Physics’ Wry Sage

September 16, 2011 | Salute to Scholars, The University


Physics’ Wry Sage

From his base at CUNY, Michio Kaku has done as much as anyone in the country to bring high science to the masses. A professor of theoretical physics at City College, he is a pioneer of the concept known as string field theory, part of his life’s work to unify the four fundamental forces of nature. But an equal passion has been bringing the wonders of science — and visions of the future they will deliver — to popular culture. He hosts television and radio shows and published best-selling books, most recently Physics of the Future, a projection of how science will change daily life over the next century based on his interviews with 300 scientists who are now inventing the future in their labs.

In a recent conversation in his office at City College, Kaku talked about his path to popular futurologist, how he goes about trying to read the mind of God  and why the most perfect place on earth might be a skating rink in Switzerland.

You are in a very select group in the world: a celebrity physicist. What forces of your own nature made that happen?

When I was a child I had two heroes. The first was Albert Einstein.  Most people remember when Princess Diana died. I remember when Einstein died. I was 8 and everyone was talking about it. I became fascinated that he could not finish his greatest theory, the Theory of Everything. So I said to myself that’s for me.  I want to be able to finish Einstein’s dream. But my other hero was literally a superhero: Flash Gordon. That introduced me to the whole world of the future — rocket ships, starships, ray guns, aliens in outer space.  I said to myself, that’s for me. I began to realize that my two passions, the future and physics were really the same thing.  All the wonders of the 21st century came from physics.

How does one go about trying to finish Einstein’s Theory of Everything?

I am trying to write a winning equation which will allow us to “read the mind of God” — those are Einstein’s words.

How do you do that on a daily basis — what’s your workday like?

We physicists are very much like composers. If you talk to a composer about how they create new melodies, well, first of all, they stare out the window and they have blocks of melodies dancing in their head. That’s how we physicists work.  We spend most of our time staring out the window. When the equations seem to fit I write them down and then stare out the window again.

Your other passion is envisioning the future. What sorts of things do you see happening over the next few decades?

I predict that within 10 or 15 years we will have the Internet in our contact lenses and we will be able to blink and go online. And when you see somebody the contact lens will recognize who they are and display their biography right next to their name.  So you will always know who to suck up to at any cocktail party. Also, invisibility is one of the hottest fields now. Millions of dollars are being spent to perfect the real McCoy — an invisibility cloak. I think we’ll have something approaching that in a few decades.

What’s your favorite place on earth?

My favorite place on earth is an ice rink.  I am a figure skater. I like to spin and jump on the ice.   And I like it because I can commune with the laws of physics.

You’ve mused about the possibility of time travel one day. Since that doesn’t appear imminent, is there a country you like to travel to?

I like Switzerland.  It’s the land of Einstein. You can visit his house, where he did his undergraduate work. I visited the apartment where he discovered relativity. This is perhaps the most important apartment of the last hundred years, and it is the size of a little studio.

Every field has conferences. What happens when string theorists collide?

What string theorists do when we get together, believe it or not, is mountain climbing. I don’t know why. But I hate mountain climbing.  I was in the United States infantry for two years. I had enough of bivouacking. But that’s what string theorists do. We go to Aspen every summer. Two of my friends actually died in mountain climbing accidents. Another colleague of mine, the one who figured out that string theory only exists in certain dimensions, died climbing in the Andes. He’d be famous now except he fell off a mountaintop. So I prefer to figure skate. Much safer than falling off a mountain.