Recently, I was lucky enough to chat with theoretical physicist Professor Michio Kaku. Professor Kaku is one of a rare breed; working at the cutting edge of complex maths and physics, but also able to talk about his research topics with a layperson, in their language. He specialises in string field theory, but is also an eloquent populariser of science, having appeared on nearly every major television network in the United States and hosted a number of documentaries. He also has written numerous popular books on cutting edge science and future thought, the latest being Physics of the Impossible (Amazon US and UK).
Our discussion covered everything from the UFO phenomenon, to whether consciousness defines reality, and also touched on some of the more controversial science stories about today (most notably, the LHC and Active SETI). Professor Kaku was quick to assure me that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will definitely not destroy the world, instead listing some of the benefits that science could reap from the project – not least, a refining of the current understanding of particle physics. He didn’t shy away from the fact that in its current form “the Standard Model…is supremely ugly… It’s like gluing together an aardvark, whale, and platypus and declaring it to be nature’s supreme evolutionary creation.”
We also touched on the ‘mainstream’ view that human consciousness is simply an epiphenomenon of the brain – which in many respects, does not match up with the supreme importance that some branches of quantum physics accord consciousness. Professor Kaku agreed that “consciousness is one of the great problems facing science,” and stated plainly that despite the mainstream view, “most scientists cannot even define it, let alone explain it.” To illustrate how consciousness is important to quantum physics, he discussed the well-known “Schrodinger’s Cat” paradox, and then explored various theories which might explain it. One of those was put forward by Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner – he assumed that consiousness is the key factor in creating reality. Furthermore, extrapolating Wigner’s theory means that, as Professor Kaku put it, “eventually, we need an infinite chain of observers, each watching the other… Wigner implied that this chain was a cosmic consciousness or even God.”
One of the main reasons I was interested in talking to Professor Kaku was his openness to some of the more ‘heretical’ areas of science. One of those topics is the scientific investigation of the UFO phenomenon, something which he has gone on the public record as supporting. Professor Kaku said that generally UFOs were subject to the “giggle factor” with scientists, because most assume that the distance between possible civilisations is far too great. But he thinks differently.
“Once you imagine a civilization a million years more advanced (which is a blink of an eye compared to the 13.7 billion year age of the universe) then new laws of physics and technologies open up,” Dr Kaku told me. “For such a civilization (a Type III civilization, according to the Kardashev scale), travel between stars might not be such a problem.”
He also pondered on how we might struggle to relate to such technically advanced alien civilisations – or more correctly, how they might fail to recognise our ‘sophistication’. “Imagine walking down a country road, and meeting an ant hill. Do we go down to the ants and say, ‘I bring you trinkets. I bring you beads. I give you nuclear energy and biotechnology. Take me to your leader?’ Or we have the urge to step on a few of them??”
Given the likely differences between us and alien civilisations, the next obvious question to me was to ask whether Professor Kaku thought SETI was worth the time and effort. His reply? “Yes, because it’s all we have today. So by default, we should fund it, but not expect too much.”
He wasn’t as charitable, however, about the idea of Active SETI (beaming messages out to space, rather than listening). “I think it’s an awful idea to advertise our existence in space, without understanding the motives and intentions of possible alien civilizations,” he said, comparing us to the inhabitants of the New World encountering “Cortez and his band of cut-throats”. Instead of David vs. Goliath, Professor Kaku suggests it would be more akin to “a fruit fly versus Goliath”.
The full interview transcript is after the fold, click ‘Read More’ to view it. Also, there is plenty of wonderful reading on Professor Kaku’s personal website, for those who want to explore these topics further.
TDG: Thanks for talking with us here at The Daily Grail Michio! When I read your latest book, Physics of the Impossible (Amazon US and UK), I wondered as to what would have inspired a serious physicist such as yourself to write a book on this topic. But when we look at your other books – Hyperspace, Visions and Parallel Worlds – it’s quite obvious that you are fascinated with ideas and concepts at the threshold of (and beyond) our current capabilities and understanding. Have you always been interested in exploring the boundaries of knowledge?
