As a leading theoretical physicist and bestselling author, Michio Kaku has always stood proudly at the intersection of science fiction and reality, determined to expose the “impossible” as anything but. Inspired by the fantastical world of Flash Gordon, Kaku has devoted his life to completing Einstein’s elusive string theory—a project that, if successful, may finally lead to a unified picture of the universe and its genesis. In that pursuit, he’s penned a bestselling book about physics, a feat once dismissed by his own editor as impossible. Last year’s wildly popular “Physics of the Impossible,” just out in paperback, demystifies the technology behind science-fiction concepts ranging from light sabers and warp speed to time travel and invisibility.
Kaku talked to the Daily Beast about which visions of a space-age future will come to fruition, how Paris Hilton is pushing America to the precipice of scientific collapse, and why Barack Obama may be the next great savior of science.
“We have to excite people to go into the sciences, otherwise we’ll become lazy and fat and irrelevant.”
Which science-fictional technology will be realized first?
Invisibility is developing rapidly now. Scientists from Berkeley are working on bending visible light consistent with invisibility in a way that, in principle, can make a Harry Potter invisibility cloak. We’re decades away, but that’s developing extremely rapidly right now. Other research areas that are going to take much longer: time machines and starships—they’re centuries away.
What is the “grand unified theory of everything”?
I work in string theory, the field that eluded Einstein for the last 30 years of his life. Our goal is to craft something that will summarize all the physical laws of the universe. They hope to prove string theory with the large Hadron collider in Geneva, which took €8 billion to build—it will give us an answer as to what happened at the beginning of time. We wanted to have a complete theory of the origin of the universe and we hope to verify this picture with what comes out of the collider. In the long term, a unified field theory may finally give us a definitive answer as to whether time machines are possible and whether warp drive is a reality. It may be possible, but it will have to wait the unified field theory. A consequence of the UFT may be time machines, starships, the ability to warp the fabric of space and time and turn it into a pretzel—that’s our dream. Time is like a river, and Einstein showed that the river of time can speed up or slow down. The new wrinkle is that the river of time may whirlpool and even fork. Scientists are now building potential designs that may allow us to go back into the past. The energy that allows us to do this is beyond anything that we can harness. We need a unified field theory to guide us.
Which science-fiction works have influenced your work?
When I was a child, I used to love the Flash Gordon series, but very soon I realized I didn’t have blond hair or muscles. It was a scientist that made the whole series work. He developed the starship, the city in the sky—all those marvelous inventions. Then I learned something: Science is the architect of the future. If you want to know what the future’s going to look like, you have to understand science, and I learned that by watching Flash Gordon. Star Wars is almost a clone. The technology of Flash Gordon was inserted almost directly into the Star Wars saga. The Asimov series also had a big impact on me. Scientists often say, “bah humbug, this cannot work,” which only means that it cannot work with existing technology. Asimov told me that I have to look 50,000 years into the future. Then you realize that some technologies do become possible, so we shouldn’t say bah humbug so soon. Many great physicists say bah humbug and later they’re shown to be wrong; it’s always dangerous to say something is impossible.
Where does the U.S. stand on the global scale of scientific progress?
America used to be No. 1 across the board—we had a grand plan. Now we’re beginning to lose that edge and I’m starting to worry. For example, take the large Hadron collider in Europe. A similar machine called the “super collider” was almost built outside of Dallas by Ronald Regan. It would have been 10 times bigger, but was canceled in 1993. So leadership in this field has passed to the Europeans. Stem-cell research is being led by the Europeans. One by one, we’re going to lose our edge in high technology because we’re resting on our laurels, and that’s very dangerous.
Why are we slipping, and how can we reverse the trend?
