from the world's big
Michio Kaku: 5 fascinating moments from this 1991 interview
From talking about Schrödinger's cat to nuking the South Pole, this decades-old interview shows why Kaku was born to be a science educator.
- Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist and renowned science communicator.
- In 1991, he sat down for an hour-long interview in which he discussed climate change, nuclear weapons, human evolution, and more.
- Kaku is a regular contributor to Big Think.
Dr. Michio Kaku is one of the world's most beloved science communicators, having helped millions of people better understand the nature of the universe and its many mysteries. The 72-year-old physicist has forged an extensive career. In 1974, he co-founded string field theory, which seeks to explain the fundamental interactions using a single model. He's written four best-selling books. And he hosts a long-running radio show called "Science Fantastic with Michio Kaku", which is syndicated to dozens of stations across the U.S.
But before becoming a fixture on TV shows on channels like CBS, The Science Channel and countless late-night programs, Kaku appeared on a low-budget program in 1991 to discuss, among other topics, how modern society was affecting the environment. Here are five standout moments from the hour-long interview. (Check out the entire interview below.)
The end of the ice age paved the way for agriculture (and slavery)
The most recent ice age made it nearly impossible for humans to develop sophisticated societies.
"We were almost indistinguishable from animals: the way we lived, the way we foraged for food, the way we hunted," Kaku said. "We had no civilization to speak of."
But then everything changed.
"An absolutely stupendous event took place 12,000 years ago. The Ice Age ended. And with the melting of the ice, it meant that humans no longer had to follow the deer, follow the bears. It meant that humans could plant seeds, and, coming back a year later, these seeds would sprout. And with that, agriculture developed."
Kaku said the development of agriculture was a key turning point in humanity's evolution.
"With agriculture, it meant that you didn't have to follow the deer," he said. "It meant that you could sit down and build a village [...] With the coming of villages came cities."
But the development of large cities also enabled some of the darker sides of humanity to manifest.
"With the coming of cities came the division of labor, and with the division of labor came, unfortunately, slavery, where humans subjugated other humans. You can't have slavery when you are in bands of only 10 people foraging for deer. You can have slavery if your population develops to 10,000 [or] 20,000."
Excerpt starts around 16 minutes into the interview.
Kaku predicts climate change by 2030
Global warming allowed humans to develop civilization, but its "catastrophic effects" might also destroy it, Kaku said in 1991.
"The question is: Now that we are heating up the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, the latest projections that I've seen is that, early in the next century, we will heat the atmosphere to perhaps 4 to 9 degrees [measured against 1980] because of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere."
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global warming "is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate."
Kaku talks nuking the South Pole
What's a relatively straightforward way to transform global ecosystems and potentially end humanity as we know it?
"All you have to do is put our nuclear arsenal on the South Pole and detonate the South Pole, and melt it. We have the capability of altering the entire eco-structure of the planet with our hydrogen bombs."
Of course, Kaku wasn't suggesting people do such a thing. Rather, he was highlighting the precarity of the nuclear age: At any moment, one person with a bomb could, theoretically, transform the entire world.
Kaku talks about the possibility of extinct alien civilizations
After discussing the perils of nuclear weapons, Kaku noted that all civilizations throughout the universe would eventually come to a crossroads when they discover uranium.
"If the work of Frank Drake is correct, it means, potentially, there could be thousands of dead planets out there that did not negotiate pollution — global pollution, like the greenhouse effect, and the global pollution, like the depletion of the ozone layer — and did not negotiate the question of nuclear weapons."
Kaku also said that it's possible that humans are an "evolutionary dead-end," if we fail to properly manage technological advances.
The main obstacle in curbing climate change
When asked whether humans have the capability to mitigate the effects of climate change, Kaku said yes, but it all comes down to the "almighty dollar."
"We have the means, we don't have the will," he said. "Unfortunately, it's like a driver driving in a car, getting all of a sudden very sleepy, and it takes a near-miss to wake up that person. That's civilization. Civilization is falling asleep when it comes to [...] the catastrophic depletion of the ozone layer, and the greenhouse effect. And it may take a near-miss. The problem is that, even after we wake up, it may be too late."
Kaku later noted that former President George H. W. Bush was the president of an oil company.
"The problem is that the engine of the industrial revolution has been profits," Kaku said. "There's no profit to be made to restrict the ozone layer. There's no profit to be made to restrict the greenhouse effect...Oilmen like the greenhouse effect, because the greenhouse effect is called by oil."
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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