A Conversation with Dr. Michio Kaku, Physicist; Co-founder of String Field Theory; Author; Host of the radio programs Exploration and Science Fantastic and Dr. Jedidah Isler, Astrophysicist; Founder, Executive Producer, and Host, Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM.
In the new film entitled Hidden Figures we can see the amazing true story about the three ‘human super computers’, women of African American descent whose major accomplishments in the field of space explorations have remained in the shadows until recently. In celebration of the movie’s spirit, IBM wanted to bring into the limelight all that’s been hidden in the corners and expose the magnificent STEM luminaries who’ve had amazing accomplishments in their respective fields and help the future generations get more included. Hidden Figures opens in theaters on January 6th 2017 and just like the movie, these stories will inspire and uplift you.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dr. Michio Kaku is a respectable theoretical physicist, an acclaimed public speaker, bestselling author, renowned futurist, and popularizer of science. A co-founder of String Field Theory, Dr. Michio continues Einstein’s quest to bond the 4 fundamental forces of nature into a one, united theory of everything. She is the author of several New York Times bestselling books, and has participated in a number of scientific programs for bug TV networks. His contributions to respectable global news programs are never-ending.
On the world event that sparked his pursuit of science
“When I was eight years old, something happened that changed my life. Everybody was talking about the fact that Albert Einstein had just died, and on the evening news they flashed a picture of his desk with a manuscript on it, with the caption, ‘Unfinished manuscript from the greatest scientist of our time.’ I was fascinated—what could the greatest scientist not finish? Maybe I could be part of the effort. Later I found out it was the Unified Field Theory—an equation about one-inch long that would allow him to ‘read the mind of God.’ I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do for a living: complete that book.’ Today, I’m one of the pioneers of String Theory, which posits that each subatomic particle is a note on a tiny string. Physics is therefore the laws of harmony of strings. Chemistry is the melodies one can play on interacting strings, the universe is a symphony of strings, and the ‘mind of God,’ which Einstein searched for, is cosmic music resonating through the universe. We think that’s the theory that eluded Einstein for the last 30 years of his life.
On the importance of encouragement and role models
“My father was a gardener, my mother was a maid, and during World War II they were locked up in a California relocation camp from 1942 to 1946. But afterward my parents made sure we would have the best education they could cobble together. I decided I wanted to become a scientist, and I figured that, on the basis of my own initiative and hard work, I could make something of myself.
“I actually played with antimatter [material composed on antiparticles, which have the same mass as a particle or ordinary matter but opposite charges] in my high school. When I had to procure copper wire and transformer steel for the magnetic field I was assembling, it helped that I grew up in Palo Alto during the beginnings of Silicon Valley. I got to know a physicist at a high-tech company, and had a summer job where my boss was the person who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for essentially inventing the MRI machine. I think that role models are very important. Albert Einstein was my first role model. By following his path, I knew that I had to do graduate work, get a Ph.D., and become a professor. It gave me a timeline.
On engaging the public and attracting talent in the STEM fields
“It’s important to realize that science is the engine of prosperity and the origin of wealth in society. For example, the steam engine gave us the Industrial Revolution of machines and mass production. Electricity gave us television and light bulbs, and lit up our cities. Then came high tech: computers, lasers, the space program. Each discovery gave us tremendous wealth, and we have to honor that.
“I broadcast every week to 100 radio stations across the U.S., and I always ask scientists, ‘When you were young, what happened?’ And they usually say that around the age of ten, they got a chemistry set or a microscope, or visited the planetarium. Many remember a high school teacher or class. We need to be inspired, as millions of people were around the world when Russia launched Sputnik in 1957. At that time, it became our patriotic duty to become an engineer, a chemist, a physicist. People say to me, ‘Why should we do science? We’ve discovered all these wonders—it’s done.’ And I tell them that science allows you to predict the future.
“My favorite Einstein quote is, ‘If a theory cannot be explained to a child, the theory is probably useless,’ meaning that all great theories have a picture and a principle that children can understand. The rest is mathematics—bookkeeping, basically. Think about the theory of relativity, which is based on clocks, meter sticks, trampolines—things children can understand. The mathematics requires graduate-level textbooks, but the principle is simple. That’s what I do when I engage the public. We physicists engage in ‘shop talk,’ using lots of jargon, but behind everything there’s a beautiful, elegant picture. String Theory has a metaphor: tiny vibrating strings, each vibration being a subatomic particle.”
On Dr. Jedidah Isler and the importance of diversity in STEM
“What stands out about Dr. Isler is that, against overwhelming odds, she succeeded in a very difficult, competitive field. Being a minority within a minority, by sheer force of her personality and ambition, she was able to overcome a series of hurdles that could have been discouraging. Furthermore, she has used that knowledge to help others who might be disadvantaged, which is truly commendable.
