This is the final chat in the series. This week it's Michio Kaku, famed American theoretical physicist and science populariser who will be asking if his grandchildren will live forever.
Hi. I'm in New York, awaiting your questions.
Michio you've recently just been to the UK on a book tour. How did your flight compare to the one that you talk about taking in your article? By that I mean do you think the food will have gotten better - will airline food will remain the butt of jokes for the next 100 years?
But it took 7 hours to cross the Atlantic. If we commercialize the Hyper X jet-rocket, we may eventually be able to take a commercial flight into outer space, within a matter of minutes. The key is cost. So far, rockets to outer space are extremely expensive, in the order of $10,000 per pound of payload. But eventually, with the X-33 Venture Star and the Hyper X, we hope to bring down the cost of space travel by a factor of at least 100.
By 2020 to 2030, we may begin the first commercial flights to space, if not earlier. Already, several commercial enterprises have invested heavily in reusable launch vehicles (RLV's) which they hope will send commercial (non-human) payloads into space very soon. Commercial flights with humans may start after that.
Michio, I have a question here about space actually.
Who wants to go to outer space, all we need to do is better the earth isn't it?
In some sense, yes. We certainly have enough problems here! Taxpayers' money should be spent making the earth a better place. But commercial enterprises will spend their money on ventures without bleeding the public, and they see space travel as a commercial possibility.
I was fascinated by your take on 2D space in your book 'Hyperspace'. Did you read the Victorian novel 'Flatland'?
Yes, I've read Flatland. Also, Sphereland (a more modern adaptation of the Victorian classic). Flatland not only opened people's minds to the possibility of other dimensions, it was also a political satire, poking fun at people's prejudices. Today, many of the world's top physicists believe that we are the Flatlanders!
Do you hold out much hope for the human race? It has been said that we may be the first species to monitor our own extinction...
Yes, the dinosaurs certainly did not understand what was happening to them! I like to believe that we are making the transition from a Type 0 to a Type I civililzation (a planetary one). This transition is a very dangerous one. In space, perhaps thousands of intelligent species did not make the transition. Our galaxy may be littered with the corpses of Type 0 civilizations (like ours) who never made the transition to a peaceful planetary Type I civilization.
We are perhaps 100 years away from becoming a Type I civilization. So I see hope and doom at the same time. Hope that we are building the infrastructure (e.g. the internet), language (English), economics (e.g. NAFTA, European Union) of a Type I civilization in our life time, while at the same time heating up our planet, causing the South Pole to gradually break up, Alaska to begin thawing out, and the glaciers to recede. It's a race against time!
Michio: that sounds very like some of the ideas put forward by Julian May in a series of sci-fi books set around a 'galatic milieu'. However, she factors in a 'great intervention' - a time when other intelligent alien species wade in to help us out.
Unfortunately, I don't think alien civilizations are going to come to our rescue! It's up to us to stop the environmental damage to our planet. But if we ever make it to Type II status (e.g. a stellar civilization controling the power of a star) then we will become immortal, and no physical disaster can destroy us.
What effects do you see space travel for the masses as having on our society?
Space travel, for many decades, will be a secondary issue for most people. Within the next few decades, it will still be prohibitively expensive for most people. However, I see prices dropping drastically around 2020 to 2030. But, on a much longer term (e.g. centuries) it's wise to think about creating a new homeland for humans, only because the earth is a dangerous place to live!
I agree with the late Carl Sagan, who said that, as a precautionary measure, we should think about being a two-planet species! This is no excuse to mess up the earth. It's only a warning that, given time, the earth will become a dangerous place to live.
So what do you think about experimentation on astranauts - sleeping longer in space to prolong life and looks, while time on earth passes by - just like animals in winter when they sleep and get up in spring time. What is your conclusion on that one?
Sleeping in space cannot prolong the life span. But hibernation might be useful for long distance travel to the stars. At present, suspended animation (e.g. freezing a human) has problems, since ice crystals form and break up our cells. Thus, all those Hollywood celebrities who will freeze their bodies after death will not be revived when their bodies are thawed out! The only way to prolong the human life span, as I see it, is:
I think that our children will use a combination of these therapies to perhaps prolong their life span. The key point is that each of these methods can give us solid, reproducible results. This is not science fiction anymore.
