Fantastisk litteratur 9: Fysikktime med Michio Kaku

Fantastisk Litteratur Spessial, dag 9: I dag og i morgen vender vi blikket mot sakprosaen. For hvor hadde science fiction vært uten vitenskapen? Og hvor hadde vitenskapen vært uten science fiction?

Dette er director’s cut-versjonen av mitt intervju med den japanskamerikanske kvantefysikeren og Lyn Gordon-fanen Michio Kaku, om hans dypt fascinerende bok Parallell Worlds. OBS! Det kan være lurest å sjekke ut den norskspråklige versjonen først…

Physicist Michio Kaku is back with what promises to be another mind-blowing book. Physics of the Future is based on interviews with over 300 of the world’s top scientists, and Kaku presents «revolutionary developments in medi­cine, computers, quantum physics, and space travel that will forever change our way of life and alter the course of civilization itself». Here’s my unabridged interview with him from 2006, about his book Parallell Worlds.

ØH: This is one you probably get all the time: Did you read too much science fiction and super hero comics when you were a kid? I ask this question because I certainly did, but never took the plunge to believing that Superman’s Earth-1 and Earth-2 was a possibility in the real world.

MK: When I was a kid, I used to read a lot of science fiction, and watch science fiction shows, such as the old Flash Gordon series. But eventually, I realized that although Flash got all the credit and got the girl, it was the scientist, Dr. Zarkov, who really made things work. Without science, there is no science fiction. It was the science of Dr. Zarkov who gave us the rocket, the invisibilitiy shield, the fantastic weapons, etc.

This left a deep impression on me. When I see society tody, with politicians and businessmen taking credit for so many things, I realize that it is the unsung scientist who really made things work. Without science and the scientist, there is no modern society. Science is the engine of prosperity. Where there is scientific learning and a culture which encourages scientific progress, there is progress, wealth, and understanding. Where nations deny science, there is only ignorance, poverty, and disease.

But after reading a lot of science fiction, I was eventually left with a hollow feeling. As thrilling as it was, I realized that if I did not learn the advanced mathematics and physics behind these fantastic technologies, I would forever be babbling about anti-matter, hyperspace, parallel universe, etc. without the slightest idea if they were possible or not. So I decided to become serious and learn Einstein’s theories and the most advanced quantum theory, so that I would at last know the very cutting edge of science.

Now, I get requests from science fiction writers, and Hollywood script writers, asking for help on their scripts.

ØH: On a more serious note, in Parallell Worlds you show a lot of links between science fiction and cosmology. How important is fiction for sciences where you have to bend your own imagination?

MK: It always helps to have a fertile imagination. In my field (theoretical physics) there are many, many smart people who are quite good at advanced mathematics. But what separates the good from the very best physicists is their ability to imagine beyond the known boundaries of knowledge.

For example, as a child, I used to spend hours watching the carp swimming in the shallow pond in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. I imagined being a fish in that pond. What a fantastic world! You could swim forwards and back, left and right, but the concept of «up» was totally alien. Anyone speaking of the world of «up», beyond the lily pads, into the third dimension beyond the pond, would be considered mad. I imagined a scientists carp in that pond, who would laugh anytime another fish talked about parallel universes, hyperspace, and the third dimension. Then, I imagined grabbing that scientist fish, lifting it into the hyperspace of the third dimension. It would be amazed. It would see beings breathing without water (a new law of biology), beings moving without fins (a new law of physics).

Well, today, many leading physicists believe that we are the fish. We spend all our time in 3 dimensions (moving forward-backward, left-right, up-down) and laugh at anyone who speaks of parallel worlds. But not anymore.

With the coming of inflation theory, string theory, membrane theory, etc. we now believe that we are like a fish swimming in 11 dimensional hyperspace. And the latest WMAP satellite, which has given us «baby pictures» of the infant universe shortly after birth, has given us a mountain of data consistent with this view.

Many physicists believe that our universe is actually a soap bubble of some sort. We live on the skin of the bubbble, which is expanding, and can only dream of leaving the bubble. But we also now believe that the bubble is expanding in a larger space, an 11 dimensional space, and that there are other soap bubbles out there.

Imagine a bubble bath. Thousands of bubbles expand contract, sprout or bud baby soap bubbles, or collide with other bubbles. This is called the «multiverse,» and it is the new picture emerging from satellite data.

ØH: Do you think fantastic fiction is imperative to get people interested in physics, cosmology, astronomy and the like at a young age? Would today’s science be a much poorer place if it weren’t for superheroes and science fiction?

MK: We sometimes forget that many giants of science had a background in science fiction. Edwin Hubble, for example, was a bored but successful lawyer when he decided to quit. He remembered the excitement he felt when reading Jules Verne as a child, so he quit being a lawyer, went to graduate school, and became the most important astronomer of the 20th century, discovering the expanding universe. Also, the astronomer Carl Sagan, as a child, read the old John Carter of Mars series and dreamed of soaring to the distant planets to meet the Martian princess Dejah Thoris.

