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The Wire

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Michio’s profile.

Every childhood is made up of roadblocks and opportunities. And interviewing our “Secret Life” subjects, we hear a lot about both. But we’d never heard a story quite like the one Michio Kaku told us:

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“My parents were born in California. However, during World War II 100,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in large relocation camps. So my parents never had a chance. Their property was confiscated. They lived behind barbed wires and machine guns from 1942 to 1946. And I was born afterwards, when my parents were dirt poor.”

Somehow, after the war, and after their release from the internment camps, Michio’s parents worked to rebuild their lives. They started out with nothing, but put everything they did have into creating a better life for their children. And when Michio began to show that he was more than a little prodigious as a teen scientist, they went along. They went along, even with limited resources and with virtually no idea of what was behind (or could be the consequences) of Michio’s sometimes more-than-a-little-risky boyhood experiments:

The Wire-michio_with_family.jpg
Michio and his family… he’s the one on the left

“So one day I went up to my mom and I said, ‘Mom, can I have permission to build a 2.3-million electron-volt atom smasher—a betatron—in the garage?’ And my mom stared at me, and she said, ‘Sure. Why not? And don’t forget to take out the garbage.’ So, I went out and took out the garbage. And then I went to Westinghouse. I got 400 pounds of transformer steel, 22 miles of copper wire, and built a 2.3-million electron-volt betatron in the garage. The wire was so heavy, I put the wire on the goal post [of the nearby high school football field] and I gave it to my mother. She ran with this strand of wire to the 50-yard line. My father grabbed it, ran to the goalpost and we wound 22 miles of copper wire on the football field. Well, the magnetic field was so powerful—about 20,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field. If you were to walk by my atom smasher, it would pull the fillings out of your teeth—that’s how powerful the magnet was going to be.”

When Michio actually plugged in his atom smasher, it did, of course, blow out every fuse in his house and likely every fuse for miles around—yet another kid scientist who made the lights go out and the authorities shake their fists (while grudgingly admitting that the kid was pretty smart).

But that wasn’t my big takeaway from Michio’s story.

What grabbed me was that his parents—uneducated about science, returning to the world after years of imprisonment “behind barbed wire and machine guns”—were more than willing to wrap 22 miles of a different kind of wire around the goalposts of a football field… all because they loved their son, had faith in him and his ideas, and wanted him to become the person he was clearly meant to be.

Seems like it all paid off.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.