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And They Say Pot Makes You Stupid!

A long hour at the Museum of Holography



"Hey look!" said my friend Joe from the backseat of my car. "It's 4:20." The four of us had just lit a joint, and the Museum of Holography closed at five.

Walking up to the bannerless building, a couple blocks from Oprah's studio, we saw a metal gate pulled almost all the way across the inside of the front doors. We rang the bell anyway.

We could see a small room at the top of a flight of stairs. After a minute a petite figure shuffled into it, and the door buzzed open. "Why are you coming in here so late?" a woman's voice demanded.

"Uh," someone stammered, "we just woke up." I burst out laughing like a loon.

Our hostess came into focus as we tramped up the stairs and into a small gallery and gift shop: a hobbitlike elderly woman with gray hair in a perfectly curled-under bowl cut, small, dark eyes, and tiny, smoke-colored rectangular frames perched at the end of her nose. "I'm going to need $4 from each of you," she told us.

We fumbled with the money, then took a few steps toward the holograms. "Hey, not so fast," she said, and we reluctantly turned back to face her. She began a lecture on holography, using phrases like "high science," "prescription lenses," "one billionth of a second," and "wave reconstruction."

I'll be damned if I remember much; I was concentrating too hard on looking serious. But it probably started something like this, from the museum's homemade-looking Web site: "Holography is an outgrowth of the most advanced science and technology of our age. In the simplest terms it is the ability to produce three-dimensional representations down to molecular exactness. It promises to have a profound effect on every area and field of human endeavor--engineering, architecture, the arts, entertainment and advertising. As a concept that is only approximately 50 years old, its potential as a practical reality did not even begin to be realized until the development of a workable laser in the early 1960s . . ."

After what seemed like a lifetime, we were free to roam. We quickly scanned the walls in the front room, which were covered with small holograms: a crazy-looking man who turned into a crazy-looking wolfman, a young girl kissing a deadpan boy who could've been her brother, a woman with a gun whose barrel jutted into your face wherever you turned, a gnarly witch, a fuzzy kitten.

"Hey!" Joe shouted. "It's Gary Numan!" He pointed to an androgynous moonfaced human wearing a neck ruffle.

We moved into the royal-blue-carpeted main gallery, where images of a pig-size tarantula, a man painting a swirl, and a hungry shark appeared in clear plates suspended from the ceiling. Four-foot-tall cylinders housed tiny rotating holographic movies--Michael Jordan passing a ball behind his back, a woman admiring herself in a mirror, Mike Royko smiling. More, um, creative work by Ron and Bernadette Olsen melded holograms with large-format photography (of, say, a woman carrying a framed holographic portrait of herself).

Joe walked back to the front room to ask the woman if the people who made holograms fancied hallucinogenic drugs. She responded with a resolute no, as if that were the most preposterous thing she'd ever heard. I went in to save him, or maybe her, and asked how she got into holography. "It was cosmic destiny," she replied, and told us she was Loren Billings, one of the museum's founders. She's also the executive director, but when we asked to take a photo of her she declined, saying she didn't think she was important enough.

On the way into the next room, dedicated to the work of Arthur L. Freund, a physicist and holographer who died of AIDS, we passed a three-foot-wide T. rex skull and a grizzled man panning for gold. "Panhandling!" I shouted gleefully.

The work got even trippier in Freund's room. "Kate's Instrument," an image of a tiny violin propped up on a hill of sand that turned into a woman's naked rear end as you moved to the left, was captioned with a poem: "The instrument of life / The invisible pulses of life / Unbounded by time and space." A plaque next to a green hand reaching for a red egg, entitled "Eggstasy," read, "Humor returns to first principles and causes, a symbolic message of humanity reaching out for their hopes and desires, the material and the spiritual."

Too deep for me. I walked into the next room, a series of depressing, straightforward images illustrating the usefulness of holographic imaging in medicine: a dilated bladder and an enlarged prostate, ventricles of the human brain, a fetal skull, a severely messed-up uterus. This room sobered all of us up considerably--good thing, since it was time to leave.

Billings was at the gift counter as we emerged, spinning a dozen or so discs imprinted with abstract holographic patterns. There was no way we were getting out of there gracefully without hearing what those were all about.

Pointing to one with circles and ovals on it she said, "If you look at this, you can see the universe--the planets and their gravitational pull." Joe pulled his scarf over his mouth, and his shoulders shuddered. "Imagine this is us in the Milky Way," she continued, pointing to a spot on another disc, a sort of wavy sunburst, then gave it a spin. We watched as the spot seemed to fly off the disc and into the air. "If you turn it the other way," she said, "it's a black hole imploding."

She reached under the counter and pulled out four pairs of Buddy Holly glasses with plastic film for lenses. "Here," she said, passing them out, "put these on."

Suddenly the room was filled with little rainbow shards. "Look at the light," she commanded, then explained that the rainbows we saw were how light actually appears; our brains just process it as white so we can comprehend distance.

"Now look at your hands." As we moved our hands, we saw blurry, foggy traces of them. "That's energy," Billings said dreamily. "That's your aura." Then she pressed her index finger into my palm. "See? You have resistance."

Joe dropped to the floor in a fit of laughter, hugged his knees to his chin, and tried to focus on a glass case of holographic earrings.

A fat brown cat ran past us. "My kitten is a night creature," she said, "who only sees in black and white, hardly any color. A butterfly sees in ultraviolet."

That did it. I sputtered, which set off another friend. "I'm sorry," I explained lamely. "I'm giggling so much because I didn't realize this was gonna be so intense."

If she knew I was full of it, she wasn't letting on. She told us a story that started with Galileo and ended with Dr. Dennis Gabor, who developed the theory of holography while working on electron microscopes in 1947 and won a Nobel Prize for it in 1971. The whole time we were still wearing the glasses, staring at our hands. "It's high science," she said. "Quantum theory visualized . . . proof that we're all connected."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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