SUBWAYIchio Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, an advocate of string theory but also a well-known popularizer of science, with multiple television appearances and several blockbuster books under his belt. His latest book, God’s equation, is a clear and accessible examination of the quest to combine Einstein’s general relativity with quantum theory to create an all-encompassing “theory of everything” about the nature of the universe.
How close do you think science is to achieving a theory of everything?
Well, I think we actually have the theory, but not in its final form. It has yet to be proven, and the Nobel Prize winners have taken opposing views regarding something called string theory. I am the co-founder of string field theory, which is one of the main branches of string theory, so I have some “skin in the game.” I try to be fair and balanced. I think we are on the brink of a new era. New experiments are being carried out to detect deviations from the standard model. Also, we have the mystery of dark matter. Any of these unexplored areas could give a clue to the theory of everything.
String theory involves a lot of theoretical physics, diabolical mathematics, and mind-blowing abstraction. Do you think the general public is able to grasp the details of this debate?
I think the public is curious to know what the consequences of this theory might be. The universe, in a sense, is like a game of chess and for 2000 years we have been trying to figure out how pawns move. And now we are beginning to understand how the queen moves and how to get a checkmate. The destiny of science is to become like great teachers, to solve this riddle that we call the universe. There are pending questions for which the public wants to have answers. For example, time travel, other dimensions, wormholes. What happened before the Big Bang? What is on the other side of a black hole? None of these questions can be answered within the framework of Einstein’s theory. You have to go beyond Einstein to quantum theory.
How much do you think Isaac Newton do you understand your book?
I think I would appreciate it. In 1666 we had the great plague. Cambridge University was closed and a 23-year-old boy was sent home, and saw an apple fall on his property. And then he realized that the laws that control an apple are the same laws that control the moon. So the epidemic gave Isaac Newton a chance to sit back and follow the math of falling apples and falling moons. But of course there was no math at the time. He couldn’t solve the problem, so he created his own math. That is what we are doing now. We too are being hit by the plague. We too are confined to our desks. And we are also creating new mathematics.
Some physicists view the search for an all-encompassing theory as deceptively reductionist. How is your work received in these circles?
I will be very direct, there is a division, a division that we have not seen in many decades. I remember the Solvay Lecture, when Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein took opposing views on quantum theory in one of the greatest debates in the history of science. Well, string theory has also created a great deal of interest, as well as a backlash. People say, well, where is the proof? Frankly, we don’t have the proof, in the same way that Newton did not have the proof of his inverse square law in 1666. Sometimes mathematics and ideas are ahead of concrete experimental data. That’s where the Large Hadron Collider comes in.
The LHC has made headlines recently with his findings on how the beauty quark behaves. Will this have an impact on the theory of everything?
The Standard Model is the theory of almost everything. It works spectacularly well, but it is one of the ugliest theories proposed yet. There is a flood of experimental numbers that you have to enter by hand. But in string theory, the standard model just pops up right away. With just a few assumptions, you get the full standard model. So the point here is that we need experimental testing and the LHC can give us hints of a deviation in the Standard Model and that’s where this post-LHC physics comes in.
They have compared you for Carl sagan in its ability to convey complex science in an accessible way. How important is reaching a large audience?
We had a huge shock in the 1990s when we physicists came up with the super collider. It was much larger than the Large Hadron Collider. It was supposed to be outside of Dallas, Texas, but it was canceled. What went wrong? In one of the last days of hearings, a congressman asked: “Will we find God with his machine? If so, I will vote in favor. “The poor physicist who had to answer that question did not know what to say. We should have said, this is a Genesis machine that will create the conditions for the greatest invention of all time: the universe. Unfortunately, We said Higgs boson, and people said, $ 10 billion for another subatomic particle, and they canceled the machine.
Do colleagues resent your popular touch?
Let’s be honest, Carl Sagan experienced a backlash when he began entering the public arena. There was a vote for him to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and he was denied. The super collider was canceled because we were in the ivory tower and we had no connection to the taxpayer paying the bill. And then comes Stephen Hawking. He generated so much interest and was a real physicist at the forefront of science, not a mere “popularizer” – the criticism made of Sagan. So I think it was a humbling experience. We have to sing for dinner. During the 1960s, all we had to do was go to Congress and say one word: Russia. So Congress would say two words: How much? Those days are gone.
You think that within a century we will come into contact with an alien civilization. Are you worried about what they may entail?
Soon we will have the web telescope in orbit and we will have thousands of planets to look at, and that is why I think the chances that we can make contact with an alien civilization are quite high. Some colleagues of mine think we should reach out to them. I think it’s a terrible idea. We all know what happened to Moctezuma when he met Cortés in Mexico so many hundreds of years ago. Now personally I think the aliens would be friendly, but we can’t bet on that. So I think we will get in touch, but we have to do it very carefully.
There are many brilliant scientists whose contributions you will discuss in the book. Which, for you, stands out above the rest?
Newton is at number one, because almost out of nowhere, out of an era of witchcraft and wizardry, he comes up with the mathematics of the universe, comes up with a theory of almost everything. That is incredible. Einstein rode Newton, using Newton’s calculus to solve the dynamics of curved spacetime and general relativity. They are like supernovae, blindingly bright and lighting up the entire landscape and changing human destiny. Newton’s laws of motion set the foundation for the Industrial Revolution in motion. Such a person appears once every several centuries.
He describes himself as an agnostic. Has your research brought you closer or further from the idea of a designer God?
Stephen Hawking said that he did not believe in God because the Big Bang happened instantly and there was no time for God to create a universe, therefore God could not exist. I have a different point of view. My parents were Buddhists and in Buddhism there is Nirvana, timelessness, without beginning or end. But my parents put me in a Presbyterian church, so I went to Sunday school every week and learned about Genesis and how the universe was created in seven days. Now, with the idea of the multiverse, we can merge these two diametrically opposed paradigms. According to string theory, big bangs happen all the time. Even as we speak, Genesis takes place somewhere in the cosmos. And what is the universe expanding into? Nirvana. Eleven-dimensional hyperspace is Nirvana. So you can have Buddhism and Judeo-Christian philosophy in a theory.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism