'A traffic jam around the moon': Physicist Michio Kaku on aliens, space travel and his search for the 'God Equation'

Melissa Rossi
Contributor

BARCELONA, Spain — In 1955, when Michio Kaku was 8 years old growing up in San Jose, Calif., he somberly studied the front page of the evening newspaper. Below the photograph of a book on a desk, he read the caption “This is the unfinished manuscript of the greatest scientist of our time” — Albert Einstein, who died without realizing his dream of unifying all the known physical forces into one theory. Kaku decided then and there to dedicate his life to finishing it. The theoretical physicist and futurist, who teaches at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and collaborates with scientists outside Geneva at CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider, believes that more than six decades later, physicists are almost there.

Michio Kaku at the 2019 Ufology World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo: José Colon for Yahoo News)

In Barcelona to speak at the third annual Ufology World Congress, Kaku, whose most recent book is “The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth,” spoke with Yahoo News on topics from the state of human evolution to the upcoming traffic jam around the moon.

The interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity:


Yahoo News: Fifty years ago, UFOs were front-page news, but now there’s a stigma when people talk about them seriously, particularly scientists. What’s behind that?

Michio Kaku: Traditionally, there’s been the giggle factor. Every time you talk to a physicist or a scientist about UFOs, their eyes kind of roll and they start to giggle. Science is based on things that are testable, reproducible and falsifiable.

So when scientists hear stories about UFOs, they’re thinking…

Where’s the beef? Where’s the evidence?

You mention that the game is changing. What’s causing that?

First, we have military pilots who have given us testable evidence, evidence we can now look at to calculate the parameters. Before, it was “something sailed over the sky!” What does that mean? We now know they travel between Mach 5 and Mach 20, we now know they zigzag such that the centrifugal force would crush any living tissue — so they must be cybernetic or robotic.

So there are two possibilities. … They could be hypersonic drones [which are being developed by Russia, the U.S. and China]. The other possibility that now has to be put on the table is that they’re extraterrestrial — which used to be the subject of the giggle factor. But now we’ve located 4,000 exoplanets around other stars in the galaxy.

For the first time in history, we have a census of the galaxy. We now know on average every star has a planet going around it — and about one in five has an Earth-like planet. That means there are billions of Earth-like planets orbiting other stars in our backyard, not even other galaxies.

That makes the chances seem somewhat higher that life could be out there somewhere. In the case that we do encounter aliens, should we assume they’re more advanced than we are?

I’m a physicist. We rank civilizations by energy. So one day when we intercept messages from alien civilizations, we’ll ask, What level are they?

A Type 1 civilization is planetary. They control the weather. They can modify volcanoes and earthquakes. Anything planetary, they control.

A Type 2 civilization is stellar. They control the star; they control the energy output of the entire star. They colonize nearby solar systems. They are immortal. Nothing known to science can destroy a Type 2 civilization. Meteors and comets can be deflected. If their star becomes unstable, they just leave and move to another star.

A Type 3 civilization, which is galactic, they can roam the galaxy.

Now, if we are visited by aliens from outer space, they’re possibly Type 2, more than likely Type 3, meaning they are thousands of years ahead of us in technology. Scientists giggle because a starship going between stars isn’t imaginable with our technology. What’s the mistake? The mistake is to assume extraterrestrials are only 100 years more advanced than us.

Michio Kaku (Photo: José Colon for Yahoo News)

Where does our civilization fit on that scale?

If we grow at 3 percent per year in energy consumption … we will be a Type 1 civilization in 100 years, around 2100.

What is the internet? The first planetary technology to be developed. By 2100, we’ll have many planetary technologies. We’re seeing the beginning of a planetary language. English and Mandarin Chinese are the two most popular languages on the internet. The European Union is the beginning of a planetary economy. Rock and roll, the beginning of planetary youth culture. Chanel and Gucci, the beginning of planetary high fashion.

So we’re seeing the beginning of a planetary civilization, right in our own lifetime.

In 100 years, we will have our first starship. That’s already planned — to build a starship within 100 years, but it’s a primitive starship, very clunky, it looks like a Model T and is based on fusion.

