For those who do not know, Michio Kaku (website; twitter) is a theoretical physicist at City University of New York and co-founder of string field theory. Just as importantly – and this is the context in which I first discovered him – he is a popularizer of science in the stead of the late Carl Sagan. Essentially he is one of only a handful of scientists taking the initiative to condense great scientific ideas into an easily digestible form. In a world that unfortunately casts a paranoid eye to the sciences, this is a virtue; through his books Physics of the Impossible (2008) and Physics of the Future (2011) Kaku reminds us all that science is, frankly, cool.
So it was under this pretense that I made my way to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to attend a lecture and book signing by him. Having read his short biography on Albert Einstein last summer, Einstein’s Cosmos (2004), along with some work by Hawking, Feynman, Sagan and so on, I was obsessed with the guy. Naturally, this all led to long hours on YouTube watching interviews and clips of old Nova programs.  So the moment I learned that Kaku would be making a stop in Minnesota for his Physics of the Future (2011) book tour, every calendar I owned was marked marked marked and any scheduling conflict would have to be skipped skipped skipped.
(My apologies, Seungho, for missing International Law)
Arriving at the UMN book store at 6:20pm, I had more than enough to pick up his book I reserved online along with the two tickets for the reserved seating that came with it. Worried that I may not be able to get a good spot – a sizeable crowd was already forming – I was actually quite surprised to see that most of the reserved seating (the first three rows of about twenty) was essentially empty. For those unfamiliar with Minnesotan culture: even when we have reserved seating to see someone that we admire, we want to be close but not that close. Sitting near the very front, I’ve included a picture to show how uncomfortably close I was to the signing table, the point at where I could probably reach out and touch him as he spoke at the podium.
After forcing small talk for a while with one of the physics kids next to me, one of the booksellers addresses the crowd: “The event is not starting yet, but I just have to inform everyone that while Professor Kaku was in Switzerland last week he caught a cold and has laryngitis …”
My heart jumps a beat – That motherfuckin’ bitch stood me up.
“… And because he wants to be able to answer everyone’s questions …”
I’m sorry, baby. You know I was just a little upset.
“… He has asked us to find someone willing to give his PowerPoint presentation. We do have a script so it wouldn’t be too hard.”
Impulsively, my hand goes up and she thanks me and hands me the script. It’s only when I realize that I’m now holding the script that I understand the full implications of what I have just done. My hands begin to shake. I’m becoming nauseous. Dear God, what the hell have I done?
But I take a deep breath.
I’ve given speeches to large crowds before and I have more than enough time to go over the script and the notes for the 51 slide PowerPoint. On the plus side, I can technically put “Lecturer of Theoretical Physics and Futurism” on my resume. Also, at least he can’t turn me down for a giraffe without being a total jerk.
Some time passes and I’m becoming more and more confident in my abilities by the time Kaku takes to the podium shortly after 7:00pm. He introduces himself, talks briefly about the 300 interviews he conducted with some of the best scientists and thinkers around for his book and then apologizes for not being able to give his presentation himself: “When Einstein went to Sweden he left with an equation; when I went I left with a cold.” At this point one of booksellers asks me to stand. I’m given no further direction and now I look like a complete asshole.
I approach the nearest microphone, which is a little distant from the podium but not enough to really cause me any problems. When I ask one of the tech people if the microphone works I’m reminded that the entire event is being recorded and that I should just go to the podium.
I take a deep breath.
Kaku thanks me for the help and when I look out to the crowd I feel a little claustrophobic (later one of the booksellers will tell me that she estimated a turnout of over 500). I forget to introduce myself even though I consider the shamelessly plugging this website (I don’t) and begin moving into the presentation. For anyone that has ever done public speaking, the first few paragraphs are often the hardest to spit out, but the moment they are done confidence balloons and one even becomes a little cocky as you incorporate inflection, intonation and ad lib and unnecessary facial gestures all while mentally revising Cicero’s epitaph to read: “Yeah, he was OK, if you’re into that.”
Or something like that.
Before I know it the presentation is over, I shake his hand and then take my seat high as hell. There’s a brief video followed by questions and answers, which goes by smoothly, and now he’s finally ready to begin signing books. Already at the front of the line I decide to try to cash in the chips I earned through the evening and make the pitch …
“I can’t draw a giraffe,” says Kaku, which is perfect since I implied that fact during the pitch. Also, I’m already well aware that he’s a little sketchy when it comes to biology.
A point made all that much clearer by the fact that this uni-giraffe is apparently evolving bipedalism.
 I purposely use his latest books (of the 8+ in his repertoire) as demonstrative of the “coolness” in science specifically because I imagine his textbooks and 170+ journal articles have the exact opposite effect.
 I was going through a serious physics/astronomy phase that, thank God, I have now fallen out of and substituted with heavy drinking.
 If anyone is curious about his handshake: it’s disappointingly weak.
Strong handshakes are kind of an American thing. People from Asian cultures (I want to guess Japanese, but also don’t want to insult Kaku by getting his nationality wrong) tend to shake hands more weakly as a manner of custom; strong handshakes are off-putting and unnecessary displays of power, like chest-pounding or something. Handshake styles vary a lot around the world; if you shook an Italian man’s hand, he might find YOUR handshake “disappointingly weak.” So, take culture into account before judging a handshake.
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little ostentatious wouldnt you say?
Agreed, but at least I won’t quote anything Lawrence Krauss said when I met him at the 2011 American Atheists Convention 😛
Dark Matter is the light photon. Everyone can not see the forest for the trees.
Michio seems like he’s a bigger guy when sitting down. I wonder how tall he actually is because he is Japanese, but some Japanese can be tall. He looks to me to be about 5’8 5’7, he’s not too big, but his hands are a good size and the thickness of his chest is burly.
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Reblogged this on A Prairie Populist.