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Physics turns from fission to future

The Economist presents a chat with Michio Kaku on "Physics of the Future."

No one could ever accuse theoretical physicist Michio Kaku of neglecting the big picture: His scientific specialty, string field theory, tries to tie together the impossibly small and impossibly big phenomena of the universe. But he doesn't limit himself to that esoteric topic: Whether it's the debate over UFOs, or the worries about an atom-smashing doomsday, or last year's Gulf oil spill, or this month's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, you can rely on Kaku to get his scientific view across in language tailored for the talk-show crowd.

Kaku is a radio and TV host himself, on shows such as "Science Fantastic" and "Sci Fi Science," and in addition to his professorial duties at the City College of New York, he's found time to write a series of books looking ahead to the far future ("Physics of the Impossible") and the not-quite-so-far future ("Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century," published in 1998).

His latest book, "Physics of the Future," surveys the recent discoveries that could lead to breakthrough technologies between now and the year 2100 — ranging from artificial intelligence to invisibility cloaks. But will the future be as bright and shiny as Kaku expects?

Many of the past visions of the future look outdated or even laughable in retrospect. The projections for the next 50 to 100 years are all over the map: Experts on population and food policy are worrying about the potential meltdown of society in 2050 due to stretched resources, while inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil says the pace of progress will be so dizzying that predictions become useless beyond the year 2045.

Speaking of meltdowns, this month's earthquake and tsunami in Japan brought a fresh reminder that the future can get all fouled up, due to natural phenomena as well as human failings. Just before our interview about the book, Kaku was on MSNBC's "Jansing & Co." TV show, suggesting that the best way to deal with the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex was to cover up the whole place with sand and concrete, as was done 25 years ago at the Chernobyl site in Ukraine. Not exactly a bright and shiny idea ... but it provided the starting point for my Q&A with Kaku about the pitfalls of techno-prediction. Here's an edited transcript: 


Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku looks beyond the flying-car visions of science fiction to project what life could be like in 2100.

Q: The news from Japan put a different spin on your book, I think. It highlights the idea that things can go wrong — that it's not a steady march of progress toward the year 2100. How do these events fit into what you wrote about in 'Physics of the Future'?

A: Well, I think what's happening in Japan actually vindicates the main thesis of "Physics of the Future." I’ve interviewed over 300 of the world’s top scientists for BBC television, Discovery Channel, Science Channel and National Public Radio. These are the visionaries — the people who look 20, 50, 100 years into the future. And looking at the big picture, they see that fission power is really a small blip of the energy picture. Oil prices are rising, but solar renewable energy prices are going down. The two curves will cross in about 10 years. Right now, solar is more expensive than oil or coal. But in 10 years’ time, the two curves should cross. That will initiate the renewable solar era.

Then, by midcentury, we're talking about fusion power coming online. Fusion power points up all the deficiencies of fission power. Fission power — splitting the atom — creates nuclear waste, tons and tons of it. And that's what we fear, because that drives the meltdown. The meltdown is caused by what's called decay heat, the heat of fission power. Nuclear waste ends up in your lungs, your hair, your backyard. Fusion power has almost no nuclear waste at all. There’s a little bit of radioactive steel, and helium gas, which is commercially valuable, in fact.

My book says, "Look at the big picture." We are going to have accidents with fission power. Fission power is unstable. In fact, my adviser, when I was in high school, was Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. He was pro-nuclear, but he had a famous statement — that nuclear power does not belong on the surface of the earth, it belongs underground. If it were underground, then at Sendai in Japan, all we'd have to do today is put the manhole cover on it and walk away.

I think historians of science will look back and see fission power as a little blip on the energy scene, just like whale oil. Whale oil was useful. Whale oil did play a part in the industrialization of America, but we don't really depend on it. It's messy, it destroys whales … Same thing with fission power. It's unnatural. Nature does not use fission power. There's hardly anywhere in the universe where fission power is found. Fusion is the engine of the universe. I think by midcentury, when the ITER fusion reactor in France becomes operational and gets all the bugs out, we will be in the fusion era.

Q: But the Fukushima incident illustrates that there can be unanticipated issues that come up. It’s the same thing with fusion power — ITER is looking 30 or 40 years down the line, but fusion physicists were saying the same things 30 or 40 years ago. Sometimes nature is more difficult to get our arms around than we humans anticipate.

A: Right. The thesis of the book is that we're going to give the future our best shot. Not that we're going to get everything right; in fact, historians of the future may even snicker when they look at some of our predictions. But this book represents our best estimate, as made by Nobel laureates, directors of the major laboratories. This is their collective vision of how the future will progress.

In 1863, when Jules Verne predicted Paris in 1960, he gave it his best shot, drawing upon all the interviews he did with leading scientists, and he got most things right. He got glass skyscrapers, he got gasoline-fueled automobiles, he got the fax machine, he even got a version of the Internet right — because he had the best scientific advice of his time.

Futurism today is led by science-fiction writers, by sociologists, by historians. Now, I have nothing against them. I’m sure they do great work. But they’re not scientists. They’re clueless. So when they talked about having jetpacks, and vacations on Venus, and flying cars, we scientists would just shake our heads and say, "Oh, wait a minute … gimme a break. Vacations on Venus?" And sure enough, when we see the predictions of science-fiction writers a few years later, like "2001," we realize that Arthur C. Clarke was off. I think by 2101, we will have HAL. We will have a fully functional base on the moon. We will have a lot of the gizmos and gadgets you see in 2001. But Arthur C. Clarke was off by 100 years. Any scientist could have told him that.

Q: The book reminded me a little bit of what Ray Kurzweil has been talking about — but Kurzweil's argument is that the pace of innovation will accelerate so much that we'll hit the singularity by 2045, and we won’t be able to predict what happens after that. You go out to 2100 and beyond. I was curious what you thought about this idea of the singularity.

A: My view is, as you correctly pointed out, there are unanticipated things that happen. The biggest unanticipated thing, the trillion-dollar question mark, is the collapse of Moore's Law.  Unfortunately, very few singularitarians talk about the fact that Moore's Law will collapse. Remember, the economy of the United States, the economy of the world, depends upon Moore's Law — and it's going to collapse. We're going to have a rust belt called Silicon Valley. We’re going to have mass unemployment in Silicon Valley unless we physicists figure out a bridge to the post-silicon era.

It's happened in the past: the transition from coal to oil, the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors. It's not so smooth, making the transition. Now, why do we have this exponential growth? Well, it's because we have chips, made with ultraviolet light, and you can add more and more complicated chips by using smaller and smaller wavelengths of ultraviolet light. That is the basis of the last 50 years of the multitrillion-dollar growth of the computer industry. But it can't last forever. Some people say that the last 50 years was the victory of bits over atoms. Well, sorry about that: Atoms are having their revenge.


Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist at City College of New York.

I'm a physicist. That's my day job. I work with string theory. I’m very well aware that quantum theory says we're going to hit a brick wall in about 10 years. We don't know exactly when. As an aside, I spoke in Zurich to the physicists at IBM there, and they told me they can already see it. It's not 10 years, it's now, they said. But I say 10 years because we'll squeeze little tricks out of Moore's Law. We'll use X-rays, we’ll use gallium arsenide. …  But eventually, atoms kill you.

We're going to be computing on atoms. The world record for a quantum computer calculation is 3 x 5 = 15. Kids can do that. Try that with five atoms. If I can get five atoms to show that 3 x 5 is 15 that’s a non-trivial thing. But it’s not a million atoms. That's why I say it's dangerous to just extend an exponential curve forever. If you look at the history of science, yeah, there are exponential curves, but there are breaks between the curves. You can't simply assume a nice exponential rise to the point where the robots take over.

And speaking of the robots taking over, I advocate two things. One, put a chip in their brains that shut them off when they get murderous thoughts. That is a fail-safe system, so they don't put us in zoos. Second, we should enhance ourselves. There's no reason why we cannot become smarter, more perfect, and maybe even live longer.