- growing new organs, a possibility within 10 to 20 years, depending on the organ
- harnessing our age genes, so they replicate forever
- reducing oxidation via anti-oxidants
- hormone therapy (e.g. estrogen) combined with anti-cancer therapies
So you don't think there is ever hope of us becoming more energy-based entities perhaps in a few thousand years?
Already, we can double the life span of many animals. On a scale of thousands of years, many things are possible... including transfering our consciousness into other entities. However, as a scientist I try to keep my predictions to mainly this century!
Michio, with genetic manipulation and erradication of diseases like cancer - does this mean we'll live forever? And if so does this mean that humans will be able to gain a greater wisdom into the nature of reality and therefore act on this accordingly with a new moral standard of goodness?
Predictions for the next thousand years rely mainly on the laws of physics. Within 40 to 50 years, I believe that most forms of cancer will be curable. We are now attacking cancer at the molecular level, and can actually cure many cancers in a petri dish (but not a live hujman!) As we cure disease, grow organs as they wear out, extend the lifespan of individual cells beyond the Hayflick limit, re-invigorate our cells with anti-oxidants and hormones, then it is certainly a possibility that we will live for a very long time.
Then, we will have social problems to deal with! Population is only indirectly a problem. The population of Europe, for example, is actually collapsing. Sweden, Germany, Italy, Japan, Singapore, all have disasterously falling birth rates. The world's greatest contraceptive is prosperity. Thus, as we have fewer and fewer kids, living longer may help to stabilize our population a bit! Population will double by 2100, but mainly in the third world. But even then, prosperity will begin to kick in, and their population, too, will begin to level off.
The real problem with living very long lives is that our society may stagnate. Young people are the ones with the creativity and energy to keep society going. Hence, I would suggest that, if we can stop the aging process, we do so when people hit 30, or so. That way, people can "cruise" at age 30 for many decades, and keep their vitality and energy alive. This way, society will not stagnate.
Remember, this is all speculation, but speculation based on solid, reproducable results in the lab, mainly within the last 3 years. So I remain an optimist. Evolution has given us a brain which is always pessimistic about the future. This was helpful for our evolution. Our ancestors which had too rosy an outlook did not survive. Our ancestors were, in the main, pessimistic and perpetually wary.
Do you have any personal ideas on how people can prolong their life in a more natural way? Is there any particular lifestyle that you may follow to prolong your own life and are you worried that you personally may not live to see these scientific breakthroughs which may mean extensively prolonged lives?
Unfortunately, I don't see that we can prolong our life span by using the hundreds of "cures" in the local supermarket. Most of them are for vitamins. One way to add perhaps 10-15 years to your life is to stop smoking, eat less fat, exercise better, drink a bit of alcohol, take an aspirin a day, take some vitamine E and C, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. However, this does not make headlines! To prolong our life spans beyond that requires altering our genes. And growing new organs.
Remember, there are animals which are actually "immortal." Sharks, flounders, alligators, all have no finite life span. In the zoo, they live forever. This means that no human has ever been able to see these creatures die of old age. Without disease or accidents, these creatures apparently live "forever" i.e. they have no known lifespan. This means that, if we can alter our genes a bit, we too might be able to extend our life span. As I mentioned, we can already double the life span of animals in the lab, by:
These indisputable facts lead us to believe that, by changing our genes a bit, and by taking anti-oxidants (and by growing new organs as they wear out) we too may be able to double our life span.
- breeding them selectively
- reducing their calorific intake
What about peoples desire to reproduce? Surely if we are immortal this will be denied to us?
As we get more prosperous and live longer, our will to reproduce also weakens a bit. Hence, the collapse of the population growth rates in Europe. Also, in the U.S., the growth rate among native-born Americans is also negative. The only reason why the U.S. keeps on growing is because of immigration.
However, in the future, although the desire to reproduce will be less, we will also live longer, so the population will not collapse, as it is now. In Japan, it is almost a national pastime to calculate when the Japanese race will disappear because the birthrate is so small. The UN estimates that the world population will double to 11 billion by 2100. But the problem then is not the amount of available food but the distribution of food. Hence, I don't see a collapse of civilization if we live longer.
Do you think that traits such as stupidity, greed, aggression or idleness come about as products of experience or will they be identifiable and thereby removable ?
