Dr Michio Kaku is on a mission. He wants to bring science back to the forefront of the national agenda and in people’s minds – and he’s doing this by making science more engaging to the public.
Dr Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics, futurist and science communicator from the United States of America. He has been published in over 70 scientific journals, and is a pioneer in String Field Theory. However, he is mostly recognised as one of the most successful promoters of science to the general public, and has written several best selling books about the technology of the future – including his latest bestselling book, The Future of the Mind.
I spoke to Dr Kaku about what motivated him to communicate science to the public, and what we could do if scientists finally conquer the “last frontier” – the brain.
TechGeek: Dr Kaku, it’s a pleasure to have you here. You started exploring science at a very young age, how important was it that your interest was supported and encouraged by your peers?
Dr Michio Kaku: I was interested in science when I was 8 years old – and peer pressure doesn’t really kick in until you’re in junior high school. I got into science because everyone was talking about the fact that a great scientist had just died. It was like Michael Jackson had just died. They flashed a picture of his desk on the evening news and the caption said this is the unfinished manuscript of the greatest scientists of our time. I thought it was a bit of a mystery – what could be in that book? What could be possibly be so great that the greatest mind of our time couldn’t finish it?
Later, I found out it was Albert Einstein and that book was the Unified Field Theory – the theory of everything, that would allow us to the read the mind of God. I thought to myself, “That’s for me, I want to work on this.” I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know who this man was. I just knew it was very important; and I thought to myself, this is like an adventure story. And that is how I became first interested in physics.
TG: So once you became involved in science research, what made you step into the field of science communication?
Dr Kaku: Well, I got very much interested in science because of the death of Einstein. Also, Sputnik went up. Everyone was talking about the fact that the Russians were ahead in science, and we need more physicists, we need more mathematicians. It was almost a patriotic duty to become a scientist.
When I was in high school, I built an atom smasher for my science fair project. I built it in my mom’s garage. Because of that, I met Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. He knew exactly what I was doing, he didn’t need me to tell him what an atom smasher was; and he arranged for me to get a scholarship to Harvard, where I could begin my formal training.
But then there was a war going on, and I went into the military; and then I realised that unless you say something, you’re at the mercy of other people. Other people make decisions for you. If you want to be a master of your fate, you have to learn to become a public speaker. I begin to realise that I was very narrow minded, thinking that I just wanted to complete Einstein’s dream. Well, that’s what I do now! That’s what I do for a living, that’s what I get paid to do. I’m a professor, and I work to finish Einstein’s great theory. We think we have it actually, the theory is called String Theory, and I’m one of the pioneers of the subject.
But anyway, I begin to realise that the public doesn’t care if you’re just cannon fodder going to Vietnam or not. But if you have a Ph. D, you’re a scientist. People will listen to you, and you can be a master of your destiny. You don’t have to wait for other people to make decisions for you.
Plus, the other reason is because when I was a child, I went to the library to read up on the unified field theory. And I found nothing. Absolutely nothing. So I thought to myself, “When I grow up, and I become a professor and I do research, I’m going to make sure that I write books for people just like me – who are very young, who hear about all these great ideas, and go to the library and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing there.”
I wanted to fill that gap. I realised that science writers try, but they’re not research scientists. I’m a research scientist, I know exactly where research begins and speculation begins. So you need someone who’s authoritative at the cutting edge in order to explain these concepts to you.
So I decided that if I would do public speaking, I would basically speak for myself as a child. I had this mental image of myself as a child, going to the library, being so frustrated, with no one to tell you what’s happening in the world of science.
TG: Do you think that current scientists need to do more to make their work accessible to the general public?
Dr Kaku: It used to be that if you were a research scientist and made public statements, the other scientists would kind of snicker behind your back. This is called the giggle factor. However, several things happened.
In the 1980s, our machine was cancelled – a $10 billion machine called the Super Collider, which was to propel America into physics for the next thirty years. It was cancelled, big shock. Now it’s in Geneva! A much smaller version [of the Super Collider] is now winning Nobel prizes, getting all the accolades.
So what happened? What happened was we could not convince Congress to give us $10 billion for a Super Collider. And the taxpayer has to pay for these things. In the old days, if you wanted to build another atom smasher, you would go to Congress and say one word. Just one word – and that’s “Russia”. Then Congress would say two words – “how much?”.
Those days are gone. Now, we physicists have to sing for our supper – and unless we can engage the taxpayer, they’re not going to fund it. And so we began to realise that we were spoiled during the Cold War. We always got our machine, because the Russians were building one. Well, now everybody knows the Russians are not building one. And so that’s why we have to engage the public, because they’re going to be paying for our machines.
So in the last day of a hearing for the Super Collider back in the 90s, a Congressman asked a scientist, “Will we find God with your machine? If so, I will vote for it.” The poor scientist didn’t know what to say – will we find God with your machine? So he said, “We will find the Higgs Boson.”
