Big Think Interview With Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku: My name is Professor Michio Kaku. That’s M-I-C-H-I-O K-A-K-U. I’m a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York and also host of the science panel series, Sci-Fi Science.
Question: In 90 seconds, can you summarize what Einstein did?
Michio Kaku: If I were to rank perhaps the top 20 individuals who helped to shape the world around us, I think Albert Einstein would be on that short list. Kings and queens, they come and go. Emperors and empresses, they leave almost no trace in the footprints of history, but Albert Einstein’s work resonates throughout history even today. People ask the question, what has Einstein done for me lately? And the answer is everything. Everything we see around us; the electronics, the satellites, the atom smashers. All of that in some sense can be traced back to the work of Albert Einstein. In fact, many of the crumbs, the crumbs from his table, have gone on to win Nobel Prizes for physicists even today.
Question: What drew you to physics?
Michio Kaku: When I was a child, there was something that happened that changed everything; changed my outlook on life. When I was about eight years old, everyone was talking about the fact that a great scientist had just died. I still remember, everyone was talking about it, it made the front page of all the newspapers, and they put a picture of Einstein’s desk in the front page. And the caption said, "Unfinished manuscript of the greatest scientist of our era." And I said to myself, "What? Why couldn't he finish it?" I mean, it's a homework problem, right? Why couldn't he simply go home and finish this project? What could be so difficult that the greatest mind of our era couldn't finish it? Well to me, this was greater than any adventure story. I had to know what was in that book. What was the problem that the greatest mind of our era couldn't finish?
Well, later I realized, years later, I found out that it was the Unified Field Theory. The theory to unite all laws into an equation perhaps no longer than one inch. An equation one inch long that will allow us to read the mind of God. That was the project that Albert Einstein set forth.
But, you know, I had a second role model when I was a kid. Not only did I idolize the work of Albert Einstein, and I had to know what was this Unified Field Theory, I used to watch the Sunday -- Saturday morning TV programs on television. And I was mesmerized by "Flash Gordon." For the first time, I saw this whole new world open up. A world of ray guns and rocket ships and aliens, and beings from outer space and I said to myself, that's for me. But you know, after awhile, I began to figure out something. First of all, I didn't have big muscles. I didn't have blonde hair. I was not going to be Flash Gordon. But I realized it was the scientists behind the scenes that made everything work. Without Dr. Zarkoff, there were no cities in the sky. Without him, there were no starships. He made the whole series work. And I began to realize something, and that is science is the engine of prosperity. Everything we see around us, all the technological wonders that have enriched our life and created this huge population on the planet earth, all of that can be traced back to science.
Question: What were your other formative experiences as a young person?
Michio Kaku: When I was a child, there was another event that helped to shape the person I was. My parents used to take me to San Francisco to the Japanese Tea Garden, and I used to spend hours watching the carp swimming just beneath the lily pads. And then I asked a question of myself that only a child would ask, and that is, what would it be like to be a fish? What would it be like to be a carp swimming in a two-dimensional world? A very shallow pond where you can only go forward, backwards, left and right, and anyone who would have talked about up, the world of the third dimension, was considered a crackpot. And then I imagined a carp scientist there and I said to myself, what would this scientist say? He would say, "Bah, humbug. Anyone who talks about the third-dimension, the world beyond the Lilly pads, the world beyond the pond, is an idiot because you can only go inside the pond. That is the universe. The universe is only what you can see and touch."
And then I imagined reaching down and grabbing the scientist fish, lifting him up into the world of the third dimension. What would he see? Well, he would see beings moving without fins. A whole new law of physics. Beings breathing without water. A whole new law of biology. And then I imagined putting him back into the pond. What would he tell his fellow fish?
Well today, we physicists believe, but we cannot yet prove that we are the fish. We spent all our life in three-dimensions; going forward, backward, left, right, up, down, but anyone who talks about a higher dimension, the world of up, hyperspace, a dimension beyond what you can see and touch is considered a crackpot. Until recently. And now, of course, some of the world's leading physicists now believe that perhaps there are other dimensions, other universes, other worlds to explore.
And perhaps one day, our machines will give us definitive proof of the existence of hyperspace.
Question: How could the existence of hyperspace be definitively proven?
Michio Kaku: The idea of hyperspace. The idea of higher dimensions, unseen universes beyond length, width, and height, is not just idle dinner table conversation. We're not spending over $10 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, an atom smasher outside Geneva, Switzerland. Now, when I was a kid, I have my first taste of atom smashing because when I was a kid, I decided to do a Science Fair project. First of all, I was working with anti-matter in high school, photographing brilliant tracks of anti-matter inside my magnetic field that I built. Then one day, I wanted to create my own beam of anti-matter. Not just photograph it, but actually manipulate it.
So, I went to my mom one day and I said, "Mom, can I have permission to build a 2.3 million volt atom smasher betatronic accelerator in my garage?" And she kind of stared at me and said, "An atom smasher in the garage? I mean, sure. Why not? And don't forget to take out the garbage." So, I took out the garbage and I went to Westinghouse and I got 400 pounds of transformer steel, 22 miles of copper wire, and we wound a 6 kilowatt, 10,000 gauss magnetic field on the high school football field. I put 22 pounds of copper wire on the goal post, gave the wire to my mother. My mother ran to the 50-yard line, gave the wire to my father and he ran to the goal post, and we wound 22 miles of copper wire on the high school football field. Finally, it was ready. It was my proudest achievement, this 400 pound, 6 kw, 10,000 gauss magnetic field in a 2.3 million volt electronic accelerator.
I closed my eyes, I plugged my ears, I plugged in the wall socket into the garage circuit, and I heard this pop, pop, pop sound as I blew out every single circuit breaker in the house. Wow! My poor mom. She had come back from a hard day's work to see all the lights flicker and die. And then she would say, "Where's the fuses?"
Well, I imagine that my mother would say to herself, "Why couldn't I have a son who plays basketball? Maybe if I buy him a baseball, and for God's sake, why can't he find a nice Japanese girlfriend? Why does he build these machines in the garage?" Well that machine was an atom smasher. And now the biggest atom smasher of all time is being built outside Geneva, Switzerland. It is 17 miles in circumference. You need a car to actually go around this gigantic device. And it will help recreate a piece of creation.
Well, some people ask the question, why are the European countries building the Large Hadron Collider? Are we losing the edge? What about an American machine. Well, hey. Let's be frank about it. We had our chance and we blew it. Back in the 1990's, President Ronald Reagan and others had a vision. Why not create the largest colossal atom smasher outside the city of Dallas. Well everything was all set, funding was initiated, but in 1993 the machine was cancelled. A machine, a supercollider many times bigger then the Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland.
