For a talking head, Michio Kaku is beyond accomplished. A child prodigy who became one of the founders and leading proponents of the controversial string theory—one that, in essence, picks up where Einstein left off—the 62-year-old scientist is one of the world’s leading cosmologists. But he’s also a genial, engaging TV host who frequently pops up on The Science Channel, The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, and news shows from 20/20 to Countdown With Keith Olbermann. He’s also a radio personality and the author of a series of popular physics books—the latest being the bestseller Physics Of The Impossible, which looks at the eventual viability of science-fiction tropes such as starships, robots, and ESP. While on set filming a miniseries version of Physics Of The Impossible for The Science Channel, Kaku spoke with The A.V. Club about science fiction, inspiration, and what Martians might think of Britney Spears.
The A.V. Club: Most physicists toil away in relative obscurity, at least as far as the mass media is concerned. How did you wind up such a public figure?
Michio Kaku: One day when I was 8 years old, everyone was talking in hushed tones about a great scientist that had just died. His name was Albert Einstein. That night on television—I’ll never forget—they flashed a picture of his desk. The caption said, “Unfinished manuscript of the greatest scientist of our time.” To me, that was like a murder mystery. I wanted to know what was inside that book. What could be so fantastic that the greatest scientist of my era could not finish it? But every time I went to the library, I was met with frustration. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, about this great man’s unfinished work. The books I wanted to read about Einstein were way over my head, too elementary, or didn’t exist at all. So I made a promise to myself: When I grew up and became a theoretical physicist, I would try to answer those questions that had me so frustrated when I was a child. I didn’t want other people to go through what I did. I decided to write books that engaged the public about physics.
AVC: Were you worried the public might not be as curious as you?
MK: There’s a huge hunger to know this stuff. One of my early editors said, “Of course, physics books never sell. You cannot write a bestseller with the word ‘physics’ in it. It is not possible. The American public is a bunch of dummies.” But then Stephen Hawking came along and showed that there’s this huge groundswell of curiosity about the big questions of the universe: where we came from, what it all means, where we fit into the grand scheme of things. I’ve been constantly surprised that, when given a chance, people really will gravitate toward these big, cosmic questions.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
MK: People really do want to know these answers. These are the questions that are in our dreams. We think about these things every time we go outside and look at the stars. You can’t help but be overwhelmed by the majesty of the universe. We’re not just glued to Hollywood fluff and the great wasteland of television.
AVC: That said, Physics Of The Impossible dives heavily into the relationship between pop culture and science. Is there any science fiction being made now that really engages you as a physicist?
MK: I’m constantly surprised that Hollywood moviemakers are now trying to add some authenticity to their work. I have a syndicated radio show, and recently I had on Andrew Fickman, the director of Race To Witch Mountain, which was the number-one movie at the time. He told me that he has been influenced by all this popular literature about physics—that he and a lot of other filmmakers don’t want to make a lot of bloopers when it comes to aliens and fantastic technology and outer space. They do want to get some of their facts right. I was kind of heartened by this. And in Race To Witch Mountain, you can see that he tried to get his planets correct, the distances to the stars correct. He does mention by name the mechanism that may one day take us faster than the speed of light. If anything, popular culture is now beginning to recognize that we physicists have been pondering these questions for quite a while, and that Hollywood should get at least some of these things scientifically correct.
AVC: In many ways, science has completely surpassed science fiction. Do you think SF writers still have the ability to predict the future the way Jules Verne or H.G. Wells once did?
MK: The fact that Jules Verne got it right so often, I think, is a byproduct of the fact that his closest associates were scientists. He wrote a book called Paris In The 20th Century. It was written in the 1860s. He made these wild predictions for the next 100 years—that we would have fax machines, automobiles, glass skyscrapers, all of which were considered total science fiction in the time of Abraham Lincoln. The manuscript of the book was recently discovered and became a bestseller in France. And if you read Verne’s book From The Earth To The Moon, almost all the numbers in there are correct. In fact, a friend of mine went through it and checked. The mass of the spaceship, its velocity, where it took off, where it landed—they’re all correct. The Apollo mission was almost a carbon copy of the book.
AVC: So why does so much science fiction get it wrong?
MK: Many of these writers don’t know what’s going on the scientific realm. In the 1950s, we had all these B-grade science-fiction movies. The point was to scare the public and get them to buy popcorn. No attempt was made to create movies that were somewhat inherent to the truth. Things have changed. The late Michael Crichton, for example, was a doctor. He was very aware of what was going on in the sciences. He wanted to make thrillers involving science that’s just a little bit ahead of ours. He took technologies that were maybe 20 or 30 years in our future and made bestsellers out of them.
AVC: So there’s a kind of reciprocal inspiration between science and science fiction?
MK: Well, when scientists are young, they get inspired by science fiction. Edwin Hubble, for instance, was inspired by Jules Verne. He was raised to become a rural lawyer in Missouri, but he dropped everything to become the greatest astronomer of the 20th century—all because he remembered reading Jules Verne as a child. Carl Sagan was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. So often, science fiction helps to get young people interested in science. That’s why I don’t mind talking about science fiction. It has a real role to play: to seize the imagination.
