physicists who generalized and elaborated on their work, Raphael Bousso and Herman Verlinde.

Image: Flickr, Chispita_666

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  1. 1. DiscomBob 11:52 am 05/17/2011

    Huh?

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  2. 2. MadScientist72 12:47 pm 05/17/2011

    Wait a minute here… If “bigger containers can hold proportionately less stuff than smaller ones” then, as container size approaches infinity, the mass needed to cause the container to collapse into a black hole should approach zero. By this `logic’, the entire universe should be a single super-mega-ultra-massive black hole! This demonstrates just how close theoretical physics is coming to being a pseudoscience. Any field of study that’s so heavily dependent on mathematical `proofs’ that can’t be empirically verified (remember the scientific method, people?) must be taken with a black-hole-inducing grain of salt!

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  3. 3. MadScientist72 12:49 pm 05/17/2011

    Oh, and whats with this sites inability to display apostrophes and quotation marks?

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  4. 4. lamorpa 1:15 pm 05/17/2011

    Let me summarize your comment: "Based on my misinterpretation of this concept and extrapolating, I can show that the authors are wrong, if they meant what I said, instead of what they said."
    They did not say packing density approaches 0 as area increases. They merely said density decreases.

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  5. 5. racer79 2:04 pm 05/17/2011

    Hang on, if this is true does that mean that the expanding of the universe will in fact make all matter in the universe denser? or am i just misunderstanding the concept?

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  6. 6. leuken 3:32 pm 05/17/2011

    The reason theoretical physics and the science of quantum mechanics are heading in the pseudoscience direction is because humanity’s current standard scientific practices cannot yet explain the biggest questions out there. We know that when the observer (scientist) witnesses an elementary particle that the act of observation itself ‘changes’ (for lack of a better term) the particle. What this tells us is that all matter (as we know it) is fickle at best, hence the holographic principle.

    It may be possible that we will never find the edge of the universe or the smallest element that we and all matter is made of because the act of observing with intent therefore creates reality. The fact of the matter is, that matter is not the substance of the universe, it is consciousness.

    We live in a hologram and the reality we experience is a constant creation of consciousness and we humans are biological computers and consciousness conductors.

    How’s that for pseudoscience :-)

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  7. 7. allotrope 4:11 pm 05/17/2011

    I guess a less exact term than "stuff" could have been used, but I’m hard pressed to think of it at the moment.
    How much mass a spherical region of space can hold is proportional to its radius, and how much information is proportional to the area of its surface. As you increase the size of the sphere (or space expands over time) the amount of mass and information it can hold increases, but less quickly than its volume, so over time you’ll tend to see mass and information spreading out.

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  8. 8. jack.123 6:15 pm 05/17/2011

    I wonder if there is enough space left in our minds to contain all this baloney?

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  9. 9. racer79 6:39 pm 05/17/2011

    Nevermind the earlier comment, allotrope’s explantion cleared this whole article up for me

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  10. 10. EyesWideOpen 8:39 pm 05/17/2011

    It’s true; it could take eternity to move from one side of your bedroom to another, if every time you moved 50% of the way to the other side, your size reduced by 50%. The distance ahead of you would always look the same, as if your destination was moving away from you proportionate to your movement toward it.

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  11. 11. deike 10:40 am 05/18/2011

    At the risk of stating the obvious, may I remind my fellow posters that nothing science has ever proven has stayed proven for long.

    The elaborate, and apparently infinite, joke that nature has chosen to play on us is that, no matter how sophisticated the instruments we devise to explore the inner and outer boundaries of the universe, nature can nudge those boundaries just beyond our view.

    Apparently, this is done to maintain our level of interest and to keep us coming back for just one more look.

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  12. 12. jtdwyer 12:50 pm 05/18/2011

    With all the information contained in this view of physical matter, I can’t wait until all this stuff finally starts explaining itself to us, since we apparently can’t figure it out for ourselves…

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 12:50 pm 05/18/2011

    With all the information contained in this view of physical matter, I can’t wait until all this stuff finally starts explaining itself to us, since we apparently can’t figure it out for ourselves…

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  14. 14. MadScientist72 12:52 pm 05/18/2011

    Thanks for clearing that up. I understand where I went wrong now… it’s the change in capacity that decreases as size increases, not the capacity itself.
    Much more helpful than lamorpa’s cooment, which was just as wrong as my inital interpretation.
    But I’m still skeptical of any science that makes claims which can’t be verified experimentally.