Well, what happened? Many things happened, but on the last day of hearings in Congress, one Congressman asked a physicist, "Are we going to find God with your machine? If so, I will vote for it." Well, the poor physicist didn't know what to say. So, he collected his thoughts and said, "We will find the Higgs Boson." Well, you could almost hear all the jaws hit the floor of the United States Congress. $11 billion for another goddamned sub-atomic particle. Well, the role was taken a few days later and the machine was cancelled. Congress gave us $1 billion to dig this gigantic hole in the ground outside Dallas, they cancelled the machine, and they gave us a second billion dollars to fill up the hole. I can't think of anything more stupid than giving us $2 billion to dig a hole and to fill it up again. But hey, that's the government.
Well, since then, we physicists have been racking our brains asking ourselves the question, what should we have said? This will happen again. Our NSF budgets, our science budgets, our Department of Energy budgets. All of them will depend on the taxpayers. So, what should we have said? Well, I don't know. But I would have said the following. I would have said, "God, by whatever signs or symbols you ascribe to the deity, this machine, the supercollider will take us as close as humanly possible to his, or her, greatest creation and that is, genesis. This is a Genesis Machine. It will recreate, on a microscopic scale, perhaps the most glorious event in the history of the universe. Its birth." Unfortunately, we said, "Higgs Boson." So, our machine was cancelled and America is no longer on the cutting edge of the most basic research in physics.
Question: Will the Large Hadron Collider be able to recreate the moments after the birth of the universe?
Michio Kaku: With our satellites today, we can pick up radiation actually from the Big Bang itself, a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang. Radiation was released throughout the universe that is now in the microwave range. Believe it or not, when you turn on the TV and you pick up static, when you turn on the radio and you pick up static, some of that static comes from creation itself. You can actually listen to some degree to the actual explosion that created the universe.
However, this explosion dates from a few hundred thousand years after the incident of creation. We're not satisfied. We physicists want to go to the instant of the Big Bang itself, and that's what the Hadron Collider will do. It'll recreate conditions not seen since perhaps a trillionth of a second after creation itself. And we hope the Large Hadron Collider will unlock some of the deepest secrets of space and time, matter and energy.
Question: How will the universe end?
Michio Kaku: Well, when we try to look at the whole universe itself -- many people ask the question, "Well Professor, how do you know -- how do you know that the universe is expanding? How do you know that it came from a big bang? How can you project so far into the future, billions to trillions of years into the future? Well one way we do this is by looking at the Doppler shift. Now, the doppler shift is something that even children are familiar with. When children play "Star Wars" with each other, they go err, err, err with their rocket ships. Right? Well, what makes that err, sound? It's the Doppler effect. When a car moves toward you, the pitch is higher, when the car moves away from you the pitch is lower. And it sounds like this. Eee err. We've all heard it. Same thing with starlight. When yellow light moves toward you, it turns greenish and bluish. When the yellow light moves away from you it turns reddish.
Now, how can you memorize this? Well, I was reading a paper a few years ago and I read this fascinating story of a high school physics teacher who got a speeding ticket for running a red light. The physics teacher went to the blackboard and said, "Your Honor. My car was moving toward a yellow light. Light is compressed in a forward direction when you move toward it, and therefore it turned green. This is the Doppler shift," he said. And he went to the black board and he correctly wrote down all the equations of the Doppler shift. And then this high school physics teacher said, "Your Honor. I do not deserve a traffic ticket." Well, the judge scratched his head and according to the article, the judge said, "Well, I guess there is a law higher than the state of New Jersey, and these are the laws of physics." But then, according to the article, there was a high school kid in the court room and he raised his hand and he said, "Your Honor, I'm just a high school kid, but I happen to be in his high school physics class and he just taught this a couple of weeks ago that this only happens when you approach the speed of light." End of article.
To this day, I still don't know what happened to that poor high school kid. But I tell my students, that if I'm ever in court arguing a speeding ticket or red light, they better not raise their hand if they know what's good for them and they know what's good for their grade.
So, when we look in the heavens, we look at starlight emitted from distant galaxies and we find that the light is slightly reddish. Redder than it's supposed to be. That means that these objects, the gigantic galaxies are moving away from us and therefore the universe is expanding. Well, we could run the video tape backwards, and by running the video tape backwards we could then calculate when all these galaxies came from a single point. And that's how we calculate the age of the universe, by simply hitting the rewind button when we calculate the expansion of the universe.
So by running the video tape backwards, we see that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, plus or minus 1%. So, we now know the age of the universe. 13.7 billion years by running the video tape backwards. But what happens if we hit fast forward. What happens if we go forward in time billions of years? Well, here it gets murkier. But by analyzing how the universe has been expanding in the past, we used to think that the universe is slowing down. We used to think the universe is aging and therefore it's slowing down; running out of steam. Wrong. We now believe that the universe is speeding up. It's actually accelerating, in runaway mode which means that in stead of dying in a big crunch, we'll probably die in a big freeze. We're not positive. We don't know if this will keep on going for billions of years. But if so, the universe is in a runaway mode. It means that one day, perhaps when we look at the night sky; perhaps we'll see almost nothing because the distant galaxies are so far that light cannot even reach our telescopes. Not a pleasant thought. But our universe may eventually die in a big freeze rather than a big crunch.
Question: How soon would this scenario most likely take place?
Michio Kaku: Nobody knows when this big freeze will take place, or if it will ever take place. However, estimates have been made, perhaps hundreds of billions of years, perhaps trillions of years. One day it will get so cold that you'll look at the night sky and it will be almost totally black. All the stars will have exhausted all of their nuclear fuel, the universe will consist of neutron stars, dead black holes, the temperature will reach near absolute zero, and at that point even consciousness, even thought itself, cannot exist. and some people think that perhaps the laws of physics are a death warrant to all intelligent life; that we're all going to die when the universe freezes over.
But you know, there's a loophole. There's a loophole in the laws of physics. you see, trillions of years from now, perhaps intelligent life will be able to master what is called, "The Planck Energy." The Planck Energy is the ultimate energy. It's the energy of the Big Bang. It's the energy at which gravity itself begins to break down.
You know that if you have a microwave oven and you heat it up, you can take ordinary water and make it boil; ice can melt, water can boil. But what happens if you crank up that microwave oven even more? Eventually the steam starts to break up into oxygen and hydrogen. If you crank it up some more, all of a sudden ions form; atoms themselves begin to rip apart. And then if you crank up that microwave oven even more, then even the nucleus begins to break apart and you get a plasma of protons and neutrons. You crank it up some more and you get a gluon plasma. And if you crank it some more to this incredible energy. Ten to the 19 billion electron volts, we're not sure, but perhaps even space itself begins to boil. Even space time becomes unstable. Bubbles begin to form at this Planck Energy. And perhaps these bubbles are gateways. Gateways to a parallel universe.
Of course, we're not sure about this. This is pure speculation, but there are theories that say that there could be universes right next to our universe. And in fact, the Large Hadron Collider will give us the first experimental evidence about the existence of parallel universes.
So, think of us as ants living on a sheet of paper, but perhaps there are other parallel sheets of paper with other ants living on them. And perhaps we are very close to these other universes, but we can't reach them. The energy necessary to reach a parallel universe would be the Planck Energy, 10 to the 19 billion electron volts.