By the time you’re a Type 2 or Type 3 civilization, you have other ways to travel. So when scientists giggle, it’s because they’re ignorant of the fact that these can be Type 2 or Type 3 civilizations, in which case their technology is far beyond what we can even imagine. That’s why we have to keep our eyes and ears open.

In your writings, you talk about how 99.99 percent of all species become extinct and that we need a Plan B or Planet B.

The dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, and that’s why they’re not here today. We do have a space program. And people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. When they were children, they dreamed of going to the stars. Now they have billions of dollars. They can take out their checkbook now and create a moon rocket.

We’re going to have a traffic jam around the moon very soon. Starting next year.

What do you mean — all those satellites that Musk is planning to launch?

All the satellites, and NASA has the SLS [Space Launch System] booster that next year will be test-fired. If all goes well, it will orbit around the moon unmanned and a few years after that humans will board the SLS booster rocket with the Orion space capsule. Elon Musk has a parallel program where he creates his own rockets, the Falcon Heavy, fully capable of going to the moon. And Jeff Bezos has the Armstrong rocket. Then the Chinese have the Long March rocket. So think about that — not one, not two, not three, but four moon rockets. We’re going to have a traffic jam around the moon.

And Elon Musk would like to take it one step further and go to Mars. Then again, he has the rocket to prove it. It’s called the BFR — “B” for big, “R” for rocket, “F” for your imagination. It’s been dubbed “The Starship,” and it’s the biggest rocket on the books right now.

We need Plan B, an insurance policy. I don’t think we should move our civilization to Mars — that’s too expensive. [But] the cost is going down.

It costs $10,000 a pound [to put] anything into orbit around the Earth. To put you on the moon, it’s about $100,000 a pound. To put you on Mars, about $1 million a pound. But the prices are dropping — that’s the key.

And now Elon Musk has a reusable rocket. Why’s that important? Because if cars were not reusable, every time you took your car on a ride, you junked your car, cars would be prohibitively expensive. That’s what we do with rockets. We junk them. Once rockets become fully reusable, that’s going to open up space.

Michio Kaku (Photo: José Colon for Yahoo News)

Beyond scientists, what’s behind the knee-jerk reaction to dismiss any talk of alien life as tinfoil-hat blather? Is it a human distrust of “the unknown” or what?

Look at the year 1600, when the monk Bruno was burned alive in Rome for proclaiming there were aliens up there. The Catholic Church was threatened by the idea that you could have a civilization outside of the Catholic Church. Do they have the sacraments, do they have saints, do they have Jesus Christ, do they have the Trinity? It’s better just to burn people rather than confront that.

Today we don’t burn astronomers anymore, thank goodness.

[Johannes] Kepler wrote the first science fiction story, believe it or not. It was called “The Dream” — he had to say it was a dream. He dreamed about going to the moon and visiting moon people. So he wrote the first modern science fiction story, but he had to write it as a dream because he knew what happened to Bruno.

So we’ve always been frightened of “the other.” As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Either they’re out there, or they’re not. Either way, the thought is frightening.”

If they’re not out there, that means we’re alone in the universe — that’s frightening. And if they’re there, it’s frightening because then we wonder, “Who are they? What do they want?”

My colleague Stephen Hawking, the late physicist, said we should be careful announcing our existence. Because look what happened to Montezuma when he met Cortés — he thought Cortés was a god. In fact, Cortés was a pirate and a plunderer of civilizations. He just wanted gold.

So what would aliens want?

That’s the other question. Do they want gold, minerals, water?

Well, we don’t have anything that they would want. Gold is not precious for an extraterrestrial civilization. It’s a rather useless metal as a conductor of electricity. Water? There’s plenty of ice in outer space. We don’t have anything they would want to plunder. So I think for the most part, they’re going to be peaceful.

If they’re already Type 2 or Type 3, they’ve had plenty of time to work out sectarian, religious and racial differences. So I think for the most part, they’ll be peaceful. But we should still be a little bit careful. We don’t really know what their opinions are.

So tell us about your work in string field theory. You’re trying to finish Einstein’s equation?

That’s right. We want to find the “God Equation” — the ultimate theory that explains the entire universe. We want an equation that’s maybe 1 inch long that would allow us to “read the mind of God” — those are Einstein’s words.

And how’s it going?

We think we have it! It’s called string theory. It’s not in its final form, and it’s not testable yet, [but] we have the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva.

