Visionary: Dr Kaku is best known for his expertise in theoretical physics but his latest book takes a look at how rapid advancements could bring about huge changes in how we understand – and use – our brains
Photo (above) source: AFP/ Getty Images
By ANGIE NG
While some people will automatically “switch off” when it comes to making meaning of numbers, famed American physicist, Dr Michio Kaku makes a living crunching and simplifying complicated mathematical data and numbers.
In many ways, his fascination with physics and numbers makes him a modern day Albert Einstein. In fact, the physique of the 65-year-old professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York has a slight resemblance to the great physicist.
So it was not by chance that he chose “analysing data from a mass spectrometer” as his first job when he was 19 and a first year student at Harvard University.
Working at leading electronics company, Varian Associates, the young Kaku’s job involved using a PDP-10 computer to analyse collected data.
Sharing his first job experiences with myStarjob.com, Kaku says that back in the 1960s, getting data from a mass spectrometer was, in fact, hard work.
“It took many hours to analyse the data; to find out what chemicals were inside an unknown sample. My job was to computerise everything, so that, with a touch of a button, one could get all the data required instantly.”
His job involved working with vacuum pumps and electron guns; shooting ions out of the electron guns, through a magnetic field, and then a detector, after which a computer would analyse the data to reveal what was in the original ion beam.
Although it may seem complicated, he says “the computer made the whole process rather painless.” The one thing he learned from his work was the power of mathematics to govern the properties of atoms.
“If I had written down an equation for a particle moving in a magnetic field, and then actually did the experiment, the particle would obey the equations exactly. It was amazing. I could actually predict and change the trajectory of sub-atomic particles by using pure mathematics. This made me appreciate even more the power of pure mathematics to govern the behaviour of atoms.
“Mathematics to me was not just scribbles on a sheet of paper, but the laws behind reality itself,” he explains.
He also cherished the opportunity to interact with other physicists.
“This was the first time I could work professionally with other physicists, and they provided role models for me. I did not feel out of place anymore, unlike high school days.
“All my life, I had read and idolised the work of great quantum physicists who solved the mathematics of the atom, but I had never actually met many of them in person. One of my supervisers was Dr Richard Ernst, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Physics for work that eventually paved the way for the MRI machine, which has revolutionised all of medicine. It was quite an experience working with skilled and competent physicists at Varian,” he beams.
Unravelling the mystery
Kaku says that working all day with vacuum pumps, powerful magnetic fields, and spectrometers, confirmed his belief that he would become a theoretical physicist rather than an experimental one.
“If I had become an experimentalist, I would have been married to my vacuum pump. If anything went wrong with my spectrometer, I would have to rush back to the lab and fix it.”
He says working as an experimentalist at Varian made him realise that his “true love” was working with pure mathematics.
“I was not the most gifted student working with vacuum pumps, magnetic fields, and electron guns, but pure mathematics fascinated me, because you could actually understand the laws of nature through them. Mathematics is the language of nature,” he enthuses.
Kaku further explains, “Sometimes, being the most brilliant student is not the most important characteristic in becoming a scientist. It certainly helps to be smart, but the ones who actually succeed in science are more often the people who combine brilliance with hard work and dedication. We forget that even Einstein had to struggle for long periods of time to discover the laws of physics.”
Kaku received his Bachelor of Science (summa cum laude) from Harvard University in 1968 and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1972.
He currently holds the Henry Semat Chair and Professorship in Theoretical Physics at the City College of New York, where he has taught for over 25 years. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, as well as at New York University.
The prolific professor has written 14 books of two genres – popular books for the average non-scientist and PhD level textbooks for graduate students in physics.
“I have been overwhelmed by the response to these books. My last two books, the Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future, have both been New York Times best-sellers. It used to be said that the word ‘physics’ would never appear on the best seller list. I proved them wrong, twice,” he muses.
His books have been translated into over 25 different languages and many of the books have become TV programmes as well. Physics of the Impossible became a 24 episode TV series on the Science Channel which discusses everything from time travel, warp drive, light sabers, to star ships. Physics of the Future is the basis of a new Science Channel series called This Changes Everything.
His other books include Parallel Worlds (in 2006), Einstein’s Cosmos (2005), Hyperspace (1995) and his most recent New York Times bestseller, Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel.
He is also the co-founder of string field theory (a branch of string theory), which is a continuation of Einstein’s search to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into one unified theory.
According to Kaku, the theory is the leading and only candidate for a “theory of everything” that can complete Einstein’s dream.
“We hope that the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland will be able to test aspects of string theory,” he says.
He has also written more than 70 articles on superstring theory, supergravity, supersymmetry, and hadronic physics that have been published in physics journals.
On television, he has appeared on Discovery, BBC, ABC, Science Channel, and CNN; written for popular science publications like Discover, Wired, and New Scientist, and has been featured in documentaries like Me & Isaac Newton and a recent BBC series on the nature of time.
He explains that his fascination to Einstein’s search for a “theory of everything” – “an equation perhaps no more than one inch long that would explain the entire universe” – has inspired him to write books and host television programmes on leading-edge science.
Einstein died when Kaku was just eight, but he can still remember people talking about the theory that the genius physicist could not finish. Even at that tender age, he had made up his mind “to be part of the effort to finish Einstein’s theory”.
His fascination with the future, especially science fiction, and frustration of not finding the right books on the subject also fuelled the writing interest in him.
“So I made a promise that when I grow up to become a theoretical physicist, I would, in my spare time, write books about advanced physics and the future, to explain to the average person the wonderous and fantastic physics that was being studied by the world’s leading physicists,” Kaku explains.
If Kaku has his way, many more young people will be signing up to study science and physics.
“I tell young students that the engine of prosperity is science. All the wealth we see around us is a direct result of science, especially physics.”
To him, physicists were the ones who had helped to invent and build some of the most important inventions of all time, including electric motors and generators, the transistor, the laser, radar, TV, radio, the GPS system, space programmes and modern electronics.
“In fact, physicists invented most of the 20th century. So I tell young students that, if they become a physicist, they will join the ranks of some of the most important scientists who have shaped human destiny, with names like Newton and Einstein,” he says.
Watch our exclusive interview with Kaku on The Leaderonomics Show: