How is the book that approaches the “Equation of God”, the formula to explain the universe that neither Einstein nor Hawking found

Illustration of the Bing Bang.  (photo: Wiki Index)
Illustration of the Bing Bang. (photo: Wiki Index)

In the sci-fi comedy saga The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1981) a group of extraterrestrials creates a supercomputer with the aim of answering the question of “life, the universe and everything else”. The computer, called Deep Thought, replies that it will take seven and a half million years to answer it.

Many generations later, a crowd gathers to see the final answer. Deep Thought warns them that the answer is not going to please them. Faced with the insistence of the programmers, the supercomputer replies: “The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything else is… 42!”.

The answers to big questions of why we are alive, how did we get here and where we are going are quite elusive. There are those who look for them in philosophy. Others look for them doing accounts. Despite these being very different ways of interpreting the universe, in his popular science book The God Equation: The Search for a Theory of EverythingAmerican physicist and writer Michio Kaku tells us that, inevitably, we must have a comprehensive view from science and thought.

Kaku’s book recounts the search of scientists trying to find a unified explanation for all physical phenomena. an equation, a formula that can explain everything that is observed in the universe: from the movement of barely perceptible subatomic particles, through the movement of the planets to the phenomena that occur in a supermassive black hole.

Michio Kaku was born in California, United States.  He is a physicist and has been publishing books since 1982. (Theo Wargo / Getty Images)
Michio Kaku was born in California, United States. He is a physicist and has been publishing books since 1982. (Theo Wargo / Getty Images)

This search to synthesize everything with the same universal explanation has not yet borne fruit. Einstein and Hawking failed, but with their contributions we were getting closer to an answer that, according to Kaku, is just around the corner. Now, this search for a unification of all the theories to which a part of the physics community is committed has a big problem: it is very difficult to understand.

The field of theoretical physics is difficult to encompass and understand, even for people who work with these topics on a daily basis. It is in that aspect that God’s Equation stands out. Without the need to resort to accounts and formulas, it takes us on a historical tour of physics and its great milestones, which goes through places like the apple that saw it fall Newton to the most advanced conjectures of modern physics.

Thus, Kaku takes the time to explain in depth the fundamental laws of physics and the basis of the advances that made possible the formulation of new theories. This is necessary as in the later chapters he will be tackling the territory of string theory, 11-dimensional space, and the physics of black holes. Without visiting everything that came before, it is simply impossible to understand what comes next..

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The journey that Kaku proposes to us begins in Ancient Greece, quickly moves on to the scientific advances of the Renaissance and the discovery of the fundamental laws of physics. In a didactic and entertaining way, he explains the basics of physics, such as when giving an account of the basis of Newton’s theory: “If a cannonball is fired from the top of a mountain, it will travel a certain distance before falling to the ground. But if it is shot at ever increasing speeds, it will go farther and farther before it hits the ground, until finally it makes a complete circle around the Earth and returns to the top of the mountain. Thus, Newton came to the conclusion that the natural law governing apples and cannonballs, the gravity, also keeps the Moon in orbit around the Earth. Terrestrial and celestial physics were the same.”

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The story stops at great achievements of Newton’s laws, such as the existence of the planet Neptunewhich before being directly observed by a telescope was conjectured by making calculations applying the laws of English physics.

The author goes through a similar descriptive process with the laws of magnetism and electricity and the discovery of the relationship between the two at the hands of Faraday and Maxwell. Thus, Kaku not only dwells on explanations about the nature of physics but also on anecdotes and curiosities: “Faraday was also a rara avis, at least in his time, because he loved to involve everyone in his discoveries, even children. He was famous for his Christmas lectures, in which he invited everyone to the Royal Institution in London to witness dazzling displays of electrical magic. He would enter a large room with walls covered in thin metal sheets (what we now call a “Faraday cage”) and electrify it. Despite the apparent danger, he was completely safe, because the electric field was dispersed over the entire surface of the room, so that inside it was still zero. Nowadays, this effect is often used to cover microwave ovens.”

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The book also tells us about Einstein, his life story and his main contributions to physics. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist in 1921 discovered that Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories, while they could explain a lot, in some ways contradicted each other. This is how he gets to his theory of relativity. This chapter also explains what the famous expression E=mc² means.

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Einstein was not able to complete the search for a theory that would unify everything because he was missing a piece of the puzzle: the nuclear force, about which between 1920 and 1930 little was known. The book explains how these forces work and the processes that led to their greater understanding.

Kaku’s work also focuses on quantum theory and the Big Bang, topics that are not very intuitive and of which we generally understand little. The book alternates rigorous explanations with lighter moments, such as when he dives into how residual radiation from the beginning of the universe was detected: “At first they thought that this background radiation was due to a defect in the apparatus. According to legend, they realized their mistake when, while giving a talk at Princeton, someone in the audience said: “Either they have detected bird shit, or the creation of the universe.” To verify this, they had to thoroughly clean all the pigeon droppings from the radio telescope.

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The great problem of modern physics is that Phenomena that occur on a large scale cannot be explained in the same way as those that occur on a subatomic scale.: “Again there are two great pillars of physics. On the one hand, we have the theory of the very large, Einstein’s theory of gravitation, which gives us black holes, the Big Bang, and the expanding universe. On the other, we have the theory of the very small, the quantum theory, which explains the behavior of subatomic particles. The problem is that they are in conflict with each other. They are based on two principles, two mathematics and two different philosophies”, writes the author.

In the later chapters, Kaku gives his vision. For her string theory is the one that will finally unify the discoveries of physics up to now, and the one that will answer all the questions that arise. But this theory is still in development and its scope and limitations are still not entirely clear, for which the author gives an account of his criticisms. The main one: with the tools we have today it cannot be verified.

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“I like to compare working on string theory to searching for treasure in the Egyptian desert. Let’s say one day we stumbled upon a tiny rock sticking out of the sand. As we move it away, we begin to realize that this pebble is actually the tip of a gigantic pyramid. After years of digging, we found all kinds of strange chambers and works of art. On each floor, we come across new surprises, and in the end, after digging many more, we reach the last door and we are about to open it to find out who built the pyramid,” Kaku writes.

Einstein could not solve "the equation of god": lacked information about the nuclear force.  (Getty Images)
Einstein could not solve “God’s equation”: he was missing information about the nuclear force. (Getty Images)

And he adds: “Personally, I believe that we have not yet reached the bottom floor, since every time we analyze this theory we discover new mathematical levels. I believe that there are still more layers to reveal before reaching its final form. In other words, theory is smarter than us.

It was to be the ultimate theory, a single framework that would encompass all the forces of the cosmos and choreograph everything from the motion of the expanding universe to the tiniest dances of subatomic particles. The challenge was to write an equation whose mathematical elegance encompassed the entirety of physics.

Some of the most eminent physicists from around the world embarked on this adventure. Even Stephen Hawking gave a talk with the promising title “Are we nearing the end of theoretical physics?”

If successful, such a theory would be the crowning achievement of science, the Holy Grail of physics: a single formula from which all other equations could be derived, in principle, from the Big Bang to the end of the universe. It would be the ultimate product of two thousand years of scientific research, going back to the ancients who posed the question, “What is the world made of?”

It is an amazing sight.

♦ He was born in California, United States, in 1947. His parents were Japanese.

♦ He studied physics at Harvard, where he received his honors

♦ He has written 16 popular science books. The first was published in 1982.

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