Michio Kaku is one of those popularizers of science who have been actively working in it for more than a dozen years. In a new interview timed to coincide with the release of the new book, he told how and why it is necessary to explain complex physical concepts to the broad masses, and also answered many questions "about life, the Universe and in general."
The Guardian spoke with a renowned teacher, scientist and popular science education activist. The most recently published Kaku book is The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything. It is dedicated to the greatest achievements of physics in the past and the current state of science, which is on the verge of a kind of revolution, similar to those that took place after the discoveries of Newton and then Einstein.
According to the scientist, the long-awaited "theory of everything" has already been created, we just haven't tested it yet. Now humanity has quantum physics and the theory of relativity - each work perfectly in its own area of application and have been repeatedly confirmed in practice. However, it is not possible to link the whole picture of the world together; additional tools are needed. And as one of the "founding fathers" of string theory, in particular, co-author of string field theory Kaku believes that this is the right way.
However, even among the Nobel laureates, the world's leading scientists, there is still no agreement on which version of string theory is the most correct. And there are several of them, and each has its own advantages. Therefore, Michio reasonably assumes that in the very near future new experiments on the most powerful accelerators will reveal deviations from the standard model. It is at this moment that the data needed to refine string theory will emerge, and people will literally step into a new era. In the light of such prospects, a variety of thoughts and questions arise, to which Kaku also answered in his own way.
Why popularize science
Each subsequent fundamental theory in physics is more and more difficult for a person to understand without a large baggage of specific knowledge. Newtonian mechanics can be easily explained using everyday objects and can be easily checked in everyday life by anyone who wants to. The theory of relativity in everyday life, as a rule, comes only when talking about some distant concepts of astrophysics. And it is unlikely that the overwhelming majority of the population will remember anything from Einstein's works other than the notorious formula E = mc2.
The average person, at best, encounters the direct consequences of general relativity indirectly and is unaware of it. For example, when a smartphone or other GPS device determines the signal delay from satellites to calculate its position in space, the deviation over time caused by relativistic effects is taken into account. When it comes to quantum physics, everything becomes even more difficult: it is not so easy to understand its basic concepts, even after receiving a specialized education. String theory, in turn, often baffles professional physicists who have spent a considerable part of their lives on this science.
On the other hand, all people sooner or later ask fundamental questions - both purely hypothetical and existential.Is time travel possible? Do other dimensions exist and what are they? What are wormholes, how do they work, and can they be detected at all? How did the Universe begin - what happened before the Big Bang and what will happen after the end of everything (for example, heat death)? Throughout its history, mankind has been looking for answers to such riddles and either drew them from the knowledge of the objective world, or created deliberately unverifiable constructs.
Science, obviously, can provide information in the first way, but in its present state it is too complex. Therefore, it is necessary to try to make it more accessible, to leave the "ivory tower" and communicate with the people on whose money the scientists work. Understanding the world based on verifiable, reliable and reproducible data (scientific) allows you to make smarter and smarter decisions. In the long run, they are much less likely to be wrong than those based on blind faith.
Another reason why it is simply necessary to work with a mass audience, which Michio cites, is taken from a life example. In the 1990s, to advance research in fundamental physics, American scientists developed a supercollider project. It was supposed to be significantly larger than the world famous Large Hadron Collider (LHC). But the construction site was never approved by the US Congress for a rather comical reason. When the funding decision depended on literally a few votes, a representative of the scientific community at a hearing to defend the project was asked whether the installation would allow God to be found.
According to Kaku, the scientist could say that this collider is, in fact, a "machine of being", recreating the conditions for the emergence of the universe, the greatest event in all history. But physicists understand science, not the ability to conduct political debate, so the answer was "she will find the Higgs boson." And the public, represented by the congressmen, decided that $ 10 billion for just "another elementary particle" was too expensive. In other words, non-scientists have little understanding of why scientists need all these "toys." Ordinary people are worried about seemingly abstract questions, for example, about faith and a person's place in the world. That congressman said so: "If we find God with this machine, I will vote for it."
