Since building a homemade particle accelerator in his teens and graduating at the top of his Physics class at Harvard, Dr Michio Kaku’s ability to amaze people has never waned.
Ranked among today’s leading popularizers of science, Dr Kaku is a fixture on radio, TV shows about outer space, and the bestseller lists. A prolific author, his latest book is The Future of the Mind, examines how our brains are changing for the better.
This year Dr Kaku spoke to a rapt audience in Manila about the business of innovation for the First Pacific Leadership Academy’s Executive Series. What follows below are choice nuggets of insight on what’s in store for humankind taken from his lecture’s Q&A segment.
China Business: What can you say about the afterlife?
Kaku: Let me say something about life extension. ‘Why do we have to die?’
In nature, there are lifeforms that don’t die. Single celled organisms, certain life forms, can live for thousands of years.
We are now understanding the genetic basis of the aging process. For example, in the future all of us will maybe have a credit card where every single gene would be available to us.
Where is the engine of the cells? The mitochondria! We now know that’s where aging takes place. We’re now isolating the genes that repair damage to the mitochondria and we’ll be able to repair broken genes, repair cells as they age, and in principle we won’t die. If we can beat death, why not live forever?
This is now being talked about in the scientific community, a back up copy of the brain, Brain 2.0. If you have Brain 2.0 it thinks just like you, acts just like you, except it’s a computer. The question is if you die, but Brain 2.0 lives on, do you live forever? I don’t know the answer to that.
Where does a person’s intelligence come from? The mother or father?
First of all we don’t have uniform definition of intelligence in the present time.
For example, when he died Albert Einstein’s brain was secretly preserved by a neurologist and over 60 years, was analyzed. So we now know his brain was different from other brains. The connection of the frontal lobe and the part of the lobe back here [points to his head] was thicker than normal.
It was typical of people who engaged in abstract thought. People who engaged in pure mathematics and music. Pure artistic abstract abilities. There’s an extension of the length of the frontal cortex and the parietal lobe. We can actually see this now.
But personally I think that geniuses are made, rather than born. I think a lot of it has to do with upbringing, ambition, curiosity, and basically being a self-starter. All the big geniuses of old were self-starters.
[Geniuses] love to learn things, need to have a vision, and have a role model. Role models are very important. These are the three things I think are needed for geniuses.
If you’re a parent of a child, that’s what you have to do. Make role models for them, discipline them and show them the way, give them parental encouragement, and even slap them in the butt.
How do you get kids into science?
I’ve interviewed hundreds of scientists for my radio show. I always asked them ‘What was it? What was it as a child that turned you to science?’
They always say the same thing. ‘When I was 10...’ Before the age of 10 everything is mommy and daddy, mommy and daddy.
Beyond 10, a lot of them have this existential shock when they get their first telescope or their first microscope. Then for the next several years they just devour every piece of science in sight. When they hit 16 years old it’s over. They hit the danger years.
The danger years is when they discover peer pressure, hormones, and school crushes curiosity.
Our school systems are notorious for crushing curiosity and innovation on our students. But if you can survive the age of 16, you have a great career as a scientist.
If you have kids, if you can negotiate their interest in science and technology beyond the age of 16, congratulations!
Is there a fourth dimension? What is our place in the universe?
We believe that our world is three dimensional. That we have length, width, and height. Three dimensions span everything in the universe.
Physicists believe that at the beginning of time the universe was 11-dimensional. The Big Bang was a 11-dimensional event, that we are remnants of the collapse of 11-dimensional hyperspace.
We think with the Large Hadron Collider, looking for the Higgs Boson, what we’re going to find is the complete dragon. That is, the universe isn’t three-or-four dimensional, but multi- dimensional.
Our bubble is a three dimensional bubble. We live on the skin of the bubble and the bubble is expanding. We now believe there are other bubbles out there. This is called the multi-verse. Hundreds of conferences are now held to discuss parallel universes. Is Elvis Presley still alive in another universe?
Perhaps yes. Perhaps Elvis Presley, the King, is alive in another universe.
Is there proof that intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy?
It was just announced that in our Milky Way Galaxy, our backyard, there are eight billion Earth-like planets in our own backyard. I personally believe that yes, they’re out there. There are alien life forms or civilizations.
How come they don’t advertise their existence? Perhaps they’re thousands of years ahead of us in technology. Imagine going to the ant hill and saying: I give you trinkets. I give you beads. I give you nuclear energy. Take me to your ant queen!
Or, maybe you want to step on a few of those ants.
We’re like ants to them. They may not want to give us beads, or trinkets, or energy. Because we may not be on their radar screen. We may not be very interesting to them. I think that’s the truth. If they are out there, then perhaps we’re not even on their radar screen.
But, you know, what about you? Have you ever been visited by a flying saucer?
Can scientific knowledge be valuable to an investor?
It’s always dangerous to make specific questions about specific industries. A lot depends on the qualities of the management and the vision of the leaders.
The point is, I’m a scientist. I like to look at tidal waves. If you go against the tide, you’ll go bankrupt. If you buy a lot of newspapers, you’ll go bankrupt. The New York Times is going bankrupt now. You have to ride the tide. You have to be like Apple iTunes, taxing music rather than create CDs.
Then there are specific industries, there’s a certain amount of luck. But the thrust of the tide, that’s where us scientists try to specialize in. Try to see where the tide is going and where the tide is heading.
People go, ‘You’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?’
Well, who’s to say I’m not?
Scientists don’t go into this because we want to be rich, we go into this because we’re curious. Curious about the future plays out. We look at trends rather than specific industries.
Most people go through a traditional educational system that molds them to conform. In our workplace and jobs, conformity is a must. How do we overcome conformity in the face of opposition?
I think everyone has to face the question of conformity. Except professors. Because once we have tenure we can say anything we want. [Laughter]
The way to be a non-conformist is to show that your way will save money. Your way will lead to success.
Sometimes being a ‘yes man’ is one way to go right over the cliff.