Kaku and I spoke on the phone in advance of his reading at Borders West on April 16 at 7 p.m., part of a 6-city tour that ranges from Portland, Oregon to New York City.
The Daily Page: Why did you think it was important to write this book?
Kaku: When I was a child, I used to watch the old Flash Gordon series on TV, just like today's kids watch Star Wars and Star Trek and all the latest science fiction. But afterward, you walk away a little bit unsatisfied, because you don't know whether any of those fantastic devices are possible. So there's a hunger out there. People really want to know -- what will our world look like a 100, 200 years in the future? Will we have these fantastic devices? And I'm a physicist, I can actually answer these questions. These technologies are impossible today, but in 20, 30, 50, 100 years, many of them will be realized. I wrote the book to answer that question: How real is science fiction?
You discuss type zero and type I civilizations, and we are right now a type zero civilization. And you write that's the most dangerous transition, from type zero to type I. Is that where we are right now, at the end of type zero and moving to type I?
We are about 100 years from attaining type I status. By the year 2100, we should be a truly planetary civilization. And we can calculate this because the earth's energy grows by about 3% a year -- and so we know what the energy demands of the earth will be by 2100. You see evidence of this historic transition, one of the greatest in the history of civilization, every time you read the newspaper. The Internet is the beginning of a type I telephone system; the European Union, NAFTA, the beginnings of a type I economy. English will be the language of this future type I civilization. We see the development of a planetary culture happening right before our eyes.
What are the dangers?
The danger is that there are two trends in the world today. One trend is toward the type I civilization, which is enlightened, progressive, scientifically knowledgeable, tolerant of different cultures. But we also have the forces of chaos -- nuclear proliferation, anarchy, rampant nationalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and terrorism. In fact, terrorism is a knee-jerk reaction against the tendency toward a tolerant planetary civilization. Many terrorists cannot articulate this, but they are objecting to the fact that the future will be more scientifically progressive, more tolerant, and they don't like that. They feel more comfortable being at "type minus one" civilization, where energy comes from the campfire, rather than from modern industry.
I never thought about physics as having that kind of sociological dimension to it.
Physics is everywhere! Take a look at the history of humanity from caveman days. We were limited by energy. So the cavemen only had the energy of their hands, which meant that we were nomads, chasing after the deer, the buffalo, at the mercy of the elements. We lived like wolves in a wolf pack. Then we domesticated the horse and all of a sudden our energy went up by a factor of ten -- one horsepower is ten times the force of your hands. Then, with agriculture, modern civilization begins. Energy created modern civilization. Then with the industrial revolution, one human being had the energy of maybe a hundred horses or even a thousand horses.
You write about the U.S. being a physics-illiterate society.
We have that strange paradox that our world is becoming more scientific, more high-tech, and people are fascinated by this. That's why they go to sci fi movies to see robots and ray guns and lightsabers. But even though the future is more scientific, we have scientific illiteracy in the United States. Believe it or not, the U.S. imports most of its scientists to work in Silicon Valley and our national laboratories.
I think we have to reverse this process; we have to excite young people, to invigorate their interest in these things, and science fiction is one way to do that. Many of these leading scientists became scientists because of science fiction. The most famous is Edwin Hubble, one of the greatest astronomers of the 20th century, who discovered the expanding universe and became an astronomer because he read Jules Verne as a child.
What's a current impossibility that you write about that we may see happen in our lifetimes?
Invisibility. Breakthroughs are made literally every few months and already we can bend light, visible light, in a way that will make an object invisible. The Pentagon, for example, is funding much of this research, because they're not stupid, they know the enormous implications of what you could do if you had an invisible weapon.
What's the concept that you would most like to see happen?
It seems to be that time travel is consistent with the laws of physics, Einstein and quantum theory. However, I don't think that in my lifetime we will build a time machine. That's a type two impossibility, requiring maybe 1,000 more years of technology, more advanced than anything we have on the earth now. But maybe somebody will one day knock on your door and claim to be your great- great- great- great- great- great-granddaughter, who went into a time machine to meet her ancestor. So don't slam the door!