For a talking head, Michio Kaku is beyond accomplished. A child prodigy who became one of the founders of the controversial string theory—one that, in essence, picks up where Einstein left off—the 62-year-old 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, and The Discovery Channel. In addition, he’s a radio personality and author whose latest bestseller, Physics Of The Impossible, takes a look at the eventual viability of science-fiction tropes such as starships, robots, and ESP. Kaku, who will appear at Tattered Cover in LoDo Tuesday, spoke with The A.V. Club about science fiction, Barack Obama's hypothetical war against the Internet, and what Martians might make of Britney Spears.
The A.V. Club: 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?
Michio Kaku: On my radio show recently I had on Andrew Fickman, the director of Race To Witch Mountain. He told me that he and a lot of other filmmakers don’t want to make a lot of bloopers when it comes to fantastic technology and outer space. I was kind of heartened by this. 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: One of today’s most popular TV programs, Heroes, covers many of the subjects you do in your book: invisibility, time travel, teleportation, psychokinesis. Do you follow the show?
MK: I haven’t kept up with Heroes. However, Popular Mechanics asked me to write an article about Lost,which 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 physics. Antimatter was one. Some people think Gene Roddenberry discovered antimatter. [Laughs.] It was actually physicists in the 1930s.
AVC: A lot has been written lately about a new optimism within the science community now that Barack Obama is on office. Is any of that hope trickling over to you?
MK: Well, we hope to benefit from funding. President Obama is talking about rejuvenating science. Science is definitely part of America’s infrastructure, the engine of prosperity. 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 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 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 or 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. What’s important is what we do with them, how we want to view the future.
AVC: You seem evenly split between debunking futuristic technology and paranormal ideas and propping the door open to their possible development. Do you consider yourself a skeptic?
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. That’s kind of my goal: to quantify the impossible.
For a longer version of this interview, visit avclub.com.