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How is Michio Kaku regarded in the Physics world?

  1. Mar 3, 2014 #1
    As a Physics ignoramus, I'm curious. This guy was recently on The Daily Show: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-february-25-2014/michio-kaku. Talks about how we'll be able to upload (download?) memories to our brain. If you type his name into Youtube, you'll see that he has tons of highly viewed videos where he talks about science-fictiony topics. However I can't find any where he talks with much scientific or mathematical rigor. I wondered whether he might be some sort of pretend-Physicist, but I can't argue with the fact that he apparently graduated at the top of his class at Harvard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michio_Kaku#Early_life_and_education). Is he one of those overrated intellectuals like Richard Dawkins, i.e. a scientist who has an impressive resume but at some point decided to sell out to a mainstream audience by delivering soundbites that young people can regurgitate to pretend like they understand evolutionary biology and philosophy and theoretical physics?
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  3. Mar 3, 2014 #2
    He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard. He had a PhD from a top university like Berkeley. He's the author of several textbooks on QFT and string theory. He published over 70 papers.

    So there is no question about that he knows his science very well. I would certainly not dare to call him a "pretend physicist".

    I do question his ability to convey science to the general public.
  4. Mar 3, 2014 #3


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    I do not understand why you view popularising science as selling out. It's an important pursuit, to keep the public in touch with what's going on in science.
    Sure, some may do it better than others(and I'm not too sure if Kaku is doing it all that well), but surely you need educators and public outreach personalities to keep science from becoming the new occult - there's enough mistrust as it is.
  5. Mar 3, 2014 #4
    I don't think he has done anything of note recently (but then again, neither has Feynman!). I wouldn't listen to anything he says, but he definitely knows more about physics than I do. Anything that he says that is true can be found elsewhere without the BS that he often throws in.

    I really dislike Kaku, but when I am too quick to judge, I recall how Newton spent his later years.
  6. Mar 3, 2014 #5

    But I think bad science popularization creates more distrust than no popularization at all. I've heard enough laymen say things like "what they showed in that documentary can't be real, it goes against common science. All those scientists are idiots and shouldn't be trusted". I think that's a normal reaction to bad popularizations like "through the wormhole". However, it's not something that somebody will say after watching something divine like Feynman:


    Seriously, you just got a video of a guy sitting in a chair and it makes you excited to learn physics. It's much better than fancy graphics, but rubbish explanations you see most of the time.

    And really, how much science documentaries do you see where they attempt some dubious explanation of what magnetism or some other concept is. Feynman is again far superior with his answer that it can't be explained in familiar terms:

  7. Mar 3, 2014 #6
    OK, but Feynman has been dead for over 20 years, so he has an excuse.
  8. Mar 3, 2014 #7


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    Michio Kaku was a guest on C___ 2 C____ radio program on February 25, 2014 takling about neuroscience and physics. His talk included discussion about memory uploads/downloads, avatars, smart pills, implanted chips to give quasi-telepathic abilities to control devices, dreams, MRI devices that will take a simplistic picture ( and apparantly can already ) of what you are thinkng whether awake or asleep.

    This was all futuristic stuff which lends itself to the program and its audience. Michau has no qualms about lending his voice to the program, as some would consider the whole radio station as complete hogwash, especially with some of its guests. As a PR tool for a guest, the radio station does complete that task.

    From what I know, the smart pill might not be an actual product that comes out. But oxytocin and certain monetary decisions has been investigated in regards to generosity. Brain chemistry does indeed influence how we act.

    Kaku seems to take a little bit of true information and expand on it too easily. Entertaining and interesting for the public.
  9. Mar 3, 2014 #8
    I honestly thought Michio Kaku was a total non-scientist who just liked big ideas. Ever since I saw him championing the idea of a space elevator, I passed him off as a quack.

    If he's been through those top institutions and has various PhDs etc, I guess he deserves a fair amount of credit. He'll know more about physics than I do, that's for sure. The space elevator thing really does chop off a lot of my respect though.