Our personalities are pretty much the same over a 100,000 year period. Hence, I think greed, anger, jealousy, were good for our evolution during that 100,000 year time. However, now we have nuclear weapons and the ability to reshape life. We will have the power of a Greek god, with the emotions of an ape. This, of course, creates problems! How can this be resolved?
My answer is that we must have democratic debate about the power of this technology. This means using the internet and other telecommunications outlets to channel our democratic ideas into social change. Wisdom is not for free. Wisdom, in modern civilization, comes from democratic debate.
Thus, I think we will continue to have many backward emotions and feelings in the 21st century, but I hope that democratic debate will temper these emotions (which arose in the forest thousand of years ago) into wise channels. However, personality may also be partially driven by our genes.
If life will be prolonged and the birthrate drops as a result, do you think there is a possibility that having children will become an elitist thing? If genetic tampering is available perhaps only the rich or intellectually brilliant will 'qualify' for reproduction. Do you see any danger in this happening?
There is certainly a danger that elites will try to use this technolgy to preserve their power. However, I also realize that the cost of these technologies is falling rapidly, and the real problem is that they may become too widespread and illegal, rather than too rare!
For example, professors built the atomic and H bombs. To build an atomic or H bomb requires billions of dollars. But biotechnology only costs tens of thousands of dollars. For example, cloning of a human may be done within 5 years by a private firm with only $50,000 (say) of investment. Thus, cloning will be banned, for the most part, but it will be difficult to ban completely. Rich people will be able to avoid the ban, set up a secret lab and clone themselves (in order to give their money to themselves as children!)
But for the most part, cloning will be minor. My worry is that the technology is so cheap that "designer children" will be difficult to regulate. It's always possible that some back-door genetics lab in some basement will offer designer children for a price, and parents may be willing to pay that price to have pretty children. So the real danger, I feel, is not that the technology is so expensive that only the elites will use it. My fear is that the costs will be so low, the technology so widespread, that even the average parent may be tempted to tinker with the genes of their children for purely cosmetic and silly reasons.
Nuclear technology was very expensive, and hence very few nations have the bomb. But biotechnology can be harnessed even by very poor nations, and individuals, so policing this technology may pose a problem!
You say that you would like to know the theory of everything - would you know it if it was given to you?
Good question! I think that within my lifetime, we will have the theory of everything. However, its mathematics may be so alien and so bizarre that we might not be able to recognize it. The key is that it must reproduce the quarks, electrons, photons, etc. that we see aound us.
Being pretty is not the only criterion for a theory of everything. It must also explain the universe of quarks and electrons that we see everywhere. We have so much data on atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, etc. that a theory of everything must explain a vast amount of data. Hence, I feel that a theory of everything will be quite unusual, but must pass the test of explaining the universe that we see around us.
For example, if you gave Einstein's theory of relativity to someone during the Middle Ages, they would not have the slightest understanding of the theory. Likewise, there is always the danger that the true theory of everything may be quite beyond our mathematics. But I feel confident (as do scores of other physicists) that superstring theory is the theory of everything. The fact that strings and membranes vibrate in 10 and 11 dimensions causes some people to raise their eyebrows, but so far the theory has passed every challenge.
The road to the theory of everything is littered with the corpses of thousands of failed attempts. So far, only one has survived all the challenges. This means that, like the Flatlanders, WE might be the Flatlanders in a universe of 10 dimensions.
We just have time for a final question Michio, which has been echoed by quite a number of our guests today and it is:
Do you think we will ever be able to enter and explore other dimensions?
Yes. But not for thousands of years! Only a Type II or III civilization has the energy to open holes in space and time. Maybe our descendants, or maybe alien life in space have this power, but it's not for us! However, this may be the only hope if we want to to conquer the galaxy, or evade the Heat Death that awaits the universe.
Perhaps, when the universe dies trillions of years from now, intelligent life wil use the theory to escape the final death of the universe, and get on a "lifeboat" which will take them to another universe. So the unified field theory, instead of being a curiosity, may eventually be the salvation of all intelligent life in the universe!
Michio, thanks a lot for coming along today.
It's been my pleasure!
I hope that you've answered a lot of people's questions. At least you will have encouraged some thought, which in my mind is always a good thing.
They can alway e-mail me at
I hope everyone has enjoyed the Chronicle of the Future. Michio, what's the url for your web site again?
Everyone, I recently was having a look around Michio's site. Lots more amazing information.