I would suppose that trillions of years from now, intelligent life, facing the ultimate demise of the universe itself, might decide to leave the universe. To leave our universe and enter a parallel universe in the same way that Alice entered the looking glass to enter Wonderland.
Question: What is the role of imagination in science?
Michio Kaku: I believe that science is the engine of prosperity. Everything we see around us, the goods and services, the iPods, the internet, the GPS system, all of it comes from science. But what is the rocket fuel? What is the rocket fuel that makes science work? That makes this engine propel itself? And I think that rocket fuel is curiosity. It's imagination. It's the innovative spirit. That's what keeps science alive. And I would hope that we could nourish that among our young people. But unfortunately, oftentimes, that rocket fuel is wasted.
If you take a look at our educational system, you'll realize that all of us are born scientists. All of us are born wondering why does the sun shine? Where did I come from? What's out there? How big is the world anyway? All of us are born scientists until we hit the danger years. When we hit about 13, 14, 15, those are the danger years and we start to lose these young scientists left and right. So, by the time they graduate from high school, we have only a tiny, tiny fraction of the original 100% of young people who are born scientists. They drop like flies. What's wrong?
Well, many things are wrong. But among that is the way that we teach science. We teach science as a list of facts and figures to memorize and we crush, literally crush, any curiosity and spirit of innovation and imagination from young children. For example, my daughter once took the New York State Regional Exam. She took the exam in geology, and I had a chance to tutor her by looking at this manual. And I realized that the entire manual consisted mainly of memorizing the names of crystals, the names of minerals, hundreds of them, and of course, all the things that you are going to forget the day after your exam. So, it's not that our students are stupid, they can memorize these things. They are so smart. They've figured out that this material is totally useless. Our students are so smart they’ve figured out they're never going to see these things ever again. They just have to memorize it once in their life, throw away their book, and they're absolutely right. They will never, ever see these hundreds of minerals, crystals, again in their life.
So, my daughter comes up to me after struggling with all this memorization and she says to me, "Daddy, why would anyone want to become a scientist?" That was the most humiliating day of my life. I spent my entire life being a scientist trying to understand the way nature works, trying to tease apart some of the fundamental laws of physics, and my own daughter says, "Why would anyone want to become a scientist?"
At that point, I felt like taking this book and ripping it apart. Well, in the future **** the Internet in our contact lenses. And we're going to be able to see in our contact lenses the entire sum total of all knowledge accumulated since antiquity. And our kids are going to be able to download all the exam questions that depend on memorization of silly facts and figures they will never ever see again in their life. And you know something? I think that's the way it should be. Because science deals with concepts, principles. And how many principles are there? Not many. The principle of evolution, the principle of relativity, draconian physics, quantum theory, they're not that many principles that drive all of science. And so I believe that in the future, when we have the Internet everywhere, in our contact lenses, in our eye glasses, professors and educators are going to have to throw away their exams and begin to teach science in the way it should be taught.
Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, tells this story. When the future Nobel laureate was a child, his father would take him into the forest. And his father would tell him about birds; why certain birds are shaped the way they are, the coloration, the shape of the beak, their feeding habits. Everything about the life history and lifestyle of birds. And then one day, a bully comes up to him and says, "Hey Dick, what's the name of that bird over there?" Well, he didn't know. He could tell that bully everything about that bird, its coloration, its shape, the shape of its beak, its feeding habits. Everything about that bird except one thing. Its name. And then the bully says, "Hey Dick, what's the matter? You stupid or something?" And at that point, he got it. He began to realize that for most people science is nothing but memorization. But what is memorization? You can look it up on the internet in the future. Science is not about memorizing facts and figures. Of course, you have to know the basics, but science is about principle. It's about concepts.
You know, my favorite Einstein quote is as follows. Einstein once said, "If a theory cannot be explained to a child, then the theory is probably worthless." Meaning that great ideas are pictorial. Great ideas can be explained in the language of pictures. Things that you can see and touch, objects that you can visualize in the mind. That is what science is all about, not memorizing facts and figures.
Question: Will U.S. science education ever improve?
Michio Kaku: Unfortunately, I'm rather pessimistic about the way we teach science. And some people ask me a simple question. They are visitors from overseas. And they say that, "Wow, America has so many Nobel laureates, but it has one of the worst education programs known to science." This is measurable. Our kids scored dead last of all the other developed nations. And our students ranked actually a little bit below the students of Jordan in science and math tests.
So my friends from overseas ask a simple question. Why doesn't America collapse? I mean, where do all these Nobel laureates come from, and these innovations come from that we see coming from Silicone Valley? Well, America has several secret weapons that most nations have never heard of. First of all, our secret weapon, the weapon that keeps us at the forefront of innovation and scientific progress and high tech, is the H1B. That is our secret weapon that most nations and people have never heard of. The H1B is the genius visa. You are "a genius," a PhD, you have wealth, you're an established figure, zoom you go right into the United States to energize Silicon Valley, which is 50% foreign born. Yes, you see Bill Gates. Yes, you see Steve Jobs out there, but 50% of the **** scientists behind Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are foreign-born. There's a brain drain. A tremendous brain drain into the United States. The top talent comes here. This is where innovation takes place and is rewarded financially.
But there are other reasons why America does catch up. First of all, America does "see the genius in the classroom." The young Bill Gates, the young Steve Jobs, the young Albert Einstein. These people **** because in the East there is an expression, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." In the East there is this Confucian tradition that you're not supposed to make your peers look bad by excelling and trying to achieve something beyond their abilities. However, in the West, we have another saying, and that is, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." So, the innovators, the real imaginative thinkers, they are rewarded in the American system, while in the East they are hammered down. And third, our college system is not so bad. Even though our high school system graduates generations of near-illiterate students, by the time they hit college, then that's when they begin to accelerate. That's when they begin to get up to speed.
But you know, we cannot sustain our scientific establishment this way. We cannot continue to depend on foreign scientists. We cannot continue to depend on the genius that may or may not arise, and we certainly cannot depend on college being a remedial high school.
Question: To what extent is it possible for subatomic particles to travel in time, and will we ever be able to do so ourselves?
Michio Kaku: When I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of science fiction. And of course, time travel is one of the main plots that dominate science fiction. But I said to myself, if I pursue this path of simply reading science fiction, simply speculating about anti-matter, the fourth dimension, hyperdrive, and star ships, I'll **** to be a crackpot. I'll eventually just start to mouth all these words, all these buzz words from science fiction and be clueless, absolutely clueless about whether or not any of these things can actually happen. Well, that's when I said to myself, I have to sit down and get serious. If I'm really serious about learning, about the frontiers of science and when it meets science fiction, I'm going to have to hit the books. I'm going to have to pay my dues. I'm going to have to learn theoretical physics. I'm going to have to learn as much mathematics as I possibly can to understand why Einstein could not complete his Unifying Field Theory.
