Physicist Michio Kaku

Internationally recognized physicist and best-selling author talks about his new text, which offers a provocative vision for the coming century.

Physicist Dr. Michio Kaku is internationally recognized because of his knowledge and his approach to presenting complex science subjects. A CUNY Graduate Center professor, he's written several widely acclaimed science books and been featured in documentaries. He also hosts a TV show on the Science Channel and two radio programs, including Science Fantastic—the only nationally-syndicated science show on commercial radio. Kaku graduated first in his physics class at Harvard and received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.


Tavis: Michio Kaku is a renowned physicist, television host and best-selling author and professional of physics at City University of New York. His latest best-selling text is called “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.” He joins us tonight from Chicago. Dr. Kaku, good to have you on this program, sir.
Dr. Michio Kaku: Glad to be on.
Tavis: Let me start with a couple of questions relative to news of the day about Japan. So we have another aftershock today on the anniversary of the initial earthquake and tsunami. You have argued of late that we need to entomb this reactor that is still concerning so many in Japan and for that matter, around the world. There are others who disagree with that approach. Your thoughts first?
Kaku: Yes, first of all, the reactors in Japan are stable in the same way that a ticking time bomb is also stable. It wouldn’t take much to light the fuse – a 6.6 earthquake, like what happened today in Japan, a pipe break, an over-pressurized containment vessel – anything could set it off, in which case we would have another Chernobyl, three times the magnitude of a Chernobyl accident.
That’s why I say that we should, as a last resort, as a last resort, prepare to entomb the reactors in concrete, sand and boric acid.
Tavis: There are folks who say that that’s too risky. Your response?
Kaku: It’s risky to allow radiation to constantly go up into the atmosphere. The main criticism of this approach of entombing it is that it would cost too much, involve too many resources and people. But think of the cost of having all the crops impounded by the government, all the milk being thrown into the river, people’s livelihoods destroyed.
Every day more radiation seeps out, causing panic in China, Korea and even in the United States. The ultimate damage could be billions of dollars extra, when entombing the reactor would only involve a few hundred million dollars.
Tavis: To your point now, Professor Kaku, how concerned should we be here in the States about radioactive water, since we keep reading every day about this activity in the ocean?
Kaku: Radioactive milk has already been found in the United States at the level of about three picocuries per liter. That’s roughly the legal limit. However, it is very, very low, no need for panic. In fact, all of us have a piece of Chernobyl in our bodies going back to 1986.
Back then, we had an accident much larger than the Fukushima reactor accident. Cesium, iodine from the Chernobyl reactor accident went around the world many times and everyone on the Earth has a piece of Chernobyl in their bodies, but it’s very tiny – too small to cause much damage.
Tavis: How has this radioactivity in Japan impacted the debate about nuclear power and nuclear safety in this country? Put another way, have we advanced the conversation? Have we taken this issue seriously enough, given the warning that we have courtesy of Japan?
Kaku: This is a game-changer. You realize that in Germany they’ve canceled a whole series of nuclear power plants and basically have thrown in the towel with regards to nuclear? In the United States, President Barack Obama is poised to initiate a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United States, and the debate is already starting in the halls of Congress.
Now in Japan, they’ve made the Faustian bargain. Faust was this mythical figure who sold his soul to the devil for unlimited power. The Japanese have made that Faustian bargain because they don’t have coal, oil or hydro power. However, the United States has a choice, and this is definitely going to spin the conversation, spin the debate, as we begin to grapple with what could happen in the United States, because we also have reactors on earthquake faults, we have the Indian Point nuclear power plant north of New York City, where I live, and in fact it’s right near the Ramapo fault, and in fact the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, calls it one of the most hazardous reactors in terms of earthquake damage.
California has two nuclear power plants near the San Andreas fault, Diablo Canyon between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and also the San Onofre reactor between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Tavis: Since we’re talking about what may or may not happen in the future, let me now segue and connect this conversation to your new book about the physics of the future.
When I got a chance to go through this I was stunned and fascinated and scared all at the same time, and quite frankly excited about some parts of the book, about what you predict will be the kind of lives that we’ll be living in this country and the world, for that matter, by the year 2100.
Just to list a few that got my attention, the Internet, you argue, in our contact lenses, life expectancy 150 years, cars that will drive themselves courtesy of GPS. How will physics define our future?
Kaku: Well, take a look at the Internet. By the next 10 years, computer chips will cost about a penny. That’s the cost of scrap paper. The Internet will be basically for free and it will be inside our contact lens. When we blink, we will go online. When we see somebody that we don’t recognize, our contact lens will identify who they are, print out their biography in your contact lens and translate, if they’re speaking Chinese, into English with subtitles as they speak.
The demand for these contact lenses will be enormous. The first people in line will be college students taking final examinations. They’ll be able to blink and see all the answers right there in their contact lens.