AVC: One TV show that may be doing that today is Heroes. It also happens to cover many of the subjects you do in your book: invisibility, time travel, telepathy, teleportation, psychokinesis.
MK: I haven’t kept up with Heroes. However, Popular Mechanics asked me to write an article about Lost, because Lost is heading in that direction. I talked about the theory behind the show—which is that some kind of meteorite fell on this island, and the meteorite was made of exotic matter that opened tunnels through space and time. Lost is now starting to incorporate some of the latest theories from physics. Physics is often stranger than science fiction, and I think science fiction takes its cues from physics: higher dimensions, wormholes, the warping of space and time, stuff like that. Gene Roddenberry, the father of Star Trek, stole a whole bunch of ideas from real physics. Antimatter was one. Some people think Gene Roddenberry discovered antimatter. [Laughs.] It was actually physicists in the 1930s. Science fiction without the science just becomes, you know, sword and sorcery, basically stories about heroism and not much more.
AVC: In the book, you talk about how certain physics theories are like “fads or fashions” among scientists. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
MK: Fads are universal whenever you have a cutting-edge technology, whenever there’s no definitive yes or no. In my field—which is theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology—we’ve had a whole bunch of fads come and go. These are some of the most difficult things to measure in the entire universe: the Big Bang, the smallest particles, what happens inside a black hole. But eventually out of these fads comes real, reproducible science. That’s the ultimate test.
AVC: In the epilogue of Physics Of The Impossible, it seems you’re tackling all the critics of string theory head-on. Do you have to have a thick skin to be a theoretical physicist?
MK: I’ve seen this all before. I started working on string theory in 1969. That’s when I published my first paper on string theory—right after it was born, in fact. Since then, I’ve seen three cycles of tremendous interest followed by disappointment. [Laughs.] You can’t help it. You’re going to have naysayers coming in. You’re going to have the bandwagon effect. I’m not surprised by that at all. In fact, when string theory first was big in the 1970s, and then the bubble burst, most string theorists were unemployed. That was the joke back then: If you want to find a string theorist, go to the unemployment line. We were in the wilderness back then. So now, when people say string theory is dominant and that we hog all the good jobs, I laugh. My attitude is, you’ve to take a long view on this kind of theory. When the idea of black holes came out—believe it or not, it was 200 years ago that the first paper on black holes was published—they were called dark stars. People laughed. Now black holes dominate astronomy. You can’t go anywhere without bumping into them. That same cycle has repeated over and over. Atomic theory took 2,000 years to become established. I don’t think string theory has to wait that long, though.
AVC: A lot has been written lately about a new optimism within the science community, now that Barack Obama is in office and taking things like renewable energy and stem-cell research seriously. Is any of that hope trickling over to you?
MK: Well, we hope to benefit from funding. For example, why was the Large Hadron Collider built in Geneva? Why isn’t it in America? The reason is, Congress canceled our machine in 1993. It was called the supercollider. Congress gave us a billion dollars to dig this gigantic hole, then they gave us another billion dollars to fill it up. With President Obama, there is talk about rejuvenating science again. America gradually lost the cutting edge in many fields, such as biotechnology, to Europe and elsewhere. Over the years there’s been an atrophy in the sciences, so I think it’s good that we’re trying to refocus. Science is definitely part of America’s infrastructure. Science is the engine of prosperity. But you’d never know it, listening to some of these politicians. They’re lawyers and businessmen, not scientists. Lawyers and businessmen massage wealth; they don’t create it. And yet science is given almost no visibility in the media. If a Martian came down to Earth and watched television, he’d come to the conclusion that all the world’s society is based on Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He’d be amazed that our society hasn’t collapsed.
AVC: In the book, though, you talk about how a single, global identity “dominated by youth culture and commercialism” might actually be a step toward the next stage of human civilization.
MK: I was just trying to comment on the way things are, independent of people’s will. In other words, no matter what your politics are, no matter what your sensibilities are, youth culture and commercialism are now taking place on the scale of billions of people. No one person can stop this progress. If President Obama were to, for example, ban the Internet, everyone would laugh.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine Obama wanting to do that.
MK: [Laughs.] If anything, he’s benefited from technology, hasn’t he? My point is, no one can stop the Internet. No one can stop that march. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be smooth, though. We do have hazards facing us. But the trends we’re seeing—NAFTA, the European Union, the spread of English—these are unstoppable. But what’s important is what we do with them, how we want to view the future.
AVC: You seem pretty evenly split between debunking futuristic technology and paranormal ideas, and propping the door open to their possible development. Do you consider yourself a skeptic or a dreamer?
MK: Murray Gell-Mann, the winner of the Nobel Prize, is a member of The Skeptics Society. He’s said that sometimes he really wishes there was a little truth to all these claims regarding the paranormal. That’s what makes things interesting, right? It’s always kind of depressing to realize this is not possible and that is not possible. So I took a different point of view: not to say what is impossible today, but to say what might be possible tomorrow. By that, I mean 10 or 50 or a hundred or a thousand or a million years from now. I’ve realized there are few things that are truly impossible. Perpetual-motion machines, clairvoyance, these are the things that would violate the foundations of modern physics. But time travel? We already have a whole theory of time travel. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but we have a theory for it, as well as for things like invisibility and teleportation. That’s kind of my goal: to quantify the impossible.