Well today I can read that book. I can read from Einstein’s Unified Field Theory, the theory that may one day answer these questions about higher dimensions, about time travel, about star ships and hyperdrive. I could read that book now. And I realize that all the dead ends that he was hitting, I could see where he stopped, where certain avenues were promising, but he simply couldn't take it any farther. And the reason why is because the nuclear force was not known until the 1970's, and yet he was working on the Unified Field Theory starting in the 1920's. This was an impossible task. He was putting together a jigsaw puzzle with one of the big pieces missing, and that big piece was the nuclear force.
And so, Einstein understood the electromagnetic force. He, of course, pioneered the gravitational force, but he did not understand the nuclear force. Well, today we have a very good grasp of the nuclear force. The nuclear forces are mediated by quarks and gluons, subatomic particles that we physicists have to memorize. But how many subatomic particles are there? Hundreds. Perhaps thousands of subatomic particles with bizarre Greek-sounding names.
In the 1950's, J. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was so frustrated that we began to find all of these zoo of subatomic particles that he made the announcement. And that is that the Nobel Prize should go to the physicist who does not discover a new particle this year.
Well, today, to get your PhD, you have to memorize the names of all these goddammed subatomic particles. That's what I had to do. But I would hope that in the future, young students in theoretical physics, instead of memorizing all of these Greek-sounding names, would simply say, String Theory. And they would get their PhD.
String Theory says that all the notes on a vibrating string correspond to a particle. That to an electron is actually a rubber band; a very tiny rubber band. but if you twang this rubber band and the rubber band vibrates at a different frequency, it turns into a quark. And you twang it again and it turns into a neutrino. So, how many musical notes are there? An infinite. How many musical notes are there on a string? An infinite number. And that may explain why we have so many subatomic particles. They are nothing but musical notes. So, physics are nothing but the laws of harmonies on a string.
Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on vibrating strings, and the mind of God, the mind of God that Einstein worked on for the last 30 years of his life, the mind of God would be cosmic music. Cosmic music resonating through 11 dimensional hyperspace. You see, our universe is a symphony. It's a symphony of vibrating strings and possibly membranes, but when it was born, it was born as a perfect entity in 11 dimensional hyperspace. That may eventually give us "a theory of everything."
So, people come up to me and say, "Professor, if this is a theory of everything, what's in it for me? What's in it for numero uno? Why should I care?" Well, let me tell you why you should care about a theory of everything.
When Isaac Newton worked out a theory of gravity, he also worked out a mechanics, how forces guide the motions of objects including steam engines. With steam engines came the Industrial Revolution. So, in some sense, the work of Isaac Newton helped to revolutionize society with machines that could be understood using Newton's laws of mechanics. Steam engines that could then create locomotives that could industrialize America within 150 years.
And then in the 1800's, we had the pioneering work of Maxwell, Faraday, leading up to the work of Edison that gave us the electromagnetic force. So the unraveling of the second great force, the electromagnetic force gave us the electric and computer, and information revolution of today. You're iPod, the internet, GPS, lasers, computers, micro chips, all of that coming from the work of scientist who unraveled the second great force, the electromagnetic force.
The third and the fourth force is all of the nuclear forces. They make the stars shine. Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2, unravels the secret of the stars. That a little bit of "M," matter, can create fabulous amounts of cosmic energy, "E." The nuclear force energizes the stars is responsible for the creation of the earth and may one day energize our machines with fusion reactors. Now we are on the verge of the unification of all forces. all four fundamental forces perhaps unified into an equation one inch long. That's the dream. Now, are we going to get better cable television this way? Are we going to get better color reception this way? Not immediately. But this theory, the "Theory of Everything," will answer the key questions: is time travel possible? Can you drill a hole through space and time? How was the universe born and what happened before genesis itself?
String Theory may answer all of these questions. For example, time travel. Isaac Newton said that time is like an arrow. Once you fire it, it speeds uniformly throughout space and time. One second on the earth is one second on Mars, is one second throughout the universe. Einstein comes along and says, not so fast. Not so fast. Time is a river. The river of time meanders its way throughout its way through the universe, speeding up and slowing down. And we measure that every day with our GPS systems. Without Einstein’s theory of relativity, you could not have a GPS system that could locate your position to within about 10 feet or so.
So, the new wrinkle in all of this is that we believe that the river of time has whirlpools. Whirlpools in the river of time. The river of time may fork into two rivers, and this may answer many of the paradoxes of time travel. What happens when you go backwards in time and shoot your parents before you were born? How can you born if your parents were just killed by you by going backwards in time. If time forks into two rivers, then parallel universes emerge and that's how we can resolve all of the time travel paradoxes.
But then people ask the question, "Professor, this is all fine and good, but when can I have my own personal time machine to visit the dinosaurs?" Well, there's a problem. There's always a catch. And the catch is the energy, positive and negative, necessary to open gateways through space and time is not for us. If time travel is possible, then the fuel, the energy necessary to open up gateways to create pretzels in the river of space and time is fabulous. You're talking about the energy of a black hole. The energy of a super nova. The energy far beyond anything that we can harness today. But perhaps, who knows, aliens from outer space millions of years ahead of us. Perhaps our descendants may be able to wrap time into a pretzel. So, one day, if somebody knocks on your door and claims to be your great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter, don't slam the door.
Question: Will we discover a “theory of everything” by 2050?
Michio Kaku: My work is in String Theory. In fact, I'm the co-founder of String Field Theory, which allows you to summarize all of the laws of String Theory into an equation about one inch long. Well, that's my equation. I helped to write that with Professor Kikowa of Japan, and in fact, you can even buy a T-shirt which has my equation on it. However, my equation is not the final word because first of all, there are five different string theories. So, there are five different one-inch equations for each of the different String Theories. And now we have something called M-theory, a theory of membranes vibrating in 11 dimensions and we are clueless, absolutely clueless about getting that one-inch equation that will allow us to understand M-theory, Membrane Theory.
So, we are, in some sense, going back to square one in terms of the mathematics, but in terms of the theory itself, we hope to match String Theory with the results of the Large Hadron Collider.
First of all, dark matter. We now realize that most of the matter in the universe is dark, invisible matter. If I had dark matter in my hand right now, it would be invisible. In fact, it would literally dissolve its way right through my fingers, go right to the center of the earth, would go right to China, back to the center of the earth and back up into my hand, and then it would simply oscillate between China and my hand forever. That's dark matter. And you know, it means that every single chemistry book and science book on earth is wrong. Every book of science says that the universe is mainly made out of atoms, hydrogen, helium, going up to uranium. Wrong. We know realize that most of the matter in the universe is dark matter. And most of the energy of the universe is dark energy. An invisible energy that permeates the vacuum of space and time. In fact, 73% of the energy of the universe is dark energy. And we're clueless about what is the nature of dark energy.