    (Not wanting to derail this into a debate on a new topic, but for those who may be questioning the space elevator thing - Kaku claims carbon nanotechnology means we have a material strong enough to create and suspend an elevator cable from a space station all the way to a base on earth. He forgets the fact that anything at a lower altitude than that of the space station in geosynchronous orbit will not be going fast enough to sustain its own orbit, and hence will accelerate towards the ground. The space station can't 'hold' the cable in place because it's in freefall, so the weight of the cable will be the only force acting on the space station. Hence the current space elevator idea will just result in the space station being pulled to earth by the weight of the cable. The only possible solution is to have a rigid elevator firmly based on earth. Which is also obviously ridiculous because the structure would have to be 36'000km tall. There may also be other workarounds, but going by what Kaku had to say, my respect for his intuition has been greatly reduced.)
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2014
  10. Mar 3, 2014 #9


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    It seems you've misunderstood how it's supposed to work. Have a read through this feasibility studies for a start, then reconsider lambasting Kaku(well, at least for this particular bit):


    The obstacle is not in the physical implausibility of the idea, but in the lack of the technology to produce carbon nanotube material on large enough scale.
  11. Mar 3, 2014 #10
    We certainly can agree that there are a lot of wannabe-intellectuals who are celebrities in the internet culture, as well as a lot of people with the title Doctor or Professor or Scientist who technically deserve those titles but are mediocre or subpar at what they do and yet are able to appear to ordinary people as accomplished experts in their fields.

    Like this guy:


    Dr. Drew Pinsky of Celebrity Rehab and a lot of other shows is an actual M.D. and Addiction Specialist. However, my impression after comparing him to other psychiatrists is that he's far less smart and is only convincing to people because he's good-looking and eloquent.

    I was just saying what my initial impression of Michio Kaku was, based off popular videos that I had seen. Now I see that he's really a smart guy who I should listen to.
  12. Mar 3, 2014 #11


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    You get what you pay for. If you can't learn the physics properly from a textbook and you settle for popular accounts (nothing wrong with that of course) then you'll have to accept the cheap quality of physics that comes with it. Don't blame Michio Kaku for not being able to successfully convey general relativity or QFT to the public when he isn't allowed to use any formal apparatus whatsoever. Criticizing the man on a forum is quite sad really, especially given that most of you have admitted you don't even know as much as physics as him.
  13. Mar 3, 2014 #12

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    There is no question about that he knows his HEP physics very well. That does not mean he knows his science very well. He's made a number of embarrassing and glaring mistakes in fields outside of HEP physics on his numerous TV appearances.

    I'm hoping that Neil deGrasse Tyson does a much better job as the host of the soon to appear remake of Cosmos.
  14. Mar 3, 2014 #13
    Yes, fair enough.
  15. Mar 3, 2014 #14
    I don't see how it's sad. I don't think anybody is questioning his physics knowledge at this stage, just his teaching abilities. You seem to be saying you can't question the teaching abilities of your prof or teacher if you don't know as much physics as him. That's a bit of a weird statement.

    And I've refered to Feynman in this thread, and I'll do it again. He was able to convey physics in a correct and understandable way to the layman. Kaku doesn't seem to have this ability in my opinion.

    Considering that a lot of theoretical physics and science is actually paid with the money of the people, I think it's fair that some people try to explain back to the people what they're doing with that money. Just saying "You can't understand until you have the formal apparatus" creates a lot of distrust in the eyes of the public.
  16. Mar 3, 2014 #15


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    So if Dr. Drew is famous because he's good looking, is Kaku famous because of his hair? 65% serious question.
  17. Mar 3, 2014 #16


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    I'm both excited and nervous about this. I love Carl Sagan, and he set the bar pretty high with the original.
  18. Mar 3, 2014 #17
    I think that looks and speaking ability are most important in convincing people that you're smart. Richard Dawkins seems like such a convincing guy because he has that handsome scientist look to him and that crisp English accent (that almost seems fake).
  19. Mar 3, 2014 #18


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    You're comparing apples to oranges. Teaching in a classroom is a completely different art. Your goal is to make sure students properly understand the subtleties of the underlying physics. You're not aiming to give a completely hand-wavy and watered down exposition of a complicated physical theory. Physics popularization nowadays is totally different from what it used to be in the time of Faraday when public demonstrations could arguably be called teaching. Feynman's Cornell lectures would be more aligned with popular expositions that hinge on teaching.

    EDIT: Also there are physics popularizations in which Daniel Kleppner and Walter Lewin try to explain things like BECs and the double-slit experiment. They don't explain it perfectly by any means and the lack of rigor in their explanations owes to inaccurate accounts of the underlying physics. Are you going to claim Kleppner and Lewin aren't good physics teachers? Michio Kaku teaches physics at CUNY and I have a friend who's taken his classes and has no problem with his teaching.