MK: When I was a child, I was fascinated by the old Flash Gordon series. I would watch, glued to the TV screen, because it introduced to me an entirely new world. After a while, however, I had my first insight: I realized that I did not have blond hair and muscles. I began to realize that although Flash got the girl, the man who actually made the entire series work was the scientist, Dr. Zarkov. With the sheer force of his intellect, he created the invisibilty shield, the energy for the city in the sky, and other scientific wonders. Without the science, there was no science fiction. So I became a science fiction fan.
Then I had my second insight. I realized that I could daydream all I wanted to about the fourth dimension, about hyperspace, about star ships, but if I did not have the mathematics and the physics background, then I would forever be an outsider, speculating about these fantastic technologies. That’s why I decided to get serious and learn as much advanced mathematics and physics as I possibly could. The language of nature is mathematics, so if I really wanted to know about other universes and other dimensions, I would have to sit down and learn this language.
Now, when I look back at science fiction, I know precisely where modern science and technology ends, and science fiction begins, and even when science fiction may become science fact.
TDG: Heading into the boundaries of science, and starting with a topical subject: the Large Hadron Collider is about to come online, with much confusion and speculation about what this machine might be capable of. Can you explain – to a layman – what the LHC will contribute to our quest for knowledge and whether it presents any danger at all?
MK: The LHC, contrary to myth, will not destroy the world. Each proton in the LHC beam has a lot of energy, but there are very few protons in the beam. Hence, the energy of the beam is about the energy of a fruit fly. In fact, you would not light up a light bulb with the energy of the sub-atomic particles created by the machine.
In reality, we want to re-create the temperatures of the big bang. We hope to find a particle, called the Higgs Boson, which is the last missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle called the Standard Model of particles. Although the Standard Model has had much success in explaining the sub-atomic world, it has several glaring defects: first, it is supremely ugly (containing 36 types of quarks, 3 exact copies of sub-atomic particles, and a zoo of particles including neutrinos, leptons, hadrons, gluons, W-bosons, mesons, etc. etc. etc.) It’s like gluing together an aardvark, whale, and platypus and declaring it to be nature’s supreme evolutionary creation.
So we physicists hope to find particles beyond the Higgs boson, such as “sparticles” or superparticles which are predicted by superstring theory. In this picture, the world we see around us corresponds to the lowest vibration of tiny vibrating rubber bands. Sparticles represent the next set of vibrations. If true, then superstring theory, being a theory of everything, may reveal the deepest secrets of the universe, such as what happened before the big bang, whether parallel universes and other dimensions exist, whether time travel is possible, and whether wormholes are credible. All this could have a profound impact on our view of the universe or multiverse.
TDG: Speaking of superstring theory: You have a running ‘Long Bet’ with science writer John Horgan, challenging his prediction that “By 2020, no one will have won a Nobel Prize for work on superstring theory, membrane theory, or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.” Six years into the bet, how safe is your money looking?
MK: There are two ways that experiments may find evidence for string theory. First, we can use earth-bound technology. The LHC may find sparticles which are predicted by the theory. Or, we may find evidence of dark matter in our labs (the leading candidate for dark matter is the neutralino found in string theory). Or, we may find experimental evidence for higher dimensions by searching for deviations in the Newton’s inverse square law for gravity.
Second, we can use space-basesd detectors,like LISA. LISA is a laser satellite system, 3 million miles across. (It consists of 3 satellites connected by 3 laser beams). Any gravity wave left over from the instant of Genesis is still floating around and will disturb these lasers, which will therefore allow us to detect the instant of the Big Bang. Even better, we may be able to match this big bang gravity radiation with various pre-big bang theories now being proposed. In this way, we might be able to probe the pre-big bang universe, and hence verify string theory this way.
