A Voyage to the Boundaries of Physics

Agora project explains the 'holographic principle'

As complicated as particle physics may be, experiments such as those conducted at CERN make it clear how researchers in this discipline work. . However, theoretical physicists, whose work is based on mathematical models, have more difficulty explaining their work. A project from ETH Zurich attempts to provide easy-to-understand insight into a current field of research in theoretical physics.

Researcher Dr Alessandro Sfondrini (ETH Zurich) wishes to make the 'holographic principle' understandable to students.
Image: private / zVg

In 2011, the Swiss National Science Foundation - the organization of the Confederation to promote basic research - launched the Agora program. The program supports scientific communication projects that are designed to convey scientific results and ways of thinking to non-scientists with up to 200,000 francs. To achieve this goal, researchers in Agroa projects are teaming up with communication experts to bring the sometimes very complex scientific facts from the ivory towers of academic research to the general public.

Explanation by Video

Making research comprehensible is not equally difficult for all disciplines. “Life-like” subjects such as medicine or biology are usually easier to communicate than very abstract topics such as, for example, quantum physics. In physical research, the experiments carried out often allow for a good description of the scientific work, which then also allows an approximation of the physical contents. The theoretical physicists who develop abstract mathematical models and thereby deliver the framework for experimental physicists, have much more difficulty explaining their work to a general public.

Thus theoretical physics poses special challenges for scientific communication. With this background, Dr. Alessandro Sfondrini, theoretical physicist at ETH Zurich, is carrying out a three-year Agrora project, which has been running since February 2017. ‘A Voyage to the Boundaries of Theoretical Physics’ is the title of the video project, which the physicist is creating together with the Munich based communications agency ‘Kurzgesagt’. Sfondrini studied physics in Padua, then researched in Utrecht (NL) and Berlin (Germany). Since 2015 he has been working at ETH Zurich. “The content of theoretical physics is difficult to understand, even for smart high-school pupils and students interested in science,” Sfondrini says. “The cliché is still widespread, theoretical physicists work as lonely thinkers in the quiet chamber. This distorted perception also keeps young women from embarking on the fascinating questions of our discipline.”

In Four Languages

In the first year of the Agora project, the ETH scientists together with the German communications agency are compiling a three-part, 15 to 20 minute long explanatory video about the ‘holographic principle,’ an important but little known theory from theoretical physics that deals with gravitational force. This video, which will be available in English, French, German and Italian, will then be used for a period of two years in exhibitions, high schools and universities to give young people a look into the theory and to generate enthusiasm among them over theoretical physics.

Over 15,000 scientific publications have been devoted to the ‘holographic principle’ in recent years. Alessandro Sfrondrini outlines the basic idea of the theory as follows: “Black holes are structures with such high attraction that they can not even radiate light particles (photons). It is correspondingly difficult to understand what is going on inside black holes, because they keep almost all information to themselves. The theory of the ‘holographic principle’, developed in the 1990s, now states - in a very simplified manner - that what happens inside a black hole in three-dimensional space can be described by its surface and thus by a two-dimensional plane. For us as theorists, this is a striking thought, which could be used as an explanatory model for various physical phenomena in the future.” For those whom this explanation does not suffice, they will soon be able to find out more: Alessandro Sfrondrini’s explanatory video will be available on YouTube at the end of the year.

Author: Benedikt Vogel


  • Theoretical Physics