Twenty-three percent of the matter energy of the universe is dark matter. And we hope to create dark matter with the Large Hadron Collider. Well, where do we fit into this? Stars made out of hydrogen and helium make up 4% of the universe. But what about us? What about oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, what about us? We make .03% of the universe. Let me repeat that again. The atoms that are familiar to us, the higher elements make up .03% of the universe. We are the odd balls. We are the exception. Most of the universe is made out of dark energy and dark matter and we hope to create dark matter with the Large Hadron Collider.
The leading theory of dark matter is that it is caused by sparticles. Sparticles are super particles higher vibrations of the string. So, we represent perhaps the lowest octave of the string. Everything you see around us is nothing but the lowest vibration of the string. But the Large Hadron Collider would be powerful enough to excite the next set of vibrations, super particles, sparticles, that may makeup dark matter.
But there's another theory about the nature of dark matter. If our universe co-exists with a parallel universe, and there is a galaxy in this parallel universe, it would be invisible because light would move behind, underneath this parallel galaxy, but gravity seeps between galaxies, therefore you would feel this gravitational effect, but it would be invisible. Now, what is invisible, but has gravity? Dark matter.
So, ironically, maybe we have already discovered dark matter, already dark matter exists in a parallel universe whose gravity we detect in our universe. So, the Large Hadron Collider, outside Geneva, Switzerland, may finally answer the question. What is dark matter? We know it holds the galaxies together, but what is dark matter?
I should also point out that there's a little bit of a sad story with regards to dark matter. Dark matter was actually postulated by a woman, Vera Rubin, back in the 1960's. Our Milky Way galaxy rotates so fast, that by rights, by Newtonian mechanics, it should fly apart. Well, Vera Rubin's results were considered ridiculous. How could our galaxy spin so fast that it has to fly apart? She said, well maybe there's matter out there holding it together? People laughed and pretty much ignored her work. Not any more. We now realize that she may eventually win the Nobel Prize for dark matter.
So, there is a dark secret in our field of physics, and that is that women scientists are sometimes not treated as equals. The most famous case is that of Jocelyn Bell. Back in the 1960's, she was a lowly female graduate student who saw a star blink at her through a telescope. Well, she carefully logged the blinking of that star day after day night after night, week after week, and then she made the biggest mistake of her professional life. She told her thesis advisor. He came over, took one look and said, "Oh, hey." Well, when it was time to write up the paper, whose name came first? Jocelyn Bell? The one who made the discovery? The one who on very cold nights would log this tiny star blinking at her? Or the famous scientist? Well, his name came first.
When it was time to give talks around the world, who gave the talks? Her or the scientist? He gave the talks. And when it was time to win the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the pulsar, who won the Nobel Prize? He did.
Now, what's the lesson here? The lesson here is, if you ever make an astounding discovery, tell me first. I mean, I'm a generous man, I'll give you a nice footnote, a subway token perhaps to reward you for making this fantastic discovery, but hey, we big-name scientists, our name comes first.
A conversation with the professor of theoretical physics at C.U.N.Y.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Since 1957, the world's space agencies have been polluting the space above us with countless pieces of junk, threatening our technological infrastructure and ability to venture deeper into space.
- Space debris is any human-made object that's currently orbiting Earth.
- When space debris collides with other space debris, it can create thousands more pieces of junk, a dangerous phenomenon known as the Kessler syndrome.
- Radical solutions are being proposed to fix the problem, some of which just might work. (See the video embedded toward the end of the article.)
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a human-made object into orbit for the first time. It marked the dawn of the Space Age. But when Sputnik 1's batteries died and the aluminum satellite began lifelessly orbiting the planet, it marked the end of another era: the billions of years during which space was pristine.
Today, the space above Earth is the world's "largest garbage dump," according to NASA. It's littered with 8,000 tons of human-made junk, called space debris, left by space agencies over the past six decades.
The U.S. now tracks more than 25,000 pieces of space junk. And that's only the debris that ground-based radar technologies can track. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network estimates there could be more than 170 million pieces of space debris currently orbiting Earth, with the majority being tiny fragments smaller than 1 mm.
Space debris: Trashing a planet
Space debris includes all human-made objects, big and small, that are orbiting Earth but no longer serve a useful function. A brief inventory of known space junk includes: a spatula, a glove, a mirror, a bag filled with astronaut tools, spent rocket stages, stray bolts, paint chips, defunct spacecraft, and about 3,000 dead satellites — all of which are orbiting Earth at speeds of roughly 18,000 m.p.h.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
Most space junk is floating in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within an altitude of about 100 to 1,200 miles. LEO is also where most of the world's 3,000 satellites operate, powering our telecommunications, GPS technologies, and military operations.
"Millions of pieces of orbital debris exist in low Earth orbit (LEO) — at least 26,000 the size of a softball or larger that could destroy a satellite on impact; over 500,000 the size of a marble big enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit," wrote NASA's Office of Inspector General Office of Audits.
If LEO becomes polluted with too much space junk, it could become treacherous for spacecraft, threatening not only our modern technological infrastructure, but also humanity's ability to venture into space at all.
An outsized problem
Space debris of any size poses grave threats to spacecraft. But tiny, untrackable micro-debris presents an especially dreadful problem: A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
Impacts with space debris are common. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA replaced an average of one to two shuttle windows per mission "due to hypervelocity impacts (HVIs) from space debris." To be sure, some space debris are natural micrometeoroids. But much of it is human-made, like the fragment that struck the starboard payload bay radiator of the STS-115 flight in 2006.
"The debris penetrated both walls of the honeycomb structure, and the shock wave from the penetration created a crack in the rear surface of the radiator 6.8 mm long," NASA wrote. "Scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray detection analysis of residual material around the hole and in the interior of the radiator shows that the impactor was a small fragment of circuit board material."
The European Space Agency notes that any fragment of space debris larger than a centimeter could shatter a spacecraft into pieces.
Impact chip on the ISSESA
To dodge space junk, the International Space Station (ISS) has to conduct "avoidance maneuvers" a couple times every year. In 2014, for example, flight controllers decided to raise the ISS's altitude by half a mile to avoid collision with part of an old European rocket in its orbital path.
NASA has strict guidelines for how it decides to perform these maneuvers.
"Debris avoidance maneuvers are planned when the probability of collision from a conjunction reaches limits set in the space shuttle and space station flight rules," NASA wrote. "If the probability of collision is greater than 1 in 100,000, a maneuver will be conducted if it will not result in significant impact to mission objectives. If it is greater than 1 in 10,000, a maneuver will be conducted unless it will result in additional risk to the crew."
These precautionary measures are becoming increasingly necessary. In 2020, the ISS had to move three times to avoid potential collisions. One of the latest close-calls came with such little warning that astronauts were instructed to take shelter in the Russian segment of the space station, in order to be closer to their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft, which serves as an escape pod in case of an emergency.
The Kessler syndrome
The hazards of space debris grow exponentially over time. That's because of a problem that NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler outlined in 1978. The so-called Kessler syndrome states that as space becomes increasingly packed with spacecraft and debris, collisions become more likely. And because each collision would create more debris, it could trigger a chain reaction of collisions — potentially to the point where near-Earth space becomes a shrapnel field through which safe travel is impossible.
