In retrospect, it seemed almost sacrilegious.
There we were — on Good Friday, the day that ushers in Christianity’s holiest weekend — talking with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku about the possibility that humanity’s salvation will come from a scientific gospel that’s yet to be written.
A gospel that Kaku calls the God Equation.
The way he sees it, our far-flung descendants will be able to take advantage of the God Equation to leave our tired old universe behind.
“One day, stars will blink out. It’ll get super cold. We’ll all freeze to death as it becomes near absolute zero. Well, that’s trillions of years from now. And I think at that point, we’re so advanced, we’ll harness the Planck energy — the energy at which universes can be created — and we’ll create a bubble of our own,” he explained.
“We’ll leave our universe and go to a younger universe where we can mess that universe up as well,” he said.
You could argue that’s the “new heaven and new earth” promised in the Book of Revelation. Is that sacrilegious? You’ll have to decide for yourselves after listening to the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, coming to you from the place where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.
The basis of Kaku’s scientific faith is a concept that others have called the theory of everything. It’s an outgrowth of the decades-long effort to bridge the gap between two successful but incompatible frameworks for modern physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity.
- Quantum mechanics governs the realm of the very small. It has its crazy side, what with all the talk of alive-and-dead cats and quantum entanglement and teleportation. But the theory has held true and provided the foundation for innovations ranging from microwave ovens to atom smashers.
- General relativity governs the realm of the very big. It explains how gravity works better than Isaac Newton ever could, and provides the precision that’s crucial for tracking GPS satellites as well as planets, stars and galaxies.
Despite their success in isolation, neither of those theories makes sense when applied to the other theory’s realm. And neither of them can address the biggest mysteries of cosmology. For example, what goes on inside a black hole? How did our universe get its start, and what happened before the Big Bang?
In a new book called “The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything,” Kaku traces the development of those two grand theories, but that’s just the windup for his main pitch: In order to widen our understanding of how the universe works, we have to wrap our heads around some truly weird concepts.
One such concept proposes that our seemingly four-dimensional spacetime universe actually has 10 dimensions. It so turns out that if physicists plug in that many dimensions, they can reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.
So where are the extra six dimensions? Perhaps in the earliest moments of our universe’s existence, some of those dimensions shrank down to a sub-microscopic scale so small that atoms can’t fit inside them.
Another concept envisions the deepest level of reality as analogous not to the balls and BB’s we usually associate with protons, neutrons and electrons — but more probably super-tiny strings or membranes whose vibrations create the properties associated with all the subatomic particles we’ve found (or have yet to find). This is the focus of the field of physics known as string theory.
An even weirder concept suggests that our universe isn’t the only one out there. Instead, there could be countless numbers of other universes, popping out from one another like bubbles. Different universes could have different laws of physics. Some interpretations of string theory suggest that there could be 10500 different kinds of universes out there. That’s a 10 followed by 500 zeroes.
How do we know any of this is true? As crazy as it sounds, the main thing that the God Equation has in its favor (at least for the time being) is that it brings a certain elegance to the messy jumble of theories in physics. It’s not for nothing that physicist Brian Greene’s 1999 book about string theory is titled “The Elegant Universe.”
The difficulty of proving the existence of other universes has led some skeptics to label the theory of everything as little more than the scientific equivalent of a religion, to be taken on faith alone. But in his book and in our chat, Kaku pointed to some potential avenues for nailing down the specifics of the God Equation:
- Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest atom smasher, could come across anomalies that point to new twists in physics. One anomaly, relating to how a type of subatomic particle known as a B-meson decays, has been the subject of debate for years. Other potential anomalies include microscopic black holes or new types of particles that could point the way to extra dimensions.
- Muon magnetic field readings from two other experiments, at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Fermilab, have pointed up a different type of potential anomaly that might require tweaking the theoretical underpinnings of particle physics.
- Variations in the strength of gravity at microscopic scales could serve as evidence for the existence of rolled-up extra dimensions. Researchers at the University of Washington has been seeking such evidence for 35 years — so far, to no avail.
- The imprints of parallel universes could conceivably show up in observations of the Big Bang’s aftermath. One intriguing anomaly that could fit this category is the “cold spot” that scientists see in maps of our universe’s cosmic microwave background. Kaku thinks gravitational-wave detectors — such as LIGO or the yet-to-be-launched LISA satellite array — could also turn up evidence.
“Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have evidence of an ‘umbilical cord’ — an umbilical cord connecting our infant universe as it’s coming from the womb, connected to a parallel universe,” Kaku said. “So our universe may have been, once upon a time, a baby universe that peeled off a mother universe.”
Kaku has been on the trail of the God Equation since the age of 8, when he read about Albert Einstein’s unsuccessful effort to discover the theory of everything. And Einstein’s not the only genius who struck out: The solution to the mystery also eluded physicist Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018 at the age of 76.
In January, Kaku turned 74. But he still has faith that the God Equation will be found during his lifetime.
“Any day, some young person out there may have declared that they’ve been able to find the God Equation,” Kaku told us. “I tell people that if they ever discover this one-inch equation that summarizes all the laws of physics, be sure to tell me first, and we can split the Nobel Prize money. You and me.”
Check out Michio Kaku’s website and his Facebook page to learn more about “The God Equation” and his other books, as well as his scientific work and his appearances on TV, radio and online. This week Kaku kicks off a virtual book tour that includes an event presented by Third Place Books at 5 p.m. April 8.
My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.
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