TDG: Taking a step sideways: the dominant paradigm of consciousness research considers consciousness as simply an epiphenomenon of a biological brain. Does this position fit with the findings of modern physics, given the role of the observer in quantum decoherence? Or does ‘observer’ mean something else entirely, unrelated to consciousness?
MK: Consciousness is one of the great problems facing science. Some have claimed to have “explained” consciousness. But actually, most scientists cannot even define it, let alone explain it.
Consciousness enters quantum physics because of the Schrodinger cat problem, perhaps the greatest paradox in all of science. If we put a cat in a box, and point a gun at the cat, which in turn is connected to a geiger counter sitting next to uranium, then we physicists describe the system as the sum of two wave functions. In one wave function, the cat is dead. In the other, the cat is alive. So, before we open the box, the cat is neither dead nor alive, but exists in a nether state. Once an observation is made, the cat suddenly “chooses” one state or the other, and we can then see that the cat is dead or alive (but not both).
(Most people find this paradox silly, but it troubled Einstein for decades. He would ask his guests at night: does the moon exist because a mouse looks at it?)
There are several ways to resolve this puzzle. The standard theory is to say that observation determines existence. So opening the box and making the measurement collapses the wave function and determines the state of the cat. This assumes that the sub-atomic world is different from the macroscopic world, that there is a “wall” separating the two. In the microworld, electrons can be two places at the same time, disappearing and reappearing all the time. But in the macroworld, cats are either dead or alive. (Lately, this standard picture has fallen into disfavor because, in nanotechnology, we can smoothly go from the macroworld and microworld and we do not encounter any wall.
Another way, pioneered by Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, is to assume that consiousness is the key factor. Only conscious observers can make observations, and hence consciousness causes the wave function to collapse. But how do we know that we are alive and not dead? Hence, we need a third person to observe us to collapse our wave function. But then we need a fourth person to observe the third person and collapse his wave function. Eventually, we need an infinite chain of observers, each watching the other. Wigner implied that this chain was a cosmic consciousness or even God.
There is a third way, which is gaining popularity among physicists. And this is that the universe splits in half everytime an observation is made. In one universe, the cat is dead. In the other universe, the cat is alive. The beauty of this approach is that we do not have to introduce any “wall” or “collapsed waves.” The wave function merrily splits continually, creating infinite numbers of parallel universes. (We don’t see all these parallel universes surrounding us, because we have “decohered” from them. Our wave function is no longer vibrating in unison with these other universes, so we cannot easily interact with them. Otherwise, we would bump into versions of ourselves where we made different choices in life, or bump into universes where people how have died in our universe are still alive.)
TDG: You have been one of the few ‘mainstream’ scientists to speak out in support of reasoned investigation of the UFO phenomenon. What prompted you to take this minority view?
MK: In science, we have something called the giggle factor. Scientists giggle when they hear of UFOs. Most scientists laugh at UFOs because the distance between stars is so great that it would take thousands of years for a UFO to reach the earth. But I look at it differently.
I ask: what is a civilization a million years more advanced than ours capable of? Usually, we think of alien civilizations as being a few hundred years ahead of us, and they would indeed have a hard time reaching us. But once you imagine a civilization a million years more advanced (which is a blink of an eye compared to the 13.7 billion year age of the universe) then new laws of physics and technologies open up. For such a civilization (a Type III civilization, according to the Kardashev scale), travel between stars might not be such a problem.
TDG: Given the minimal age of human civilisation – and what we have achieved in that time – are we perhaps still ‘savages’ compared to the truly ‘civilised’ denizens of the cosmos? Astrobiologist David Grinspoon speculates that these ‘Immortals’ “are likely to be out there, and they might seem like gods to us if they ever decide that it’s a good idea for us to meet them.” Does this suggest that we should never discount extraordinary experiences – such as UFO sightings – out of hand?
MK: Imagine walking down a country road, and meeting an ant hill. Do we go down to the ants and say, “I bring you trinkets. I bring you beads. I give you nuclear energy and biotechnology. Take me to your leader?” Or we have the urge to step on a few of them??
