To the uninitiated, books about string theory can feel impenetrable, if not completely impossible. Even stripped free from the equations that constitute the heart and soul of the field, the so-called “Theory of Everything” is difficult to follow even. And that’s before reaching the point in the discussion where eleven dimensions becomes a reality. That’s why, it’s comes as such a relief that Michio Kaku’s latest book, The God Equation, not only welcomes readers into the string theory tent but, in the process, also provides a blueprint for how to communicate science during an era when it is being actively undermined by an organized opposition.
The God Equation introduces readers to string Theory in a way that doesn’t presuppose any prior knowledge of physics or its rich history, though a little background certainly helps. Rather, Kaku uses string theory, with all of its potential and complexities, to teach his readers about physics. He provides a new way of seeing the field, beyond what they may have been taught in high school. It’s Kaku’s affable prose and honesty that differentiates this book from some of its popular science peers.
String theory has been around for over a half century now. For most of that time, it has been the front-runner in the race to reconcile the two paradigms of physics, general relativity and quantum theory. The reason for this necessity lies in the fact that each one basically does what it’s supposed to do in terms of predictions. General relativity explains phenomenon on the larger, cosmic scale. It predicts things like the distortion of space-time by dense, heavy objects. Quantum theory works on the sub-atomic scale and predicts things like if you run into different bricks wall enough times, one time your atoms will pass right through the solid wall. However, the problem is that each theory breaks down where the other begins.
Straight away, Kaku engages his readers’ trust by offering an ounce of transparency. String theory may be leading the way in the general relativity/quantum theory reconciliation race, but it has some glaring shortcomings. Kaku never shies away from the fact that the theory he has spent his life studying and championing is still a house built on sand. According to him,
The most glaring problem is that, for all the flattering press extolling the beauty and complexity of the theory, we have no solid, testable evidence.
That is a pretty serious thing to admit. Considering the fact that hard proof and science go hand in hand. Forget reproducability, after 50 years string theory has yet to yield any data that supports it. The problem amounts to a devastating, potentially fatal, prognosis.
As Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson once said, the road to the unified field theory is littered with the corpses of failed attempts.
In the process of laying the groundwork for his later explanation of string theory, he personalizes his subject matter, something that allows readers to lower their guard and be more receptive. This is important because it’s difficult to retain facts and ideas while distracted by anxiety. In one case, Kaku remembers his younger self.
I remember when I was in high school, trying desperately to learn the Schrödinger equation, and struggling with all the ugly terms it contained. How could nature be so malicious, I thought, to create a wave equation that was so clumsy? Then one day, I stumbled upon the Dirac equation, which was beautiful and compact. I remember crying when I saw it.
Another aspect of The God Equation that stands out was touched on earlier. Physics is far from a perfect process. There are very few absolutes, i.e. things predicted with 100% certainty. Science is driven by the notion of statistical significance.
Where The God Equation truly shines is when it explains how scientific ideas apply to every day life. A prime example is Kaku’s discussion of John Clerk Maxwell and his contributions to math and physics.
[Then] Maxwell had an idea for the ages. What if a changing electric field created a magnetic one that then created another electric field that then created another magnetic field, etc.? He had the brilliant insight that the end product of this rapid back-and-forth motion would be a moving wave, where electric and magnetic fields were constantly turning into each other. This infinite sequence of transformations has a life of its own, creating a moving wave of vibrating electric and magnetic fields.
Kaku draws a clear line from concept to creation.
In perhaps the most important part of the discussion of Maxwell’s contributions, Kaku draws a direct line between the abstraction of an equation’s predictions and the real world benefits that result.
Maxwell’s equations not only gave us near-instantaneous communication via radio, cell phone, and fiber-optic cables, they also opened up the entire electromagnetic spectrum...
Kaku goes one step further arguing the case for science. In another passage, he takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of how physics’ most famous discoveries have led to inventions we now take for granted.
Each time scientists have unraveled a new force, it has changed the course of civilization and altered the destiny of humanity. For example, Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion and gravity laid the groundwork for the machine age and the Industrial Revolution. Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell’s explanation of electricity and magnetism paved the way for the illumination of our cities and gave us powerful electric motors and generators as well as instantaneous communication via TV and radio. Einstein’s E = mc2 explained the power of the stars and helped to unravel the nuclear force. When Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and others unlocked the secrets of the quantum theory, they gave us the high-tech revolution of today, with supercomputers, lasers, the internet, and all the fabulous gadgets in our living rooms.
If that isn’t a convincing argument for science, it’s hard to imagine one that is.
The God Equation is everything a popular science books should be. It presents facts and ideas with clarity. Kaku takes time to gain the trust of his readers by speaking to them in a language they can understand. He puts in the work. That much is clear. If you’ve ever read a book that explains jargon with more jargon, you know what I mean.
Most importantly, The God Equation leaves no doubt about the fact that the esoteric equations that are the heart and soul of physics are responsible for so much of our modern conveniences. Michio Kaku makes a compelling case for science and its incontrovertable place in society.
WORDS: Marc Landas.