Michio Kaku: The Energy of the Future

"We are children when we talk about the cosmic scale of energies throughout the entire universe," says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. But with a little (okay, a lot) of human ingenuity, we may one day have the ability to harness the energy of the stars.

What's the Big Idea?


"We are children when we talk about the cosmic scale of energies throughout the entire universe," says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. But with a little (okay, a lot) of human ingenuity, we may one day have the ability to harness the energy of the stars. 

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To convey the broadness and wideness of the possibilities, Dr. Kaku points to the Kardashev Scale developed by Soviet astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev. The scale, while purely theoretical, puts forward a basic framework for evaluating the technological advancement of any civilization from a cosmic perspective. (Kardashev, for the record, predicts that the universe will live infinitely long and with infinite variety.)

The scale starts at Type I and progresses all the way to Type III, which is about 10-100 billion times more powerful than a Type II civilization:  

  • Type I: Energizes its cities and machines with all of the energy that lands on the earth.
  • Type II: Harnesses the power of the sun. The physicist Freeman Dyson has postulated that a giant sphere could be placed around a mother star to absorb its light.
  • Type III: This is the world of Star Trek and Empire Strikes Back and Ursula Le Guin. Each star is a thermonuclear furnace, and a galactic civilization would actually use this energy to power machines cleanly and efficiently. 
  • So where does contemporary human civilization fall? Easy, says Dr. Kaku. We're type zero. Using dead plants and organisms to power machines is a comparatively archaic form of fueling our world. But there's hope: each year, the planet generates 3% more power than the one before, which puts us only about 100 years away from becoming a Type I and a 1,000 years away from being a Type II civilization. "In about 100 years time, the energy output of the earth will be comparable to the total amount of sunlight that hits the earth itself," he adds. 

    What's the Significance?

    That is the point at which reasonable hypothesizing ends and imagination begins. Beyond the Kardashev Scale, Kaku speculates, extragalactic power awaits. A "Type IV" civilization would be able to look beyond our galaxy, unlocking the potent and mysterious force of dark energy. For, while stars make up 4% of the matter of the universe, 23% of the universe is comprised of dark matter, and 73%, dark energy. 

    The modernist bard e.e. cummings once wrote, "This is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart." Reality, it turns out, may be just as lyrical as verse. "The evolution of the universe itself, we think, is driven by... dark energy," says Dr. Kaku. "This invisible energy... pulls the galaxies apart, creates the expanding universe. In the far future, perhaps when we harness extragalactic energy -  dark energy - we can [then] harness the energy of the Big Bang itself." 

    Tell us: what do you think? How will our world be powered in the future? Will we ever harness the energy of the Big Bang?

    Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.