Q: The theoretical foundations for the revolution that led to nuclear fission and everything that it entails, including Fukushima, were laid about a century ago. Are there some innovative solutions to energy challenges, or other ways to master the forces of the universe, that may come out of the theoretical work that’s going on? Could we harness the extradimensional nature of the universe, or some of the phenomena that people still hope can be studied using the Large Hadron Collider?

A: The reason why I feel confident writing a book about the year 2100 is that the fundamental laws of physics are fairly well-established out to, let’s say, 20 trillion electron volts. There could be some surprises, but we’re pretty confident that there’s not going to be any sudden discoveries. Quantum theory works very well. Quantum theory is accurate to one part in 10 billion. It’s the most successful theory of all time. We don’t foresee any deviation in the low-energy realm below 20 trillion electron volts. Therefore there are going to be no surprises. Sorry about that.

That’s why I can write this book and not feel nervous. No one’s going to find a defect in quantum mechanics. We’ve looked and we haven’t found anything. No one’s going to suddenly find a new sudden source of fifth-force energy. We have the four fundamental forces and we understand them pretty well.

Matter, on the other hand, is where we find all sorts of tricks and gee-whiz things happening. That means nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is going to give us all sorts of gee-whiz stuff, things that will make your jaw hit the floor. But as far as basic physics, I see no shift.

The Large Hadron Collider may discover the presence of higher dimensions. I hope it does. Since 1969 I’ve been publishing papers in string theory about higher dimensions. A huge chunk of my career has been spent working in higher dimensions all the way up to 11. But we have to get real. We’re talking about the Planck energy. That’s my home. That is 10 to the 19 billion electron volts. That is a quadrillion times more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider.

One of the reasons for working in the realm of Planck energy is because it will answer these questions: Is time travel possible? Can we open gateways to other universes? Are there portals to other dimensions? What happened before the big bang? These are legitimate questions for string theory. No other theory can give you a credible answer to these questions, about time travel and warp speed, and higher dimensions. Unfortunately, string theory is not developed enough to give definitive answers, and that’s why I work on it.

The energy is so great it would have to be a Type III civilization, a galactic-scale civilization, to really play with the Planck energy. So when people ask, "Why don’t the aliens visit us?" I say it would have to be a Type 3 civilization before they could easily warp the fabric of spacetime like they do on "Star Trek." We might not even be very interesting to them. If you take a walk in the country and see an anthill, do you go down to the ants and say "I bring you trinkets, I bring you beads, I bring you nuclear energy, take me to your ant queen"? Or do you have a politically incorrect urge to step on them? If we ever do meet a Type 3 civilization that can harness these extra dimensions, I would hope that they don’t step on us.

Q: Speaking of that, in the book you talk about how we will be as gods in 2100. We will wield the sort of power that we once ascribed to divinity. Don’t you feel like there’s a little bit of human hubris in that kind of assertion?

A: I don’t think so, for the following reason: The distance between 1900 and today is actually rather small, compared to the distance that we will cover between now and 2100. It’s not going to be exponential progress. However, there will be periods of time when we have exponential growth, and then it flattens out. Therefore, the distance between now and 2100 is going to be huge, absolutely astronomical, in terms of knowledge, energy, nanotechnology, biotechnology, compared with how things were in the year 1900.

That’s why we would look like wizards and sorcerers if we met our grandparents. Imagine your grandfather: If you were to meet him with your rockets and GPS, and your iPads and iPods, he’d think of you as a wizard. So when you meet your grandkids or your great-grandkids, they will have nearly perfect bodies. They will be relatively ageless. They will manipulate objects with their minds. That’s what gods do. Gods wish things, and things happen. They will have things like Pegasus, winged life forms that we can only dream about. That’s well within the laws of physics, because we’ve planted the seeds for all these things.

What I’ve done in the book is to summarize this and tell people, "Hey, this is being done in the laboratory."

Read an excerpt from "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100."

More visions of the future:

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