    Even Feynman's QED lectures were completely innocuous. He wasn't aiming to explain the complicated aspects of QED. He stuck to the basics that can be explained with minimal theoretical apparatus. You're comparing two completely different levels of exposition. Most of his other lectures were on classical mechanics and classical electromagnetism. These are much easier to explain at a basic level to laymen than more advanced theories-of course there are a plethora of aspects of even classical mechanics that cannot be explained to laymen without some sophisticated machinery such as gyroscopic precession but there are some BBC documentaries that do these things justice.

    This does nothing to change the fact that physics is extremely hard to explain without a formal apparatus. In Faraday's time the public could be given simple demonstrations of electromagnetic inductance using ordinary permanent magnets and solenoids and more importantly the formal apparatus was also simple-it doesn't take much effort to teach someone Lenz's law. You can show someone using magnetic fields and interferometry that spinors flip sign after a 360 degree rotation but actually explaining why this happens is next to impossible without formal apparatus so it's ridiculous to impose such pressure on the people partaking in physics popularization. You know what you're getting and you settle for hand-wavy explanations.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2014
  20. Mar 3, 2014 #19


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    Even genii have flaws and the Media are often responsible for playing on this. I respect Feynman a lot but I think his success in not 'offending' PF types could be partly due to the different attitude that the media had in those days. He would not have given some of todays presenters and easy time if they had tried to treat him as they all do these days. Really grumpy sod when out of sorts, I believe.
    Even Sagan could be a bit too 'Brian Cox' for my liking at times.
  21. Mar 3, 2014 #20


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    There have been numerous threads on this forum slamming Kaku for the nonsense that he spouts to make money. Yes, he WAS a serious scientist but that stopped some 20 years ago. Now he's a fantastical popularizer of the worst sort.
  22. Mar 3, 2014 #21
    Not at all. I remember learning in HS chemistry about the uncertainty principle without knowing any details of QM or even linear algebra. I doubt the teacher would be trying to teach us the subtleties of the underlying physics.

    Now that I remember, our HS teachers did a lot of quite advanced physics in a watered down way in order to get us interested in it. A good teacher should be able to motivate advanced science to laymen, and I personally know quite some people who are able to do this. I don't think Kaku is able to do it.

    Well, it's their job to explain us the best they can. So if the audience is not satisfied, then we have the right to criticize them. I'm fully aware of how difficult it is, but Kaku goes way out of line sometimes.

    Also, you should be aware of how your words sound to laymen. For example, modern art is (in my country at least) funded by the government. I don't think I would buy it if some artist came up to me and said "oh, it's too difficult to explain art to the general public". Let's try to actually create more passion for science and let's not put people off with "it's too difficult".
  23. Mar 3, 2014 #22


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    There are a lot of people jumping on the bandwaggon without knowing even the slightest how hard it is to actually convey complicated physics to complete laymen.

    Although in the words of Julian Schwinger with regards to Feynman diagrams, "Feynman brought quantum field theory to the masses," so he did go above and beyond when it came to popularization :wink:
  24. Mar 3, 2014 #23
    Sounds a lot like "you shouldn't criticize the politicians because you don't know the slightest how hard their job is". I think this kind of reasoning is flawed.

    And for the record, I do know the challenges. I occasionally talk in high schools trying to convince people to go into mathematics. And I have taught some classes in high school for a month or two (for free). If anybody saw me doing these things and would have criticized me, then I for sure won't respond with 'You know how difficult this job is' or 'you don't have the formal apparatus so you can't say anything negative'.
  25. Mar 3, 2014 #24


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    Ok. So what would you have the popularizers do? How do you suppose they "successfully" explain general relativity to complete laymen? I'm all ears.
  26. Mar 3, 2014 #25
    You know very well that I don't know general relativity at all, so you know I can't answer that. If you would ask about math on the other hand :tongue:

    My point is that you don't need to be an expert in the field in order to criticize science popularizers. Just like you don't have to be a top politician in order to criticize Obama.

    I know when I like something and when I don't. And I don't like most of what Kaku does. And maybe I'm quite wrong and maybe Kaku is the best you could possibly popularize science, but I kind of doubt it.

    Here is an example of a brilliant popularization of advanced mathematics:


    I don't quite believe you can't do something like this for relativity.
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