Artists will be able to move their hands and create fantastic works of art. We’ll be living in “Star Trek,” where we have the holodeck, or the movie “The Matrix.” Architects will love it – they’ll be able to rearrange towers and architectural wonders right in their contact lens. Also, the military will love it because soldiers can see the entire battlefield right there in your contact lens. Tourists will love it because they’ll be able to see the ancient ruins of the Roman Empire resurrected for them in their contact lens as they walk through the streets of Rome. This is a game-changer.
Tavis: Beyond contact lenses, tell me more about your look into the future vis-à-vis physics.
Kaku: When we look at now the mid-century – not just 10 years into the future but maybe 40 to 50 years in the future – we’ll have direct mind contact with computers.
We physicists know that the brain is a milliwatt transmitter of radio. We have computers that can decipher much of this gibberish coming from our brain and we could then use that to control computers.
So already, we can take stroke victims who are paralyzed, cannot communicate with their loved ones at all, hook them up to a laptop, in which case they can now surf the Web, do crossword puzzles, do video games, write and answer emails, even though they are totally paralyzed.
So the point of the book is that by 2100 we’ll have the power usually reserved for the gods of Greek mythology. Like Zeus will be able to move objects around mentally, and we physicists are now making this possible right in the laboratory. This is not science fiction; this is something that we physicists are doing now.
Like Venus, we’ll have near-perfect bodies, ageless bodies, because right now scientists are beginning to regrow organs of the body as they wear out. We can already grow bladders, windpipes, from your own cells. In five years’ time we will probably grow the first liver from your own cells, so alcoholics out there can take note.
Then, like Apollo, we’ll have chariots that take us in the sky – we’ll finally have flying cars before the year 2100. And like Pegasus, we’ll be able to recreate life forms that don’t walk on the surface of the Earth. We’ll even have zoos of extinct animals – animals that have been extinct, resurrected using genetics. All of this before the year 2100.
Tavis: As I mentioned earlier, it’s exciting and at the same time scary and fascinating. You mentioned a word a moment ago in your response – the word “power” came up once in your response to my question, and I’m reminded, as you well know, that power corrupts. So all these things, as exciting as they may be, about the future as we head toward 2100, somebody is going to use this for ill, somebody is going to use this power to corrupt communities.
What’s the negative, what’s the danger you see as we move toward 2100, given these things that physics will allow us to actually do?
Kaku: Well, I’ve interviewed over 300 of the world’s top scientists to get the most authentic picture of what 2100 may look like, and these scientists tell me that there are two trends in the world today.
One trend is toward more democracy and no two democracies have ever warred with each other in the past. Think of every single war you’ve learned about since you were in grade school – not a single one was between two democracies, and the Internet spreads democracies. Take a look at what’s happening in the Middle East, for example.
But there’s another trend that you point out. The other trend is toward chaos. We have the trend toward nuclear proliferation, biogerms. What happens, for example, if a government decides to take the AIDS virus and weaponize it and make it airborne? Airborne AIDS could literally wipe out 99 percent of the human population, including the people who created airborne AIDS.
So we have to realize that science is a double-edged sword. One edge of the sword can cut against poverty, illness, disease and give us more democracies, and democracies never war with other democracies, but the other side of the sword could give us nuclear proliferation, biogerms and even forces of darkness. Terrorists may even get a hold of this technology.
Tavis: All that said, given that you are a physicist tracking this work and doing some of it, you lean toward being more hopeful about the future or more frightened by the future?
Kaku: I tend to be more optimistic about the future. Some people are a little bit afraid about the future because they see all these gadgets and gizmos coming down the pike and they think they’re too old to learn all this new stuff. But eventually they begin to realize hey, some of this stuff is useful.
Growing new organs of the body as they wear out, extending the human lifespan? What’s not to like? Then in the last phase of this transition people begin to realize, hey, I thought of it already – this is something that everyone can enjoy.
So yes, there are dangers, but only dangers if people don’t understand where technology is taking us. That’s why I wrote this book. I’m not a science fiction writer, I’m a physicist. These are scientists who are making the future in their laboratories, and this book consists of interviews that I’ve done with 300 of the world’s top scientists, who are inventing the future now in their laboratories.
Tavis: Finally, just to make sure I’ve read this correctly, I’m told from my research at least that you had two heroes when you were growing up as a child. I want to make sure this is right – one, Albert Einstein; I think I get that, and the other, Flash Gordon?
Kaku: Yes, I had two passions when I was a child. First was to learn about Einstein’s theory and help to complete his dream of a unified theory of everything. That’s my day job. I work in something called string theory. I’m one of the founders of the subject. We hope to complete Einstein’s dream of a theory of everything.
But I also love the future, watching “Flash Gordon,” watching science fiction. But then I began to realize something – to understand the future you have to understand physics. Physics of the last century gave us television, radio, microwaves, gave us the Internet, lasers, transistors, computers – all of that from physics.
The next century will be even greater, and that’s why if you understand physics, you understand computers, you also understand biotechnology, nanotechnology, and they are going to be the engines of wealth and prosperity into the next century.
Tavis: So for all this brilliance and intellect, we can thank Flash Gordon. Michio Kaku is the author of the new text “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.” Dr. Kaku, good to have you on the program. Thanks for the text, sir.
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Last modified: April 28, 2011 at 12:41 pm