ORIGIN STORY The theoretical physicist Michio Kaku has built a parallel career as a best-selling writer on the future — of science, of the mind, of the human condition. Now, with “The God Equation,” No. 12 on the nonfiction list last week, Kaku turns his lens on the past.
Not just, say, 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the earliest we’ve yet probed the universe. Before that. As the title suggests, Kaku’s latest concern is with what he calls the “holy grail” of all science, the metaphorical “umbilical cord” of our infant universe, whenever it was (or wasn’t) born out of the alleged multiverse. He wanted to write a balanced account of the physics community’s quest to prove string theory — and thus to resolve the messy, imperfect Standard Model of subatomic particles into one elegant theory of everything. This book is like a State of the Union where the union is all of existence.
The quest is a controversial one. “Nobel Prize winners have taken opposite points of view,” he said in a phone interview. To Kaku, the “vigorous debate” is a good thing.
In conversation, Kaku articulates the thorny situation with ease, and a sense of wonder: Right now the known laws of the universe — “the theory of almost everything,” he calls it — can be written on a single sheet of paper. There’s Einstein’s general relativity on one line, and then a couple more for the Standard Model. “The problem is that the two theories hate each other,” he said. “They’re based on different math, different principles. Every time you put them together it blows up in your face. Why should nature be so clumsy?”
Because it’s not, he hopes. Where in English departments, “hundreds of Ph.D. theses are created every year because we want to know what Hemingway really meant,” to him, “physics is the exact opposite.” The equations get “simpler and simpler, but more fundamental and more powerful, every year.”
Say one day we do finally unify them into one law of the natural world and answer the question of How We Got Here. Then what?
When we “find the rules that govern the chess game,” Kaku said, “we then become grand masters. That’s our destiny, I think, as a species.”
Unlike with literary criticism, with interpreting Shakespeare, he said, the rules of the physical universe are “resolvable” — finite and, well, universal. “I like to think that on the other side of the galaxy, there’s a young physicist writing the same equation I am, in a different notation. That’s what gives me hope.”