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  15. 15. NoToe 6:42 am 05/20/2011

    The reason elaborate ideologies have to be created about space is because the creation of space is not fully understood. The creation of space is a two part system. All things in the universe want to collapse and recoil and expand unless acted upon by another force. To deny this is to deny the creation of this universe. The collapsing force that created this universe has never ceased. It collapses one moment after the next each time creating a larger void to expand into creating more space.

    Matter consumes the collapsing force which creates more space and creates gravity. This is why more space can hold less matter per space. Smaller spaces can hold more matter per space because they become a larger part that consumes the collapsing force as a whole.

    Matter collapses but no longer collapses into itself and recoils to expand out into space like the last big bang it is held in check by black holes. The expansion and collapsing of matter bypass each other in each new moment. The collapsing force rotates as it collapses in. It is why all things spin. The collapsing force collapses in as a sphere and the frame of reference is at the equator. Heading into positive expanding time gives the right hand rule of thumb. Matter collapsing in the left hand rule of thumb on the other side of the equator on a collapsing sphere is pulled into a black hole.

    Not expanding with the expansion force of the universe creates a density problem. Standing still because the consumption of space is greater than the expansion rate of space creates black holes.

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  16. 16. jtdwyer 2:49 pm 05/20/2011

    I thought that universal space is geometrically expanding, producing additional space and time, while locally condensed matter within spacetime continues to locally condense.

    As I understand, material ‘things’ do not expand, only the external space (in which locally collapsing matter resides) expands, at universal scales.

    I do not understand that expansion and gravitation are in conflict to determine whether the universe will continuously expand or re-collapse into the interpolated singularity: that was decided in an instant.

    IMO, gravitation can only collapse matter locally as the universe can only continue to expand. The collapse of matter can never put the universal spacetime genie back into the bottle – it can only produce new local contractions of spacetime, perhaps eventually releasing local expansions of new universal spacetimes…

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  17. 17. mastrostudio 3:51 pm 05/20/2011

    The only two things that are "real" is cognition and time. The latter is a reflective or reproductive result of the former. Both cognition and time are not directly observable phenomena and will always elude analysis via "scientific method". Thought experiments are not science. They are a product of imagination. In our imagination anything is possible, including questions that have only imaginary answers.

    Their only worth is that they are fun to think about, so keep them dreams a cummin!

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  18. 18. mastrostudio 3:53 pm 05/20/2011

    The only two things that are "real" is cognition and time. The latter is a reflective or reproductive result of the former. Both cognition and time are not directly observable phenomena and will always elude analysis via "scientific method". Thought experiments are not science. They are a product of imagination. In our imagination anything is possible, including questions that have only imaginary answers.

    Their only worth is that they are fun to think about, so keep them dreams a cummin!

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  19. 19. bewertow 5:36 pm 05/20/2011

    Hey there NoToe, are you on crack?

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  20. 20. Wayne Williamson 5:55 pm 05/20/2011

    agreed;-)

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  21. 21. lightings 6:34 pm 05/20/2011

    The "fault" of the “illusion of reality”, if there is a fault, is not with reality: "reality" is still very real. The fault, my friends, is with the language human evolved in the eons since he began to "see" and "name" what he/she/it saw.

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  22. 22. lightings 6:44 pm 05/20/2011

    Mr. Musser muse that the "…concept of "space” is an elaborate illusion…".
    The "fault" of that “illusion”, if there is a fault, is not with reality (which is a looser term human uses to characterize spatial reality): "reality" is still very real. The fault, my friends, is with the language human evolved in the eons since he began to "see" and "name" what he/she/it saw.

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  23. 23. quizzical 7:27 pm 05/21/2011

    George Musser – Have you ever seen a living organism emerge from inanimate matter? Dream on, but when you do, I would like to see that!

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  24. 24. bewertow 9:31 pm 05/21/2011

    Are you one of those fairy tale creationists?

    LOL

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  25. 25. hungry doggy 12:19 pm 05/22/2011

    I’m sorry, but I have no idea what the author of this article is trying to say. Maybe a re-write is in order.

    And just what the heck is a "deeper spaceless reality?" Where does it exist if it is "spaceless?"