Actually, the distance between us and an ant hill is quite small when compared to the distance between our Type 0 civilization and a Type III civilization. Since the energy difference between each Type is roughly 10 billion, it means that a Type III civilization has a minimum 10 billion times 10 billion times more energy than us. At that energy scale, new forms of physics begin to open up, at the Planck energy, where space and time become unstable. So technologies that we can only dream of today may become common place if one can master the Planck energy (which is 10 to the 19 billion electron volts).
TDG: The other human hunt for alien civilisations is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Terence McKenna once criticised SETI by saying “to search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant.” Is SETI worth the time and expense?
MK: Yes, because it’s all we have today. So by default, we should fund it, but not expect too much.
If ants in an ant hill detect a 10-lane superhighway being built near them, would they understand how to communicate with the workers? Would they assume that the workers communicate only on ant frequencies? In fact, the ants are so primitive that they would not even understand what a 10-lane superhighway was.
TDG: Do you believe the concerns over the dangers of ‘Active SETI‘ (that we should not advertise our presence to possibly hostile alien civilisations) are valid?
MK: I think it’s an awful idea to advertize our existence in space, without understanding the motives and intentions of possible alien civilizations.
Remember what happened to Montezuma and the Aztecs when they encountered Cortez and his band of cutthroats. Within a few months, the great Aztec civilization was demolished, and Cortez only had technology a few centuries at most ahead of the Aztecs. Imagine what would happen if we met a civilization a million years ahead of us. Instead of David vs. Goliath, it would be a fruit fly versus Goliath. (However, although active SETI is a dangerous idea, I believe that alien civilizations may not want to conquer or eat us, as we see in Hollywood movies. They will not want to eat us, since we will be made of different proteins and DNA, assuming the aliens even have proteins and DNA. Also, there are plenty of uninhabited planets with resources without
restive natives, so they would probably not disturb us.)
Also, the main danger faced by ants confronting workers building a 10 lane superhighway is not that the workers want to eat the ants or conquer and enslave them. The main danger faced by the ants is that they will be paved over. Think of most animals in a forest. The main danger they face is not that humans will shoot them and eat them. No, the main danger is that humans will rob them of their habitat, and they will die as a consequence, even if the humans are not aware of this.
So the main danger we face from an advanced civilization is simply that we might get in their way.
TDG: Our Universe is ideally constructed for order. The Earth is an oasis perfectly suited for life to evolve. Humans have evolved consciousness. And we – of all species on Earth – have now figured out how to leave the planet and venture into the cosmos…and, during *our* lifetime. Given the above, at some point does the Anthropic Principle just get pushed to absolute breaking point, with the almost ‘fate-like’ scenario that we in the 20th century are confronted with (even moreso for an Apollo astronaut!)?
MK: When I was in second grade, my teacher made a statement which left a deep impression on me. She said that God so loved the earth that he put the earth “just right” from the sun. If the earth were closer, the oceans would boil. If the earth were farther, the oceans would freeze. But the earth is just right from the sun, she said. This was my first encounter with a scientific statement with religious implications.
Today, however, we have detected almost 300 dead planets in space which are too close, and are too far, from their mother sun. So we don’t have to invoke God. It is just a random event that we are just right from the sun, otherwise, I would not be able to write down this sentence.
The same reasoning applies to the universe. Our universe is “just right” to allow for intelligent life. If the nuclear force were a bit stronger, the sun would burn out before life gets started. If it were a bit weaker, the sun would never ignite. Similarly, if gravity were a bit stronger, we would all perish in a Big Crunch. If gravity were a bit weaker, the universe would have entered a Big Freeze long ago, and we would all be frozen now.
The conclusion is that there are probably many universes which are lifeless, with suns that never ignited, or universes which have collapsed back. A multiverse of universes solves the mystery of why our universe seems fine-tuned to allow for life and consciousness.
Physics of the Impossible is available from Amazon US and UK.