A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
The Kessler syndrome may already be playing out. Perhaps it began with the first known case of a spacecraft being severely damaged by artificial space debris, which occurred in 1996 when the French spy satellite Cerise was struck by a piece of an old European Ariane rocket. The collision tore off a 13-foot segment of the satellite.
The next major space debris incident occurred in 2007 when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in which the nation destroyed one of its own weather satellites, triggering international criticism and creating more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, most of which was still in orbit ten years after the explosion.
Then, in 2009, an unexpected collision between communications satellites — the active Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 — produced at least 2,000 large fragments of space debris and as many as 200,000 smaller pieces, according to NASA. About half of all space debris currently orbiting Earth came from the Iridium-Cosmos collision and China's missile test.
There's more. Russia's BLITS satellite was spun out of its orbital path in 2013 after being struck by a piece of space debris suspected to have come from China's 2007 missile test; the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was struck by a tiny particle in 2016; and a window of the ISS was hit by a small fragment that same year.
As nations and private companies plan to send more satellites into orbit, collisions and impacts could soon become more common.
The promise and peril of satellite mega-constellations
Space organizations have recently begun launching satellites into low Earth orbit at an unprecedented pace. The goal is to create "mega-constellations" of satellites that provide high-quality internet access to virtually all parts of the planet.
Internet-providing satellites have existed for years, but they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. That's mainly because it can take a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the user due to the high altitudes at which many of these satellites float above us in geostationary orbit.
China and companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon aim to solve this problem by launching thousands of satellites into lower orbits in order to reduce signal latency, or the time it takes for the signal to travel to and from the satellite. But some space experts worry satellite mega-constellations could create more space debris.
"We face entirely new challenges as hundreds of satellites are launched every month now — more than we used to launch in a year," Thomas Schildknecht of the International Astronomical Union said at a European Space Agency conference in April. "The mega-constellations are producing huge risks of collisions. We need more stringent rules for traffic management in space and international mechanisms to ensure enforcement of the rules."
A 2017 study funded by the European Space Agency found that the deployment of satellite mega-constellations into low Earth orbit could increase the number of catastrophic collisions by 50 percent. Still, it remains unclear whether sending more satellites into space will necessarily cause more collisions.
SpaceX, for example, claims that Starlink satellites aren't at significant risk of collision because they're equipped with automated collision-avoidance propulsion systems. However, this system seemed to fail in 2019 when a Starlink satellite had a close call with a European science satellite named Aeolus. The company later said it had fixed the bug.
A batch of 60 Starlink test satellites stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket.SpaceX
Currently, there are no strict international rules governing the deployment and management of satellite mega-constellations. But there are some international efforts to curb space debris risks.
The most concerted effort is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a forum that comprises 13 of the world's space agencies, including those of the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan. The committee aims "to exchange information on space debris research activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options."
The IADC's Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines list three broad goals:
1. Preventing on-orbit break-ups
2. Removing spacecraft from the densely populated orbit regions when they reach the end of their mission
3. Limiting the objects released during normal operations
But even though the world's space agencies recognize the gravity of the space debris problem, they're reluctant to act because of an incentives-based dilemma.
Space debris: A classic tragedy of the commons
Space debris is everyone's problem, but no one entity is obligated to solve it. It's a tragedy of the commons — an economic scenario in which individuals with access to a shared and scarce resource (space) act in their own best interest (spend the least amount of money). Left unchecked, the shared resource is vulnerable to depletion or corruption.
For example, the U.S. by itself could develop a novel method for removing space debris, which, if successful, would benefit all organizations with assets in space. But the odds of this happening are slim because of a game-theoretical dilemma.
"[In space debris removal] each stakeholder has an incentive to delay its actions and wait for others to respond. This makes the space debris removal setting an interesting strategic dilemma. As all actors share the same environment, actions by one have a potential immediate and future impact on all others. This gives rise to a social dilemma in which the benefits of individual investment are shared by all while the costs are not. This encourages free-riders, who reap the benefits without paying the costs. However, if all involved parties reason this way, the resulting inaction may prove to be far worse for all involved. This is known in the game theory literature as the tragedy of the commons."
Similar to trying to curb climate change, there's no clear answer on how to best incentivize nations to mitigate space debris. (For what it's worth, the game theoretical model in the 2018 study found that a centralized solution — e.g., one where a single actor makes decisions on mitigating space debris, perhaps on behalf of a multinational coalition — is less costly than a decentralized solution.)
Although space organizations have been slow to act, many have been exploring ways to remove space junk from orbit and prevent new debris from forming.
Cleaning up space debris
Space organizations have proposed and experimented with many ways to remove debris from space. Although the techniques vary, most agree on strategy: get rid of the big stuff first.
That's because collisions involving large objects would create lots of new debris. So, removing big debris first would simultaneously clean up low Earth orbit and slow down the phenomenon of cascading collisions described by the Kessler syndrome.
To clean up low Earth orbit, space organizations have proposed using:
- Electrodynamic tethers: In 2017, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency attempted to remove space debris by outfitting a cargo ship with an electrodynamic tether — essentially a fishing net made of stainless steel and aluminium. The craft then tried to "catch" space debris with the aim of dragging it into lower orbit, where it would eventually crash to Earth. The experiment failed.
- Ultra-thin nets: NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has funded research for a project that would deploy extremely thin nets designed to wrap around space debris and drag them down to Earth's atmosphere.
- "Laser brooms": Since the 1990s, space researchers have proposed using ground-based lasers to strategically heat one side of a piece of space debris, which would change its orbit so that it re-enters Earth's atmosphere sooner. Because the laser systems would be based on Earth, this strategy could prove to be relatively affordable.
- Drag sails: As a relatively passive way to accelerate the de-orbit of space junk, NASA and other space organizations have been exploring the viability of attaching sails to space junk that would help guide debris back to Earth. These sails could either be packed within new satellites, to be deployed once the satellites are no longer useful, or attached to existing space junk.
Illustration of Brane Craft Phase II, which would use thin nets to capture space debris.Siegfried Janson via NASA
But perhaps one of the most promising solutions for space debris is the ESA-funded ClearSpace-1 mission. Set to launch in 2025, ClearSpace-1 intends to be the first mission that successfully removes space debris from orbit. The goal is to launch a satellite into orbit and rendezvous with the upper stage of Europe's Vega launcher, which was left in space after a 2013 flight.
ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arm to capture space debrisClearSpace-1
Once the satellite meets up with the debris, it will try to capture the junk with a robotic arm and then perform a controlled atmospheric reentry. The task will be challenging, in part because space junk tumbles as it flies above Earth, meaning the satellite will have to match its movements in order to safely capture it.
Freethink recently spoke to the ClearSpace-1 team to get a better understanding of the mission and its challenges.