At that point, you could probably hear all the jaws hit the floor in Congress! $10 billion dollars for a darn subatomic particle. The vote was taken and the machine was cancelled – and American physics was set back thirty years.
Well since then, we physicists have run that through our minds over and over again. How should we have answered that question? I would have said, “God, or whatever signs or symbols you assign to the deity, this machine will take us as close as humanly possible to his greatest creation, Genesis. This is a Genesis machine. We will recreate some of the conditions that gave birth to the entire universe.”
Unfortunately, we said “Higgs Boson” – and we were set back thirty years.
Now, scientists aren’t so crabby about other scientists trying to engage the public. Because now they realise that their paycheck is at stake! Unless the taxpayer is ready to pay for science, we’re not going to have science!
TG: You’ve written several best selling books about advances in science now. Your latest book, the bestselling The Future of the Mind, explores the advances of neuroscience and the philosophical and ethical problems and challenges these technologies present. There are some very challenging concepts to understand when dealing with these advanced sciences, especially when you’re looking into the future like this. How do you make sure your work is accessible to people without a strong background in science?
Dr Kaku: Well first of all, a lot of people are interested in the mind! The book hit number one on the New York Times Bestseller List a few weeks ago. It was the number one non-fiction book in the United States.
That shows to me that a lot of people are curious about what is on their shoulders, but they’re hesitant to ask questions. But they’re curious! And one reason is that there’s a lot of small press release about all the advances being made. President Barack Obama last year shocked the public by saying that they and the Europeans want to have the Brain Project – to map the entire brain.
So people say, “Well, what’s in it for me?” And the short term of it is that we can solve the mystery of mental illness. Something on the order of 15% of the population, at some point in their life, will have some kind of mental breakdown, and we don’t know why. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s – they’re going to be the diseases of the century as people get older and we’re clueless about the workings of the mind.
That’s the short term goal – to create a disk, Brain 2.0, with all the pathways of the mind on it.
But, if we create Brain 2.0, why stop there? Why stop at mental illness? In some sense, if you die, you live on. Your genome lives on because we can sequence your genes now, and your connectome [a map of the connections in a brain] will live on as all your neural pathways of the brain – including your personality, your wants, desires, memories, quirks, everything – will be on a disk. So if you have the genome and the connectome, in some sense you live forever.
And Hollywood is ahead of the game! In a few weeks there’s a new movie coming out with Johnny Depp, Transcendence, about a man whose memories are uploaded to the internet and he takes over – or tries to take over the world. That’s science fiction of course, but it does raise interesting questions. Can we live forever if our genome and connectome survive, but we don’t?
To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends on how you define “you”. If you define yourself as your “wetware” – the brain is wetware and “software” is the mind – then the two cannot be separate. But if you have the genome and the connectome, in some sense they can be separated. So even if you die, they live on.
TG: So people are curious as you’ve said, about these subjects. Do you think people are scared of what this technology might bring?
Dr Kaku: Well, take a look at surgery in the 1800s. People back then were very afraid of opening up the body; they said it was sacred, that God created us whole, not to be opened. But today, if you’re sick, very sick, the first thing you demand is to have surgery. Because you know it’s going to save your life. So we went from an era where we thought the body was sacred and we feared the idea of opening up the body, to an era today where we demand it – if we can eliminate tumours and cancers – and solve problems of the body.
The last frontier is the mind and it’s the biggest frontier of them all; because with the mind, it’s consciousness. So in the future, we’ll gradually get used to the idea that we can probe the brain without opening it up. Physics allows us the possibility doing MRI scans of the living brain, and we can see blood flow ricocheting like a ping pong ball inside the living brain. And we’re going to solve the mystery of mental illness. We’re going to solve many mysteries involving the brain.
We can even augment it, so we can use the brain to activate things like a computer. You could walk into a room and mentally turn on the lights, mentally type, mentally access the internet, mentally order your car, have the car drive to a destination – all mentally. And your children will say, “What? You lived in a world where you actually had to touch a screen? You actually had a mouse? You actually had a keyboard and you had to type?” Our kids will wonder how backwards could you possibly be? Because in the future, we’ll all do that mentally.
And so just like surgery, we understand the importance of surgery: it has saved lives and enriched the human experience; it extended our life span. The same thing will happen when people understand the benefits we can get when we understand the brain.
TG: Well the future sounds incredible, and I can’t wait to get there. Thank you very much for your time, Dr Kaku, it’s been a pleasure having you here. And congratulations on the success of your new book!
Dr Kaku: Thank you.
Dr Kaku’s latest book The Future of the Mind is available from all good booksellers physically and in ebook formats. Dr Kaku will be coming to Australia in June to give presentations at major cities – details can be found at ThinkInc.org.au.
Interview and Transcript: Amelia Wales
Formatting: Terence Huynh
Top image credits: DeLaMare Science and Engineering Library/Flickr (CC)
Second image credits: CampusPartyBrazil/Flickr (CC)
Brain image credits: Alex Mitt/Shutterstock