Will Newton Understand String Theory and How to Test It
Almost 400 years ago, when humanity was thinking in magical terms and was hunting witches with might and main, Isaac Newton created the first full-fledged theory of everything. He developed a mathematical apparatus describing interactions on all scales then known - from grains of sand underfoot to stars in the sky. His discovery largely determined the industrial revolution and became the starting point for many scientific works, including the theory of relativity. Interestingly, the scientist was helped by a pandemic: in 1666, the University of Cambridge was quarantined due to the plague and 23-year-old Newton went home.
According to legend, whiling away the time for his hobbies - mathematics and natural philosophy - he saw a falling apple and wondered why objects always fall perpendicular to the ground. In fact, of course, as can be seen from the analysis of his notes, Newton developed his understanding of mechanics for many years (in total, almost all his life). Then, during the plague quarantine, he first formulated the quadratic proportionality of the gravitation of the planets to the Sun, depending on the distance to it. And he described it mathematically.
According to Kaku, if this great scientist were suddenly in our time, he would appreciate the book "Equation of God." Or rather, how Newton's thought passed through the centuries and developed into the most complex science of our time. Interestingly, today's physicists are hardly delighted with the current situation - they are literally divided into two camps. Although this is a rather stressful situation, it is useful for science. As Kaku notes, a similar thing happened at the famous Solvay congresses at the beginning of the 20th century.At one such conference, Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein literally clashed in the greatest physical debate around quantum theory.
Many of these disputes and key disagreements, Kaku reasonably believes, will resolve the upcoming experiments at the LHC. They focus on deviations in the Standard Model, which is remarkable in everything but its complexity. From a practical point of view, this theory has been repeatedly confirmed by experiments and describes well the structure of matter at the subatomic level. From a theoretical point of view, it is an ugly construction full of complex constructions designed to link some physical ideas with others.
When a huge array of experimental data can be processed, the slightest deviations from the Standard Model will shift the scales. You will be able to find out which of the variations of string theory best describes them. Everything in them is much simpler mathematically, and most of the phenomena described by the Standard Model are derived from string theory in a relatively simple and understandable way. As mentioned above, the only thing missing from these calculations is practical evidence. It is clear that no one is safe from the fact that they will have to alter the well-known models and build a new "theory of everything". But that is science.
About aliens, religion and philosophy
Like other people, the American scientist is worried about existential issues, so journalists could not pass them by. For example, Kaku was recalled that he considered contact with aliens inevitable within the next century. The popularizer of science noted that every year we receive more and more tools for studying more and more distant corners of the Universe. Next year, the James Webb Space Telescope will start working - and scientists will see a huge variety of other planets inaccessible to the eyes of ground-based instruments and the Hubble.
This step will bring us closer to contact with extraterrestrial civilizations than ever before. At the same time, speeding up events and generally burning with the desire to meet aliens is not the best idea. Kaku recalled how the acquaintance with the Spanish conquistadors ended for the Aztecs. And it doesn't matter whose civilization will be more developed, ours or theirs, the effect can be catastrophic in any case. So contact issues should be taken as carefully and seriously as possible.
During his life, Kaku got acquainted with several religious and philosophical worlds at once. He was born into a Buddhist family, but attended a Presbyterian church school as a child. In a fragile mind, two completely different pictures of the structure of the Universe collided at once: nirvana - a universal metaphysical space without beginning, end, time, which has always existed, and the Christian myth of the creation of the world by God in seven days.
According to Kaku, this is a great illustration of why, at the abstraction level, scientific theories are more philosophically complete. So, according to string theory, the events of the Big Bang constantly occur in multidimensional space. The process of creating the world is constantly going on in some dimension, which looks like the work of God.
It's the same with the apocalypse - in some dimensions, the universes ended their lives and repeat the cycle again. And the 11-dimensional hyperspace, which includes all these phenomena at the same time, is nirvana. There is no need to choose and argue about the differences in philosophy, if reality is much more complicated, more interesting and already includes all these speculative constructions. As a theory of everything.