When I was growing up in the Sputnik generation, it was great to become a scientist— you were doing your patriotic bid against communism. Now when you’re a scientist, people laugh at you, they snicker, call you a nerd. We have to realize that science is the engine of prosperity. Science had a huge shot in the arm when we created technologies like GPS and the Internet and so forth; it came from the Sputnik generation. But I’m worried about the next generation; we need to inspire the next generation of scientists. Unfortunately there’s too much Hollywood fluff out there: People are concerned about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears—I have nothing against those two people, but they tend to dominate the headlines. And real people are influenced by this. People take their cues from this and they say, “I don’t want to be a nerd.” That’s hurtful for America because the Indians and Chinese are much hungrier. In Silicon Valley, 60 percent of the scientists are foreign-born—mainly Indians and Chinese. They know that science is the engine of prosperity. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears may be good people, but they’re not the engines of prosperity. I’m worried that we may lose the edge as young people concentrate on Hollywood fluff instead of real academic pursuits that generate wealth.
Are you saying that inspiration will require the resurgence of a Cold War-type ethos?
I hope we can inspire young people with movies and books. Jules Verne, for example, has inspired many of the scientists of the 20th century. Edward Hubble, the greatest astronomer of the 20th century, who discovered the expanding universe, he was inspired by Jules Verne. I hope we can do it peacefully, and through science fiction. We have to excite people to go into the sciences, otherwise we’ll become lazy and fat and irrelevant.
How probable is a Terminator-like machine takeover?
Our robots are as smart as a cockroach. Our cockroaches are not going to take over humanity anytime soon. Our robots can barely navigate across the room. They can barely recognize a human face and you can’t talk to a cockroach—so that’s the state of our robots. We’re going to be in charge of machines for many decades to come. As they gradually become intelligent, we’ll have time to shut them off. As soon as they become as intelligent as a dog or a cat or a monkey, then we have to worry.
What is the fate of humanity?
We are in a race against time. There are two trends in the world: one is for a type 1 civilization that controls the weather, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hurricanes. The other trend is for terrorism, chaos, hatred, and all those things. It’s not clear which way we’re going to go in the future. I think it’s going to be very close. On one hand we have nations that believe in prosperity, that believe in a science education, believe that tolerance is the way to go. We also have intolerance, the rise of bigotry (especially religious bigotry). We also have nuclear weapons. In the old days, people used to duke it out on the battlefield. Nuclear weapons create a much more dangerous battlefield.
How would you characterize the Obama administration’s approach to science?
Obama has said flatly that we should not impose ideological values on science. Let science be science. Let it flourish rather than impose our own preconceived notions on science, which is always dangerous. Look what happened to the Catholic Church when they imposed doctrines on Galileo. If the church had won that battle, we would have no space program. We wouldn’t have the Internet, weather satellites, communications satellites—we’d be 100 years back into the past if the church had their way. I think it’s very dangerous to impose our beliefs, and Obama has stated that he’s not going to do that.
Many people criticized LBJ for pushing a weather satellite; they said it was too expensive, but then it detected a hurricane headed toward Texas. That gave ample time to evacuate and prepare; it saved billions of dollars, thousands of lives. LBJ said, ‘that program has paid for itself manifold.’ And he was exactly right. One satellite paid for the entire space program. For the first time in history, you could see a hurricane from outer space. The stimulus money that goes into science today will pay for itself many times over in the same way LBJ’s weather satellite paid for the entire space program.
Which new energy sources are most promising?
Within the next five to 10 years, there’s going to be an energy mix. There’s no white knight coming down the line that’s going to replace oil or coal—they’re very cheap and energy rich. Looking beyond that horizon, the next step is a solar-hydrogen economy. As the price of solar goes down, and oil goes up, the capitalists are going to fry. We will be in a solar-hydrogen fusion economy. We have to get beyond fossil fuels entirely. We are passing points of no return, of which there are many. No matter what we do, the northern polar ice caps—they will probably melt. The big point of no return is when the earth heats up forever—we haven’t gotten there yet, thank God. But it’s dangerous because we’re gradually passing these points of no return.
Nash Landesman is a Daily Beast intern. He worked and wrote for Men's Vogue prior to his arrival.