We’re testing the periphery of the theory, but the theory itself is a theory of the universe — so it’s very hard to test. But we physicists are optimistic. We think we will be able to test the theory. And we think it is the final theory. So physics ends at that point. Another era opens up, but one era ends when we finally prove this is the Theory of Everything.

What’s your office like? How do you work?

It’s like how a musician works. Musicians have melodies playing in their heads. And they look out the window and once in a while they sit down at the piano and pluck out melodies. Then they go back to staring out the window again. Because they’ve memorized all the notes, all the tunes, and they’re just dancing in their head.

For us, it’s equations, not melodies. I’ve memorized all the equations of string theory — they’re just floating in my head. And I have to piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle, just like a musician pieces together notes to create a symphony. So it’s close to music.

If string theory is correct, it means that all the subatomic particles — the electrons, the protons — are nothing but musical notes on a tiny vibrating rubber band. So that physics is nothing but the harmonies of the vibrating rubber bands. Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can create from the vibrating strings. The universe is a symphony of strings.

And the mind of God is cosmic music resonated through hyperspace.

With all your parallel universes, where does death fit into that model?

Let’s talk about immortality.

Within a few decades, we will have, first of all, digital immortality — that will come very fast — and eventually, genetic immortality. Digital immortality is when we digitize everything known about you — there are several companies advertising to digitize your relatives, so you can talk to your parents forever. It’s not science fiction anymore.

I would love to talk to Einstein. One day somebody will digitize everything known about him — his memoirs, diaries, tapes, interviews, everything. One day we may be digitized and our descendants, even our great-great-grandchildren, will want to talk to us because we have been digitized. So I think when we meet aliens from outer space, they’ll be immortal.

Genetic immortality is further down the line, but already we’ve identified many genes, about 60 so far, linked to the aging process. But with what’s called CRISPR technology, we’ll have genetic engineering, and we’ll be able to edit out a lot of the mistakes that cause aging. Aging, by the way, is error — a buildup of error in our DNA — that’s what aging is: the accumulation of error. But we can correct these errors.

So genetic engineering will be possible. I think our grandkids might reach the age of 30 and stop. They may like being 30 for a few hundred years. This is coming very fast.

When we meet aliens from outer space, I think they’re probably be part genetic, part cybernetic, because the rigors of outer space are pretty severe.

Michio Kaku (Photo: José Colon for Yahoo News)

I find your books are like a drug that pulls readers into a different world. Why do you write them? Why bother to explain all these things to the masses?

When I was 8 years old, something happened which changed my whole outlook on life. They announced that a great scientist had died and in the evening newspaper they put a picture of his desk with an open book. And the caption said, “This is the unfinished manuscript of the greatest scientist of our time.” So I said to myself, what could be so hard that a great man couldn’t finish it?

So I went to the library over the years and read up on this strange man and his desk. It turns out his name was Albert Einstein, and that unfinished book was the unified field theory. I said this is better than any adventure story. I wanted to read that book that he couldn’t finish. So today I can read that book — and I see all the dead ends and frustrations he had; today we can solve many of the equations that he couldn’t because we have string theory.

So it’s sad that Einstein died in 1955 because the string revolution was several decades later.

Do you think humanity is still evolving?

With civilization, the smallest unit of history is the decade. Anything smaller and you get random fluctuations, and you go crazy trying to figure out all these blips and bumps. But if you look at it decade by decade, then you see the sweep of technology. You realized our grandparents lived before telephones, radios, the telegraph was just coming in, high speed travel was the horse, and long distance communication was yelling out the window. And people didn’t live very long — for most of human history, life expectancy was about 30 or under. So today, when you look at it decade by decade, you see the enormous progress that was made. Every time I read the newspaper, I see the birth pangs of a Type 1 [planetary] civilization. It’s not going to be easy, there are ups and downs, but that, I think, will be the greatest transition in modern civilization, when we hit Type 1 and have a planetary system — not necessary a planetary government, we’ll have many governments —but a planetary society, planetary thinking, a planetary culture. I think that’s beginning already.

So you’re optimistic?

In that sense, yes. I read political commentaries and they act like one little blip is the end of the world. And I say, it’s just a blip you’re talking about.

Look at the march of history.

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