Quantum field theory has made some incredibly accurate predictions about the universe, but it has also made some of the worst. One of the less-than-perfect predictions is known as the vacuum catastrophe.

This refers to the massive disagreement between the theoretical and measured values of the vacuum energy of the universe. This is no small difference, either — the measured value is 120 orders of magnitude less than the amount predicted by quantum field theory.

Although we think of the vacuum of space as being empty, it actually contains energy. This stems from oscillations in the quantum fields that make up space. These fields correspond to quantum particles like electrons, quarks and neutrinos.

Many physicists have tried to resolve the mismatch between the observed and predicted vacuum energy densities using string theory, multiverses or other possible solutions. So far, none of them have completely eliminated the discrepancy.

A new approach proposed by physicists Nassim Haramein and Amira Val Baker from the Hawaii Institute for Unified Physics in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, offers another possible solution to this problem. Their work was published March 13 in the Journal of High Energy Physics, Gravitation and Cosmology.

Their approach is similar to the holographic principle. According to this principle, the information inside a volume—such as a room or black hole—depends not on the volume, but on the surface area of its boundaries. For a room, this would be the surface area of the walls. For a black hole, it would be the surface area of the event horizon.

Haramein developed a modified version of the holographic principle that looks at not just the information available on the surface, but also at the information on the inside, or the volume. He calls this the generalized holographic approach.

“The generalized holographic approach doesn’t assume that the information on the surface that is available to an exterior observer represents all the information that’s hidden in the volume. Instead, it’s looking at the relationship between the two,” Val Baker told Science and Nonduality.

This approach looks at the universe—from the very small to the very big—in terms of its fundamental units. In this case, that is Planck units, named after Max Planck, the physicist who first proposed them. These are theoretical units, not something you would measure like inches or centimeters.

If you imagine that the universe is a computer screen, you’ll find fundamental components combining to create the image or object that you see. On a computer screen, these smallest units are called pixels. The three-dimensional version are called voxels, or what Haramein refers to as Planck Spherical Units, or PSUs.

According to the generalized holographic approach, the information—or energy—contained within a spherical system depends on the PSUs inside the volume as well as those on the surface. The relationship between the interior and exterior defines the mass-energy density of the system.

You can use this spherical system to represent anything with that general shape—a ball, a black hole, a proton, or even a spherical universe.

Haramein and Val Baker first looked at the mass of a proton in terms of the number of PSUs that it contained. From this they were able to determine its mass-energy density. They found that the information contained within the proton is equivalent to the energy density of the universe.

”If you imagine that you expand a proton to the radius of the universe, you get the exact value for the vacuum energy density,” said Val Baker. “So we’re able to determine the vacuum energy density at the cosmological scale by using this generalized holographic approach.”

Unlike other attempts to resolve the vacuum catastrophe, using the generalized holographic approach didn’t require large corrections to make it work. This approach also worked from the very tiny—Planck scale—to the very large, cosmological scale.

In addition, the value for the mass-energy density of the expanded proton was equivalent to the dark matter density of the universe. Unlike “normal” matter that we can see, dark matter doesn’t absorb, reflect or emit light.

Scientists infer the existence of dark matter based on its gravitational effect on visible matter. They estimate that the universe is 27 percent dark matter and 68 percent dark energy, with the rest consisting of visible matter like stars, galaxies and planets.

So what does this solution to the vacuum catastrophe mean for the universe?

“We think it means that dark matter is due to the potential energy of the proton acting at the scale of the universe,” said Val Baker. “It’s the hidden energy that isn’t immediately available, that you can’t see.”

Val Baker said their next step is to figure out exactly how dark matter fits into this.

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