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Future soldier: Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku on building a Death Star and Silicon Valley brain drain

Morning light shines softly through a large glass window as a travel-weary Michio Kaku gamely musters a smile. Just a few hours removed from a cross-country flight from the East Coast, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that this physicist is plain tired. Then the camera starts rolling. In an instant, Kaku looks rejuvenated as he plays to his audience and waxes poetic about his favorite subject -- science.

In the world occupied by nerds and techno geeks, theoretical physicist and futurist Kaku is akin to a rock star. Chalk it up to a flowing mane of pepper-gray locks and the fact he co-created string field theory (which tries to unravel the inner workings of the universe). These days, Kaku can mostly be found teaching at City College of New York where he holds the Henry Semat Chair and Professorship in theoretical physics. When he isn't teaching, Kaku still spends most of his extra time talking science, whether it be through his radio programs, best-selling books such as Physics of the Future or appearances on shows like The Colbert Report, where he recently enlightened Stephen Colbert about the dangers of sending Bruce Willis into space to blow up a deadly asteroid. As fun as it is for Kaku to talk physics, however, he also considers it a matter of survival

"When I was a child, it was cool to be a scientist," Kaku says. "Remember Sputnik? When Sputnik went up, it just shocked the country and all of a sudden, physicists were superstars. It was your patriotic duty to learn nuclear physics to go head to head with the Russians because the future of the country depended on it. And then, we lost it -- we lost all of that momentum."

It's a change that still stings for Kaku, which is why he finds himself jetlagged in places like Reno, Nev., trying to drum up interest in his favorite subject at local universities. Just like fellow science evangelists Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene, Kaku's goal is quite simple: help science get back its mojo and nurture the next wave of rock stars by engaging the public.

"Even if we mortgage the next 100 years of generations of human beings, we would not have enough energy to build a Death Star..."

In a sense, it's kind of like having a walking, talking science encyclopedia that can carry a conversation. In fact, one of the best parts about picking Kaku's brain is that no question is too big or small. You certainly can ask him about more esoteric fare such as the advantages and disadvantages between molecular and quantum computing. Yet even a seemingly silly question about the economic impact of the Death Star -- a proposition the White House famously rejected with tongue firmly planted in cheek -- earns a full response.

"If you take a pound of anything like a book and send it into orbit, it will cost $10,000," Kaku says. "To send something to the moon costs $100,000 a pound. Now think of a Death Star, which is the size of the moon, and you start to realize that it will bankrupt the United States of America. It would bankrupt the entire planet Earth. Even if we mortgage the next 100 years of generations of human beings, we would not have enough energy to build a Death Star."

Singing for science

One thing the United States certainly could have built, however, was the Superconducting Super Collider just south of Dallas, Texas. Kaku pointed to Europe's Large Hadron Collider, which garnered plenty of attention in the last year thanks to its role in the discovery of the Higgs boson -- also dubbed "the god particle" much to the consternation of scientists. At a little over 54 miles in circumference, the Super Collider would have made the Large Hadron Collider look like "a pea shooter," Kaku says. Budget concerns, however, led to the Super Collider's cancellation in 1993. In recounting how the plug was pulled on the Super Collider project, Kaku did not mince words.

"Congress gave us a billion dollars to dig this gigantic hole; they canceled the machine [and] gave us a second billion dollars to fill up the hole," Kaku says. "I can't think of anything more stupid than that."

The cancellation of the project, as well as the reduced funding for scientific agencies such as NASA, are a far cry from the budgetary largess of the Cold War days. Back then, scientists only needed to utter one word -- Russia -- and Congress would open its checkbook, Kaku recounts. Those days are long gone, however, and scientists now have to "sing for their supper," he says. Part of that involves thrilling the public with technological and scientific innovations.

"Fifty percent of the top engineers and grunts doing the work in Silicon Valley are foreign-born and that is unsustainable."

Kaku admits that advocating for science and research can be an uphill battle, especially at a time marked by a strong push for austerity in some circles. After all, the impact of cutbacks isn't limited to high-profile projects. Another casualty of the decline in interest surrounding science and even math is the US education system, which Kaku describes as the most dysfunctional among advanced capitalist countries. Even with its issues, however, the United States still manages to produce Nobel Prize winners while staying at the forefront of the technology race. Kaku attributes this in large part to immigration and the influx of promising minds from other countries. Nevertheless, importing one's geniuses can only last for so long.

"Fifty percent of the top engineers and grunts doing the work in Silicon Valley are foreign-born and that is unsustainable," Kaku says. "One day, the brain drain will reverse -- it's starting to happen. Now top scientists are starting to go back to China and back to India. That's why our education cannot continue to be one of the worst known to science."

The post-silicon era

A potential brain drain, however, is not the only threat to Silicon Valley, according to Kaku. Like many of the US industrial regions of yore, Silicon Valley could very well turn into the technology equivalent of a rust belt with the end of Moore's law, he says. The law, which states a doubling in chip performance approximately every two years, essentially fueled all the wealth and prosperity tied to the current technology revolution. Kaku says that by 2020, computer chips could shrink to a layer as small as five atoms across. Not only do electrons start leaking at that point, but the heat generated could literally fry an egg, Kaku says. At that stage, Moore's law will essentially be tapped out -- at least for silicon-based computing. Although technologies such as quantum, DNA and protein computing are seen as candidates for the post-silicon computing era, Kaku says none of those are ready for prime time.

"Quantum computers compute on individual atoms," Kaku says. "The problem there is atoms are so delicate that they very easily fall out of phase with each other. A passing truck ... or a wave going by a nearby ocean have enough vibratory energy to upset the vibration of atoms. So quantum computing is still further down the line."