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  26. 26. Wilhelmus de Wilde 1:43 pm 05/22/2011

    We are talking about "space" being a volume of three dimensions. These dimensions length, width and height are measured in units, their measures are relative to the speed of light, speed meaning time the fourth dimension, so if you take out time then we could agree on a specific length, width and height, giving the specific timeless volume of analog space, if we fill this space with "something" meaning wave/particles, then in the case of waves it could contain endless possibillities of "places" of particles, in fact this volume could contain (almost) endless possibillities of places, so an (almost) endless amount of matter…
    Continue to look at possibilities as information and then we arrive at the beginning of our Universe (NOT THE BIG BANG!), go a little further and give the volume the Planck length, width and height (10^-33cm) and we really arrive at the minimum volume in which we can store the maximum information !?

    keep on thinking
    Wilhelmus
    (ps Bewertow, I am not on crack)

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  27. 27. Daniel35 4:19 pm 05/22/2011

    OK, so putting more stuff in results in a black hole, which simply means you can keep putting more stuff in, without its size reaching the size of the stuff put in. And who can say it isn’t still the same stuff you put in, at least at the level of quarks or beyond?

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  28. 28. quizzical 8:53 pm 05/22/2011

    I don’t know. Have YOU ever seen a living organism emerge from inanimate matter? I can’t wait to see one myself.

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  29. 29. gmusser 9:18 pm 05/22/2011

    Can you be more specific? At what point in the post does it stop making sense to you? Then I’ll know what to try to explain better.

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  30. 30. quizzical 8:47 am 05/23/2011

    To quote George Musser in the article,

    "The Holographic Principle is one of several clues suggesting that the concept of “space” is an elaborate illusion–or, to be more precise, that it emerges from a deeper spaceless reality, much as living organisms emerge from inanimate matter.
    What breathes life into a lifeless jumble of chemicals is the way those pieces fit together and work together."

    Since no one has answered my request for even one single tangible example of a living organism that has emerged from inanimate matter, I can only conclude one of two things.
    Either:
    (1)The author doesn’t know what he is talking about.
    0r:
    (2)He actually thinks folks are stupid enough to believe such nonsensical theories.

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  31. 31. Wilhelmus de Wilde 1:27 pm 05/23/2011

    Hi Quizziqal,
    What is life material ?
    Life material in fact is constituted of inanimated matter, animated matter is just another scale , constitution , we cannot merge together these scales , see quantum theory and special relativity, and I think it is impossible to have a TOE, so :
    the basis of life material is inanimated matter like molecules, atoms, protons, electrons, etc etc even waves (possibilities), it is just the "combination" of the inanimated material that "creates" LIFE material.

    keep on thinking
    Wilhelmus

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  32. 32. quizzical 4:49 pm 05/23/2011

    Maybe you know better, but your comment makes it sound like you are unaware that while LIFE does indeed consist of inanimate matter, the key ingredient is organization according to written Information. All the inanimate matter in the world will not come to Life because of the way the components fit together like the author claims. Without the prerequisite instructions provided by the DNA molecule, nothing significant EVER happens.

    Also, remember that DNA is written in base 4 mathematical code. And, there are many more than twice as many possible arrangements of the nucleotides in only 30 characters of a DNA sequence than there are seconds of time in 15 billion years! Those are pretty lousy chances, don’t you think?

    If I were you, I would give up the silly notion of abiogenesis because it can never happen small step by small step in any reasonable or even unreasonable amount of time.

    Also, recall that Darwin was not even a trained scientist. But rather he was a drop-out theologian who became angry with God all because his daughter became ill and died.

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  33. 33. bucketofsquid 5:33 pm 05/23/2011

    I really dislike when researchers re-use words to describe new observations based on similarity. The Holographic Principle doesn’t say that space is a hologram, merely that is has some of the same characteristics of a hologram. For people like myself, who lack much of the supporting science, this leads to serious flaws in perception. I used to dismiss this theory because it sounded silly. With the additional forum discussion I see where I made false assumptions based on unclear analogy usages.

    I have no problem admitting that my primitive brain is wired by prior experience to deny the possibility of non-dimensional existence or a meaningful limit to space. I therefore challenge any theory claiming to be proven until it can be verified in intergalactic space because it is limited to applying only in a certain amount of matter density ranges and thus human perceptions.

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  34. 34. Wilhelmus de Wilde 11:14 am 05/24/2011

    My dera Quizzical,
    There is no reason at all to believe that our brains are MATCHED to understanding every level of reality, one level of reality being LIFE.
    I can respect that mankind is searching for specific reasons of their existance and their death, but why not just accept that we DON’T KNOW, accepting a Great Architect of the Universe, is one solution, but it is only another way to say that we cannot explain everything but have our explanation anyway ready for everybody who is not a believer.
    DNA I agree with you is very complicated, so is the structure of our Universe, if interested you can read my essay on FQXi: : Realities out of Total Simultaneity: http://www.fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/913
    here I pose a theory why the whole shebang is so complicated in our way of view, don’t hesitate to put your comment on the blog that follows the essay. I really hope for your comment because when different opinions meet and can discuss the outcome is positive for both.

    keep on thinking

    Wilhelmus

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  35. 35. gmusser 9:50 am 05/25/2011

    Absolutely: all our metaphors are limited and, taken too literally, misleading. But we really have no other way of understanding the world. Incidentally, I never wrote that "space is a hologram" – my wording was "by analogy to a hologram".