“People look at me and can say, ‘If he can do it, I can, too.’ The magic formula is hard work and dedication, not being born a genius. I knew kids in high school who were a lot smarter than I was, but they didn’t apply themselves. Just because you sprint in the early years doesn’t mean you’re going to make it to the finish line. That’s when you need mentoring and encouragement, to get you through the hard times.
“We have to show people that scientists can come from all cultures. If you look at the history of science, Chinese and Islamic scientists were way ahead. In the year 1500, for example, Europe was an importer of science, while the Chinese invented gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press. The Islamic countries had algebra, which is variant of an Arabic word. Science is for everyone. With hard work, a little bit of inspiration and luck, you, too, can become a scientist and change history.”
An award-winning astrophysicist, Dr. Jedidah Isler, is a nationally renowned speaker who’s imposed herself as a supporter of an inclusive STEM enterprise through her cooperation with schools, museums, and non-profit organizations across the States. Dr. Isler is the founder of a monthly web series, Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM. She was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Yale University in 2014.
On what launched her interest in astrophysics as a child
“I thought the night sky was beautiful. It was really simple. The sky was mesmerizing and I couldn’t get enough of it as a child. I’d be thinking, ‘This is the same sky that every person who has lived on Earth has seen throughout history.’ It gave me a sense of connection to what has happened on the planet, but it also gave me a sense of wonder, mystery, and excitement. Once I realized there was a career that would allow me to feed that interest, I was off to the races.”
On overcoming obstacles in pursuing her career in astrophysics
“Astronomy degrees are only offered at a limited number of schools across the country, so I majored in physics as an undergrad. It turned out to be a really good decision because it gave me a strong background in terms of the fundamentals. For my bachelor’s degree I went to Norfolk State University in Virginia, a historically black university, so a lot of the struggle [of being a woman of color in STEM] was mitigated because it was taken for granted that I deserved to be there and could do the work.
“After graduating, I had some life situations intervene and didn’t follow the path from college to grad school for a couple of years. I was distraught and trying to figure out how to accomplish my goal of obtaining a Ph.D. I found this professional organization, the American Physical Society, that had these posters to encourage people of color to pursue physics. There was one with a little black girl who reminded me of myself when I was twelve, and I wrote a note to the organization telling them about myself and asking for the poster.
“They actually responded. One, they sent the poster, and they also told me about a new program called the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program. I attended Fisk, another historically black college, and also took classes at Vanderbilt University. I was able to get in and it changed my life. Within six weeks of getting that poster, I had moved my whole life from Virginia to Nashville, Tennessee. My mother and sister drove me halfway across the country—they are my champions.
On inclusion in STEM
“It’s important to realize there’s a breadth and depth to each of our lived experiences, and when we are fully in possession of what makes us unique, no matter who we are, then we are free to think creatively about the problems before us. You can’t have true excellence without diverse representation and inclusive practices. Given that STEM is a liberation activity, intellectually and financially, it must be open to everyone. That’s why I care so much that we remove the current barriers, especially for marginalized and intersectional communities like women of color, so that everyone can have access and contribute to these really exciting next discoveries.
“STEM organizations need to expand the types of places they go to look for talent. All of the best candidates are not exclusively at the most elite institutions—you’ll miss a tremendous amount of the population by only recruiting at such locations. For example, most black STEM students have at one point or another attended historically black colleges and universities, so if you’re not recruiting there, you’re missing exceptional talent. And recruiting is not enough—they must also prioritize retention. Our cultures in STEM organizations need to support a broad diversity of experience that’s not based solely on race or ethnicity. What about people with disabilities—are our workplaces truly accessible for them? Can a person with physical or neuro-atypical conditions easily navigate the physical space?”
On role models and inspiring others by founding Vanguard STEM
“Dr. Michio Kaku does important work sharing his love of physics with a non-expert, but highly engaged, audience. He is not afraid to dream big and make audacious claims that draw attention and interest toward our fields. It’s also extremely impactful that he does not hide from or minimize his heritage and identity, which have a lot to do with his ability to think so creatively.
“One specific intervention I am very proud of is a program and platform I’ve developed called VanguardSTEM, which is short for Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM. Its centerpiece is a monthly web series where we convene a rotating panel to create conversations between emerging and established women of color, from middle school girls to seasoned professionals. The idea is to ask questions, get new perspectives, and see role models that they may not generally see. If you can see yourself in someone else, that is an implicit affirmation that you can do it—it’s like a human proof of concept.
“I’ve had three major role models along the way, and one is Dr. Mae Jemison. It’s incredible now to see her at events from time to time. She has paved the way for me and many young black girls in STEM and continues to do visionary work. Dr. Beth Brown, who is now deceased, was an African-American NASA astrophysicist. When I found her, I had wanted to be an astrophysicist for several years but had never seen or met a black woman astrophysicist. One day when I was reading about new research at NASA I found her work and was amazed to see someone who looked like me doing the thing that I loved. And my third role model, who was actually my first, is my mother. When I came home from school as a girl and said I wanted to study astrophysics, my mother convinced me it was not a ludicrous goal, that in fact I could do it, and she would help me get there.”