"I mean, it's criminal. You're not gonna put me in a capsule [and] send me to outer space backed up by the power of a cellphone. But that's what we did back in 1969."

Until the kinks with quantum computing are worked out, molecular computing could be a more viable solution, according to Kaku. Graphene, for example, is the strongest substance known to science -- you can balance an elephant on a pencil, put it on a sheet of graphene and the material won't rip, he says. At the same time, graphene also conducts electricity, making it a good candidate for replacing silicon. The challenge, of course, is figuring out a way to mass-produce the material and finding ways to etch the circuitry in the graphene's carbon, Kaku says.

The good news is that a lot can happen in a short amount of time given the amazing pace of advancement seen in technology. Take the chips that play music in greeting cards, for example. One of those chips has more computing power than all of the Allied forces of 1945, Kaku says. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt -- all of those men would have killed to acquire the computing power of a chip that some people just throw in the garbage, he says. Even the smartphones we use today have more computing power than all of NASA did in 1969.

"Think about it; we sent off humans to outer space backed up by [technology less powerful than] a cellphone," says Kaku with amusement. "I mean, it's criminal. You're not gonna put me in a capsule [and] send me to outer space backed up by the power of a cellphone. But that's what we did back in 1969."

Internet everywhere

By 2020, computer chips will cost about a penny -- about the same amount as scrap paper -- Kaku says. At that point, computer power will be as ubiquitous as electricity. Once the internet reaches a similar point, the technology improvements could be incredible, he adds. Google's Project Glass may be getting a lot of buzz now, but Kaku says the wave of the future will be one step further in the form of internet-enabled contact lenses. Going online could literally be as simple as the blink of an eye -- users would be able to download lectures in plain sight, identify people at a cocktail party or even get subtitled translations during real-time conversations. Even folks tasked with shopping for things like groceries or electronics could share their viewpoint with another person and get real-time feedback about the items they need to get. Such an advancement would open up a whole new dimension in communication, Kaku says, whether it be tourists visiting other countries or consumers bargaining with a merchant online. Even the advent of fiber-optic cables -- which theoretically can transmit an almost limitless amount of information -- means the bottlenecks in transmission are no longer the limitations of the cable itself, but the engineering and economics of compressing and encrypting all that data, he adds.

It's certainly an interesting development for a technology that started out as a military weapon. The internet was not created so moms and dads can share photos of their kids but in order to fight the final war against the Soviet Union, Kaku says. Even more astounding is the fact that the National Science Foundation essentially gave away this military weapon in 1989 after the Soviet bloc started crumbling.

"This is unparalleled in the history of humanity that a top secret military weapon was essentially given away for free," Kaku says.

"They said [the telephone] would ruin human relations and one-to-one contact and you know something? The critics were absolutely right," Kaku says. "We do spend too much time on the telephone and you know something? We love it."

Then again, even Kaku realizes the technology he loves so much can be a double-edged sword. Although one edge can cut against ignorance, poverty and disease, Kaku admits another edge can cut against people. When the telephone first came out, for example, it was denounced by critics in many newspaper editorials.

"They said [the telephone] would ruin human relations and one-to-one contact and you know something? The critics were absolutely right," Kaku says. "We do spend too much time on the telephone and you know something? We love it."

Some people also harped on electricity, which they said would cause fires and electrocute people. Critics got that right, too, Kaku says. The alternative, however, is almost unimaginable. When power goes out and cellular networks go down in an area, we're essentially sent back 150 years to the time of our great grandparents, he says. So although technology may come with a price, it's a price Kaku is willing to pay. As for concerns raised frequently about Big Brother, Kaku says he's more concerned about "Little Brother."

"It's pesky neighbors, it's scam artists, it's petty criminals who want to steal your credit card," Kaku says. "We can create the software to protect our privacy, but let's face it, all the young hot shots want to become the next [Mark] Zuckerberg. They don't want to spend all their time trying to protect the privacy of mom and dad, they want to become the next billionaire -- and I don't blame them."

Newton or Einstein?

Like the debate between Coke and Pepsi for consumers, one question has raged fiercely among science nerds and geeks: Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein? For Kaku, the answer is so easy that even Einstein agrees, he says. Einstein took the foundation laid by Newton and created special and general relativity. Newton, on the other hand, had almost nothing to work with but a little bit of algebra, he says.

"In fact, there was no mathematics by which Newton could solve his theories so ... he created a new branch of mathematics: calculus," Kaku says. "If you take a look at where they started and where they left, you begin to realize that Newton started with a world of darkness -- a world where magic and witchcraft was the dominant thinking ... so comparing the two, I think, is no contest. I think Newton would be the greatest scientist who ever lived."

"... If you want to see your Death Star, you have to wait."

Looking back at the work done by both, however, makes it even more amazing to see how far science and technology have come today. Kaku points to the recent developments surrounding the Higgs boson, which he considers a significant achievement. The next big thing in physics? That would be dark matter, Kaku says, which scientists are now racing to discover.

A lot of today's talk about physics certainly sounds like science fiction, but as technology continues to advance, the lines between both will only get thinner. Even that Star Wars Death Star is possible given time. Just don't hold your breath, Kaku says. Physicists believe that there are advanced civilizations in space ranging from Type 1 to Type 3. Type 1 is planetary and can control the weather, earthquakes and volcanoes. Type 2 is stellar and can play with individual stars. Type 3 is galactic and possesses ships that can travel the galactic space lane.

"What would it take to create a Death Star?" Kaku says. "Probably a Type 2 civilization ... like in Star Trek that is spacefaring and has colonized nearby solar systems -- a civilization that is about 5,000 years into the future. So if you want to see your Death Star, you have to wait."