Catching the Most Dangerous Thing in Space Freethink via youtube.com
But not all space debris removal strategies center on technology. A 2020 paper published in PNAS argued that imposing taxes on each satellite in orbit would be the most effective way to clean up space. Called "orbital use fees," the plan would charge space organizations an annual fee of roughly $235,000 per each satellite that's in orbit. The fee would, in theory, incentivize nations and companies to declutter space over time.
The main hurdle of orbital-use fees is getting all of the world's space organizations to agree to such a plan. If they do, it could help eliminate the tragedy of the commons aspect of space debris and potentially quadruple the value of the space industry by 2040.
"The costly buildup of debris and satellites in low-Earth orbit is fundamentally a problem of incentives — satellite operators currently lack the incentives to factor into their launch decisions the collision risks their satellites impose on other operators," the researchers wrote. "Our analysis suggests that correcting these incentives, via an OUF, could have substantial economic benefits to the satellite industry, and failing to do so could have substantial and escalating economic costs."
No matter the solution, cleaning up space debris will be a complex and expensive challenge that requires a coordinated, international effort. If the global community wants to maintain modern technological infrastructure and venture deeper into space, conducting business as usual isn't an option.
"Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water," Jan Wörner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, said in a statement. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."
It uses radio waves to pinpoint items, even when they're hidden from view.
"Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception," says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib's team is pushing the technology a step further. "We're trying to give robots superhuman perception," he says.
The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view. The advance could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit.
The research will be presented in May at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The paper's lead author is Tara Boroushaki, a research assistant in the Signal Kinetics Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her MIT co-authors include Adib, who is the director of the Signal Kinetics Group; and Alberto Rodriguez, the Class of 1957 Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Other co-authors include Junshan Leng, a research engineer at Harvard University, and Ian Clester, a PhD student at Georgia Tech.Play video
As e-commerce continues to grow, warehouse work is still usually the domain of humans, not robots, despite sometimes-dangerous working conditions. That's in part because robots struggle to locate and grasp objects in such a crowded environment. "Perception and picking are two roadblocks in the industry today," says Rodriguez. Using optical vision alone, robots can't perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf — visible light waves, of course, don't pass through walls.
But radio waves can.
For decades, radio frequency (RF) identification has been used to track everything from library books to pets. RF identification systems have two main components: a reader and a tag. The tag is a tiny computer chip that gets attached to — or, in the case of pets, implanted in — the item to be tracked. The reader then emits an RF signal, which gets modulated by the tag and reflected back to the reader.
The reflected signal provides information about the location and identity of the tagged item. The technology has gained popularity in retail supply chains — Japan aims to use RF tracking for nearly all retail purchases in a matter of years. The researchers realized this profusion of RF could be a boon for robots, giving them another mode of perception.
"RF is such a different sensing modality than vision," says Rodriguez. "It would be a mistake not to explore what RF can do."
RF Grasp uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they're fully blocked from the camera's view. It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot's wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot's control algorithm. So, the robot is constantly collecting both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings. Integrating these two data streams into the robot's decision making was one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced.
"The robot has to decide, at each point in time, which of these streams is more important to think about," says Boroushaki. "It's not just eye-hand coordination, it's RF-eye-hand coordination. So, the problem gets very complicated."
The robot initiates the seek-and-pluck process by pinging the target object's RF tag for a sense of its whereabouts. "It starts by using RF to focus the attention of vision," says Adib. "Then you use vision to navigate fine maneuvers." The sequence is akin to hearing a siren from behind, then turning to look and get a clearer picture of the siren's source.
With its two complementary senses, RF Grasp zeroes in on the target object. As it gets closer and even starts manipulating the item, vision, which provides much finer detail than RF, dominates the robot's decision making.
RF Grasp proved its efficiency in a battery of tests. Compared to a similar robot equipped with only a camera, RF Grasp was able to pinpoint and grab its target object with about half as much total movement. Plus, RF Grasp displayed the unique ability to "declutter" its environment — removing packing materials and other obstacles in its way in order to access the target. Rodriguez says this demonstrates RF Grasp's "unfair advantage" over robots without penetrative RF sensing. "It has this guidance that other systems simply don't have."
RF Grasp could one day perform fulfilment in packed e-commerce warehouses. Its RF sensing could even instantly verify an item's identity without the need to manipulate the item, expose its barcode, then scan it. "RF has the potential to improve some of those limitations in industry, especially in perception and localization," says Rodriguez.
Adib also envisions potential home applications for the robot, like locating the right Allen wrench to assemble your Ikea chair. "Or you could imagine the robot finding lost items. It's like a super-Roomba that goes and retrieves my keys, wherever the heck I put them."
The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NTT DATA, Toppan, Toppan Forms, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).
A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.
- In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
- For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
- Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Vanishingly rare, but it exists: a patch of Minnesota forest untouched by the logger's axe.Credit: Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
The trees here tower a hundred feet above the forest floor — a ceiling as high as in prehistory and vanishingly rare today. That's because no logger's axe has ever touched these woods.
Pillars of the green cathedral
As you walk among the giant pillars of this green cathedral, you might think you're among the redwood trees of California. But those are 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away. No, these are the red and white pines of the "Lost Forty" in Minnesota. This is the largest single surviving patch of old-growth forest in the state and a fair stretch beyond. And it's all thanks to a surveying error.
Despite its name, the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is actually 144 acres (0.58 km2) in total. Still, it's an easily overlooked part of the Chippewa National Forest, which sprawls across 666,000 acres (2,700 km2) of north-central Minnesota. And that – being easily overlooked – is kind of this area's superpower.
In the 1820s, when European-Americans arrived in what is now Minnesota, they found about 20 million acres (80,000 km2) of prairie and 30 million acres (120,000 km2) of forest. Two centuries on, both ecosystems largely have been depleted. Fewer than 100,000 acres (400 km2) of natural prairie remain, and fewer than 18 million acres (73,000 km2) of forest.
And today's woods are different. They're not just younger; the original pine stands have been harvested and largely replaced with aspen and birch.
To the moon and back
White pine especially was in heavy demand during the lumbering boom that had Minnesota in its grip by the 1840s — a boom driven by an insatiable demand for building materials and supercharged by the steam that powered the saws and the rails that transported the goods to market.
The two decades flanking the turn of the 20th century were the golden age of lumbering in Minnesota. At any given time, 20,000 lumberjacks were at work in the woods, a further 20,000 in the sawmills, and another 20,000 in other lumber-related industries.
Production peaked in the year 1900, with over 2.3 billion board-feet (5.4 million m3) of lumber harvested from the state's forests. That was enough to build 600,000 two-story houses or a boardwalk nine feet (2.7 m) wide, circling Earth along the equator. From then on, yields declined, albeit slightly at first. By 1910, however, the first lumber operations started packing up and moving on to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
Minnesota's era of Big Timber symbolically came to an end with the closure of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1929. At that time, a century's worth of lumbering in Minnesota had produced 68 billion board-feet (160 million m3) of pine — enough to fill a line of boxcars all the way to the moon and halfway back again.
Now spool back a few decades. It's 1882, and the Public Land Survey is measuring, mapping, and quantifying the wilderness of northern Minnesota — and its as yet unharvested north woods. Setting out from the small settlement of Grand Rapids, Josias Redgate King leads a three-man survey team 40 miles north, into the backwoods.
Mapping error becomes cartographic fact
Their job, specifically, is to chart the area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. And they mess up. Perhaps it's the lousy November weather, the desolate swampy terrain, or both. But they make a serious mistake: their survey stretches Coddington Lake half a mile further northwest than it actually exists. As happens surprisingly often with mapping mistakes, the error becomes cartographic fact, undisputed for decades.
The area is marked on all maps as being under water and is therefore excluded from the considerations of logging companies. Only in 1960 is the area re-surveyed and the error corrected. But by then, as we have seen, Big Timber has moved on from the Gopher State.
Map of the "Lost Forty" SNA (top right). Bordering it on the south is the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Incidentally, Josias R. King was more than the mismapper of Coddington Lake. He has another, and rather better, claim to fame. When the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was the first state to offer volunteers to fight for the Union. At Fort Snelling, Mr. King rushed to the front of a line of men waiting to sign up.
So it was said, with some justification, that he was the first volunteer for the Union in all of the country. During the war, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. After, he returned to his civilian job, surveying. Because of his credentials as the Union's first volunteer, he was asked to pose for the face of the bronze soldier on the Civil War monument which was unveiled at St. Paul's Summit Park in 1903.
The loggers' loss is nature's gain
But back to the Lost Forty. The loggers' loss — hence the name — is actually nature's gain. The SNA's crowning glory, literally, is nearly 32 acres of designated old-growth red pine and white pine forest, in two stands, partially extending into the Chippewa National Forest proper. (In fact, much of the mismapped area seems to fall within the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area adjacent to the Lost Forty.) Old-growth forests represent less than 2 percent — and designated old-growth forests less than 0.25 percent — of all of Minnesota's forests.
The oldest pine trees in the Lost Forty are between 300 and 400 years old, close to their maximum natural life span, which is up to 500 years. Similar pines in other parts of the National Forest are harvested at between 80 and 150 years for pulp and lumber. As a result, the pines in the Lost Forty are not only higher than most of the surrounding woods but also bigger with a diameter of between 22 and 48 inches (55 to 122 cm). One of the biggest has a circumference of 115 inches (2.9 m).
With their craggy bark, massive trunks, and dizzying height, these trees look like the ancient beings they are. And they exist in a cluster the size of which is unique for the Midwest. There's nothing lost about these trees; in fact, it's rather the reverse. Perhaps the area should more precisely be called the "Last Forty."
At 52 feet, only half as high as an old-growth white pine: Josias R. King's likeness atop the Soldier's Monument in Summit Park, St. Paul.Credit: Library of Congress
Get a good look at the Lost Forty in this video of the local hiking trail.
Strange Maps #1084
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is working from home the ultimate liberation or the first step toward an even unhappier "new normal"?
- The Great Resignation is an idea proposed by Professor Anthony Klotz that predicts a large number of people leaving their jobs after the COVID pandemic ends and life returns to "normal."
- French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that by establishing what is and is not "normal," we are exerting a kind of power by making people behave a certain way.
- If working from home becomes the new normal, we must be careful that it doesn't give way to a new lifestyle that we hate even more than the office.
You wake up, you put on your work clothes, and you go to the office. You sit behind a desk, or in some designated space, and you work until the clock says it's over. This is what life is like for the vast majority of people. That is, until COVID came along. Then, everything changed.
Recently, an interesting idea has emerged called the "Great Resignation." This is a phenomenon that Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University has predicted will happen when people are asked, or told, to return to their offices. Klotz argues that, when we're all forced back into the old reality of the commute, a nine-to-five job, and cubicle life, there will be a "Great Resignation" among the workforce.
The argument is that in times of uncertainty and insecurity — like during a global pandemic — people behave conservatively. They'll stay put. But once things "normalize" again, we ought to expect employees to head for the exits.
But why? What has changed? Why has working from home made us so dissatisfied with our previously normal lives? Other than the comfort and convenience of working from home, one explanation might involve the concept of "normalization," a topic that fascinated French philosopher Michel Foucault.
The power of normal people
Foucault argued that we often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to be normal. We must dress the same way as everyone else. We must talk about the same things. We must work just like everyone else works. It's hugely important that things are normal. But, behind all of this, is a power dynamic that many of us are simply unaware of — and unconsciously unhappy about.
Someone, somewhere, must define what is "normal." It is then for the rest of us to bend over backward to fit into this narrow mold. To be powerful, then, is to say, "Do this, otherwise everyone will call you weird." Power is to hold the hoops everyone else must jump through. It's what Foucault describes as "normalizing power."
COVID was a wake-up call to the abnormality of modern work
Let's apply Focault's normalization concept to the modern workplace. Accepted wisdom had it that the best — and really, the only way — to work was in an office, usually downtown, far away from where we live. We were told this is where collaboration and creativity occur. Largely unchallenged, this "normal" functioned for decades, and we all obeyed.
We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work. We had to travel in clogged and joyless commutes. We had to eat ready-packaged lunches behind our too-small desks. We had to sit through meetings in "good posture" ergonomic chairs that wouldn't be out of place in the Spanish Inquisition. Then we had to travel back home in yet another clogged and joyless commute. And we did this day after day after day.
Then COVID came along and revealed just how artificial, unnecessary, and abnormal it all is. It's as if someone ripped a blindfold off of society. We have laptops, wi-fi, and 5G (at least when people aren't burning the towers down). Many of us were just as productive — if not more so — than during the "normal" pre-COVID era. We don't need to be in an office. We don't need to waste countless hours of our lives sitting in traffic.
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.
Even better, people got to spend more time with their families, enjoy long and restful breaks, and have space to pursue their hobbies. In short, people like not going to an office. And, as Klotz argues, when companies see this dissatisfaction — this Great Resignation — they're going to ask some revolutionary questions, like, "Do you want to come back full time? Work remotely? In-office three days a week? Four days? One day?"
The silver lining to the COVID pandemic is that it has made us re-examine what "normal" is.
Beware the new normal
Of course, the idea of a nine-to-five office job was not established by some moustache-twirling villain just to satisfy his sadistic whims. It came about because people thought that was the most effective and productive way to operate.
People do need direct human contact, and it's often easier and more productive to speak to a colleague next to you or walk across an office to ask for some help. Remote-working software like Zoom is indeed convenient, but can a company honestly say that it's as efficient as working in an office?
What's more, there's a particularly pernicious sting in what Foucault argued. It's something that ought to slow any would-be Great Resignation. This is the idea that there likely will always be some kind of normal.
While COVID has revealed the office for the normalized power play that it is, what's to say what the next "normal" will be? Let's say that working from home becomes the new normal. Will we be expected to attend Zoom meetings at any hour of the day or answer text messages at midnight? Might cameras be used to monitor our every movement? Might software check that we're working at the right pace and in the right way?
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.