What do junior high school science, science fiction, string theory, the God equation, and Elvis Presley have in common? They all played a starring role in physicist Michio Kaku and actor LeVar Burton’s Chicago Humanities Festival panel, an exuberant, hope-filled exploration of physics, humanity, and imagination.
Kaku’s new book, The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything, explores an equation Einstein couldn’t quite get, and which has been fascinating physicists (and Kaku himself) for years: the God Equation, an equation which, when found, should provide the unifying theory of the world, beyond even string theory. It’s an equation that should show us everything from parallel universes to how the Big Bang “banged,” and Kaku figures it’s on its way.
The conversation also started off with a bang. Kaku and Burton each paid homage to the other’s work, from Kaku’s ability to make physics accessible to everyone to Burton’s work as an actor—including his time on Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Kaku, it transpires, is a Trekkie.) The exploration of science fiction, from Flash Gordon to Star Trek, led directly to a topic to which Kaku and Burton would return: kids are born scientists, Kaku argues, and their scientific urges are all too often slaughtered by junior high school science.
Science doesn’t have to be dry or boring or based in rote memorization, as Kaku argued here. It’s a living thing, propelling us all into the future, and science fiction, including shows like Star Trek, can help inspire tomorrow’s scientists and engineers to reach for the stars—sometimes literally. (The stars are pretty close: Kaku pointed out that we might not have a holodeck now, but we have similar technology—and we’re heading towards spaceships like the Enterprise, even if right now they’re just computer chips.)
Beauty, Kaku argued, is a great thing. Not only is our universe beautiful, but so are great physics equations. Progress, he tells us, has been forged through the most beautiful of equations. His explanation of string theory—all the vibrations of the universe—certainly made complex physics feel beautiful, and immediate. Our universe is music, and the God equation should help us understand that music even more.
We are, Kaku says, the lowest musical note. Our society is a type zero: we rely on fossil fuels, can’t control the world, and are probably like squirrels to more advanced civilizations, which are zipping past us right now. (Squirrels, Kaku commented, don’t tend to have a lot of interesting things to say.) But, if we survive the transition into a type one civilization, and gain control over the weather and the earth—well, we stand a chance of becoming a type two (think Star Trek), and of moving to the stars and beyond.
We are in a period of transition right now, moving from life as galactic squirrels toward something greater, and it is, as Kaku and Burton discussed, a dangerous period. We face dangers including nuclear warfare, climate change, and pandemics. Again, we run into that great killer of budding scientists known as junior high school science. And, of course, science struggles for funding in the US and abroad, and, in some cases, has lost funding and resources, pushing physics back generations.
Yet in the face of danger and of transition, Kaku’s excitement and optimism shine through. We may tumble on the edge of a precipice, but he has faith in our society surviving the transition to a type one, and, eventually, moving beyond that, into the stars—and we’ll get there thanks to both science and imagination.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering—Kaku figures Elvis Presley’s probably alive in some parallel universe right now, along with some young mathematician or physicist who is working on the God Equation too.