Time Pretzels, Cosmic Music, and the Theory of Everything

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.

Will humans ever figure out how to time travel? Or discover an equation that explains the universe? The theoretical physicist describes a reality that’s stranger than the science fiction he loved as a kid.

Malcolm Gladwell live | How to re-examine everything you know

Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET today as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to your calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo


Keep reading Show less

Ever wonder how LSD works? An answer has been discovered.

UNC School of Medicine researchers identified the amino acid responsible for the trip.

Credit: Motortion Films / Shutterstock
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at UNC's School of Medicine have discovered the protein responsible for LSD's psychedelic effects.
  • A single amino acid—part of the protein, Gαq—activates the mind-bending experience.
  • The researchers hope this identification helps shape depression treatment.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists uncover the brain circuitry that causes mysterious dissociative experiences

A team of researchers have discovered the brain rhythmic activity that can split us from reality.

Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have identified the key rhythmic brain activity that triggers a bizarre experience called dissociation in which people can feel detached from their identity and environment.
  • This phenomena is experienced by about 2 percent to 10 percent of the population. Nearly 3 out of 4 individuals who have experienced a traumatic event will slip into a dissociative state either during the event or sometime after.
  • The findings implicate a specific protein in a certain set of cells as key to the feeling of dissociation, and it could lead to better-targeted therapies for conditions in which dissociation can occur.
Keep reading Show less

There are 5 eras in the universe's lifecycle. Right now, we're in the second era.

Astronomers find these five chapters to be a handy way of conceiving the universe's incredibly long lifespan.

Image source: Pablo Carlos Budassi
Surprising Science
  • We're in the middle, or thereabouts, of the universe's Stelliferous era.
  • If you think there's a lot going on out there now, the first era's drama makes things these days look pretty calm.
  • Scientists attempt to understand the past and present by bringing together the last couple of centuries' major schools of thought.
Keep reading Show less

To be a great innovator, learn to embrace and thrive in uncertainty

Innovators don't ignore risk; they are just better able to analyze it in uncertain situations.

David McNew/Getty Images
Personal Growth
Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was America's first female self-made millionaire.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast