Is your head like a floating island or are you in some kind of hologram? Can your body be covered with a protective shield, or have it disappear completely? Does the object you are looking at have a self-destruct button in it? What’s the definition of hologram? Which of these is more cool—a film or a hologram image? Is a hologram an actual object or a projection of one? Is it possible to change what’s happening to one person at the same time as another? And does the act of showing a hologram, on paper or computer, alter reality?
My first exposure to the possibility of holographic projection came in an interview for the March issue of the New Yorker. Back in the 1960s, I’d spent a short time as a researcher at the University of Maryland, studying the physics of the motion of light in the atmosphere. My dissertation topic was whether light wave interaction can propagate through very dense and thin substances like glass or water.
At the time, the idea was fairly esoteric. Even today, though, most people outside of aerospace engineers are unaware that such phenomenon—called diffraction, or the bending of the light as it passes through small irregularities—occurs as we look at the world through our eyes. This phenomenon is very similar to the “spacetime curvature” that physicists see when viewing astronomical or other celestial objects from Earth. In fact, it even occurs, sometimes dramatically, when watching holographic images.
In 1966, I was assigned to create some test patterns in a small glass jar. I had been looking for the perfect pattern, and I was disappointed. It was a very difficult thing to make, and it required a very strong magnet. But it turned out to be my finest achievement, and so I became obsessed with trying to make a good one.
My solution was quite simple: I took out a few pieces of paper that hadn’t been folded in a long time, put some cotton around them for a headband and tried to write out the pattern onto these pieces of paper. The effect was wonderful: You could see the pattern just as an image would emerge through the tiny crevasse.
I had been working on this for around four or five months at the time, with the help of an assistant, and it was one of my most fun and rewarding projects. But my colleague at the University of Maryland, Mike Breen, had a simple point: We needed a better method. He suggested that I approach a
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