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March 12, 2014 | By:  Sci Bytes
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SciBytes vs. Michio Kaku

Last fall, Michio Kaku, the famous physicist, television personality, and author of books like Physics of the Impossible, came to a local college as part of a speaker series. I was able to attend both of the two speaking sessions he gave. The first was scheduled with a question-and-answer format; however, Dr. Kaku bent each question so that it fit one of his prepared speeches. But you can’t really fault the man for that. He has to field questions about all branches of science and technology—even the occasional one on religion. The content of his speeches though, was immediately off-putting. Each tired, clichéd, and obviously pre-prepared response fed my growing sense of disillusionment and emptiness about science. Which was, I think, the exact opposite of what Dr. Kaku, a self-proclaimed “messenger of science”, intended. However, he perfectly illustrated how difficult it is to mediate the two conflicting halves of science journalism.

In his several speeches, Dr. Kaku ignored some of the most fundamental rules of science, the things that they teach fifth-grade students who don’t even pick out their own clothes. Over and over again he made guarantees that certain technologies would show up in a decade or two, giving us exact years to expect them by. He didn’t explain how or why they would come about, he just told us they would be there. Science is built on a foundation of empirical evidence, something Dr. Kaku didn’t provide. I’m sure he some sort of evidence to back up his claims, but when he didn’t mention any, his arguments started to sound like mystical hand-waving. When I left, I didn’t have any more knowledge about the current state of science; I only had a jumble of ideas that may or may not come to fruition decades down the line. His presentation, at times, turned to a clichéd, late-afternoon-sitcom sort of feel. Crude jokes, like saying artificial intelligence is “only as smart as a cockroach…a retarded cockroach”, and mawkish anecdotes about interaction with fans filled his speeches. The way he talked was the same way that people talk when they’re trying to get you to pay too much for some low-quality product. Dr. Kaku seemed like a used-car salesman, exaggerating all of the unrealistic potentials of his topic in a way that rang entirely false.

I was filled with even more despair when Dr. Kaku talked about his past. The son of poor Japanese immigrants, he was a scientific phenom, building a particle accelerator in his parent’s garage and working with Edward Teller before he graduated high school. Harvard- and Berkley-educated, he was a pioneer of string-field theory. But now he’s turned into a quote writer. One of his favorite aphorisms is, “The mind of God that Einstein chased after for the last 30 years of his life—the mind of God is cosmic music resonating through 11-dimensional hyperspace.” Read that sentence again. Is there anything in it that tells you more about science than you knew before? Could you explain to someone else what he is trying to say?

Dr. Kaku isn’t teaching anyone about science. He’s writing low-quality poetry about scientific topics. But if Michio Kaku, a paragon of scientific journalism, is doing it wrong, what is the right way to go? What’s the point of writing about science at all? Nobody tries to sell books about farming or banking to the lay reader, so why science? Shouldn’t we just leave it to the professionals—the scientists themselves? After the understated end to the second presentation, these questions kept bouncing around in my head. As an active member of the science journalism community, finding answers became essential to understanding where I would go with SciBytes. People like Dr. Kaku and New York Science Times writer Natalie Angier say that they’re trying to inspire people to get involved in science. However, few adults will be able to quit their job and undertake the hundred-thousand-dollar, years-long science education necessary to actually act upon these inspirations. Any kid that gets into science hoping to hear the mind of God resonating through 11-dimensional hyperspace is going to figure out pretty soon that Introductory Chemistry isn’t quite so artistic. Science isn’t about futile fancy and glittering generalities. That’s what literature and music and painting—all very worthwhile endeavors—are for. Science is important because it teaches us about the world that we live in. Sure, no one needs to know what a Golgi apparatus is, but isn’t it great to know the inner workings of your body as well as you know the back of your hand?

Real science journalism doesn’t pander to the masses; it contains a solid dose of content. Publications like HowStuffWorks and Scientific American, or anything Brian Greene is involved in, give you a new way to look at things that you used to just take for granted. Even if you never do anything tangible with it, knowing about science is just as inspiring as any play or symphony can be. Rather than sensationalize the facts to un-realistic proportions, it is our duty as science writers to present science as it is in its natural form.

If you spend some time around Dr. Kaku, you’ll notice that he brings up the same things over and over again, usually phrasing them the exact same way. One of his favorite phrases is that “the word ‘computer’ will have disappeared from the English language by the year 2020.” The thought is that computers and microchips will become so advanced and ubiquitous that every object will be a computer: light switches, walls, chairs, toilets, et cetera. At the end of the night, Dr. Kaku had planned to show us a video of the world of the future; however, his projector glitched, leaving him stumbling for something to say. The irony was as obvious as a slap in the face: how can we hope to be surrounded by computers in just six years when we can’t get a simple projection machine to work when we need it? This unintentional lesson in realism was by far the most important thing Dr. Kaku taught us that night.

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