ØH: How do you explain cosmology to a layman? What is it and how has its significance and seriousity changed in the last half-century?

MK: Everyone is a born cosmologist. As a child, we all want to know where everything came from. Since before the dawn of human history, ancient peoples have marveled at the awesome beauty of the night sky and wondered where it came from, and how we fit into this cosmic tapestry.

But today, we know that most of what we know about the universe is wrong.

Every text book says:

a) the universe is mainly made of atoms

b) the universe is expanding, but slowing down

c) the universe is a «uni-verse»

The WMAP satellite has confirmed that 96 percent of the universe is actually made of invisible dark matter and dark energy, that 4% of the universe is made of hydrogen and helium, but only .03 percent is made of the higher elements which make up our body.

We also know that the universe is not slowing down, but is accelerating, speeding up, careening out of control, so we now believe that the universe will expand until temperatures plunge to near zero, until all intelligent life dies in a Big Freeze.

Lastly, the WMAP data is consistent with inflation theory, which says that if the universe inflated once, it can happen again, and again, like a soap bubbles budding off a mother soap bubble.

ØH: What do you think about the status of physics education in school. Most of us just learn about Newton’s law of gravity and never get around to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Not to speak about the further theories. Aren’t we in a state of education where most people know next to nothing about the theories of our creation and the possible end of the world?

MK: Science education, especially in the US, is miserable. Every test shows that US school children score about the same level as a third world country in terms of their knowledge of science. One problem is that the science teachers are of very low quality.

In the US, there is the old saying: «Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.»

So, science courses are either very elementary, or very boring, speaking only of Newtonian laws, and learning the names of the parts of a flower.

ØH: How can you spend so much energy and time on the theories of time travel, parallel universes and the creation and end of the universe when this is something that probably won?t have any significance whatsoever in your lifetime? Why should we care about what will happen to the universe in some million years when pollution and the arms race can destroy civilisation as we know it in maybe 50 years time?

MK: Yes, we physicists care deeply about what happens to the planet, but we also know that our knowledge may be crucial for the survival of the planet. For example, physicists are the ones who created the bomb, and hence we also know of ways to control the bomb as well. The laws of physics used to explain the sun and the stars are basically the same as the laws of physics used in nuclear bombs. Physicists today are much sought after concerning the issue of nuclear proliferation in the most unstable areas of the world.

But there is also a much larger concern. Our satellite data indicates that the universe itself will die in the far, distant future, and all intelligent beings will die with it. The laws of physics seems to be a death warrant for all intelligent life. So why even bother to exist knowing that its all for nothing, that eventually everything will be too cold to support any life of any kind?

There is, however, one escape clause to the laws of physicists. Perhaps intelligent beings at that future time may be able to create vast amounts of energy necessary to open up a gateway, or wormhole, to another universe. If our bubble/universe gets too cold, then perhaps our theories will make it possible to escape from our universe into a much warmer one. This is, of course, still science fiction, but it is science fiction consistent with the known laws of physics.

ØH: How is the climate for non-fiction based in the natural sciences in the English speaking world today as opposed to earlier? In Norway there is a very small market for translated books of your kind, unfortunately, and only available in English.

MK: We are entering a Golden Age for cosmology and physics. Discoveries are being made every week. Just last year, the first invisible dark matter galaxy was discovered. Amazing! And just this week, more confirmation of the inflation theory was found from the WKAP satellite data. When I was a graduate student getting my Ph.D., my advisors told me not to go into cosmology, since nothing was happening experiment-wise. They repeated the old saying, «there’s speculation, then there’s more speculation, then there’s cosmology.» So, I went into particle physics instead. Ironically, what came out of particle physics is string theory, which in turn has given a totally new look at cosmology.

The public, too, is increasingly aware of all these revolutionary developments. Major TV specials, major magazine articles, etc. in the US and Europe have shown that there is a hunger on the part of the public for this world-shattering material, if it is presented in the right fashion. Several books, mine included, have hit the best-seller list. The books by Stephen Hawking, for example, have outsold those of Madonna and other stars.

So it is great time to be a theoretical physicist. Soon, we will be able to answer questions like:

What happened before the big bang? Was the multiverse always eternal?

Do higher dimensions actually exist?

New experiments are coming on line, for example:

Next year, the Large Hadron Collider gets turned on outside Geneva, which should give us a «window on Creation.»

In 2011, LISA (Laser Interferometry Space Antenna) goes into orbit, which should give us the first signals from a possible pre-big bang era.

Experiments are also being done at major US labs (e.g. University of Colorado, Purdue University) about detecting a parallel universe in a physics laboratory.

Dark matter experiments may also capture dark matter in a laboratory. Some think dark matter is a higher vibration of the string, or even the presence of a glaxaxy in other universe hovering just inches above our universe.

So, with all these experiments, I think we will soon find indirect evidence of parallel universes and higher dimensions.

You can read the original story, from Norwegian magazine Ny Tid, January 2007, here.

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