    Link to this
  36. 36. verdai 8:31 pm 05/27/2011

    Aaaaaa,
    I think the time-honored concept is that (ha) time is the elaborate illusion.
    Can you hold that?

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  37. 37. odyssoma 6:27 pm 06/2/2011

    The premise of this article is simply incoherent:

    "what’s strange about the ultimate packing limit is that it depends on the size of the container. Bigger containers can hold proportionately less stuff than smaller ones. A two-door car, as wide as two suitcases, has room for eight suitcases in all. If I pack each suitcase to its ultimate limit and then jam them all into the car, I will exceed the car’s overall limit and lose the lot. The most I can put in is two. The car promises so much extra room, but as soon as I try to avail myself of it, nature stops me. It is as if the space is a mirage."

    Nothing Musser presents explains why any of this might be true. Hence the premise is merely an unsupported assertion. The same is true of the following (which may or not be related to the above-quoted material, but who can tell from the article?):

    "Objects with the dimensions of the solar system max out at the density of liquid water. The cosmos is filled with black holes that formed when natural processes attempted to pack too much material too tightly."

    The Holographic Principle is a profound and subtle proposition, but Musser has done nothing to explain it, other that a crude attempt to summarize some of its conclusions. This is very disappointing, and unfortunately emblematic of the decline of Scientific American articles in recent years.

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  38. 38. Omicron 2:38 pm 06/10/2011

    How about a really oversimplistic way to visualize it?

    Imagine a flat piece of paper. It is 2 dimensional having only a property of a top side and a bottom side. The actual edge of this plane is a (minor) 3rd dimension.
    If you curve this 2D plane around so as to form a cylinder, it now contains a finite space within its area (volume). Seal the top & bottom and you have a construct which now only "sees" this internal volume. Knowledge of the exterior space outside of this volume can be considered as "unknown and not to exist" (it is not readily observed, but is, only implied).

    Link to this
  39. 39. Omicron 3:21 pm 06/10/2011

    To Add Further..
    The same can be said for a true sphere. which is a closer example approximation of the real universe. It contains only an "inner" & "outer" (or 2D) existance. It also contains within, a finite space or volume which when seen from its interior, has no knowledge of any space residing outside of its interior dimensional space. The same can be said of a toriod or torus (a donut shape) Which one the universe truly is, is subject to much debate. But everywhere some sort of dimensionality exist, it seems to be a construct of 2 basic dimensions, evolving an implied 3rd dimension in some sort of dual but finite example (reality constructs).

    Up has a down. Left has right. + / -, inside has outside,..etc. On and on. Most (but not all) things are thus consistant with these dual dimension observables.
    Anything much more extrapulated from this gets quite complex. Complex not only to explain in its context but also in syntax as well as conceptual truth(s).

    Link to this
  40. 40. hybrid 4:59 am 01/21/2012

    A respected lecturer’s video showed two five man teams in motion passing a basket ball between their members, and asked his very serious medical audience if they could count the number of passes that transpired between the weaving members of the white team during a short period of time. The audience diligently concentrated on the film and the correct number of 17 was found by most, including I would guess, the tv audience
    However this was followed up with “Good, but how many people saw the gorilla in the scene”? — Dead silence.
    The lecturer ran the video again in slower motion. Guess what! A black gorilla of a man comes into the scene, stops in the middle and dances for the camera completely unnoticed. The proverbial elephant in the middle of the room?
    A bigger elephant of course is the ETHER dancing for attention while the Susskinds and the Hawkings develop theories to prove that the ball can only bounce once between team members and occasionally vanish down a black hole, etc, etc but can still be recovered by running the film backwards and so on.
    The “Dynamic Ether” on the other hand proposes that ejected particles do not become so until stopped or fashioned by a slot, or measuring instrument. The tree falls silently in the forest unless the pressure wave is stopped by an ear, the sun’s rays do not heat anything until they fall on something, invisible light fails to illuminate anything before an object gets in its way, and a photon does not become a photon until it goes through a slot to become a wave or gets stopped to become a particle. A dynamic-ether-based universe explains the Uncertainty Principle and just about everything else without mind bending mental gymnastics.
    Perhaps it is time this elephant in the room got recognized

    Link to this

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