My best teacher

21st May 1999 at 01:00
Albert Einstein was my hero, my role model and my best teacher. I was born in California right after World War ll, and my parents, being of Japanese ancestry, were kept behind barbed wire along with 110,000 other Japanese-Americans. After the war their money was confiscated by the US government. My father earned a living as a gardener, my mother as a maid. My dream of becoming a scientist was, therefore, very dim.

When I was eight I remember my teachers announcing in class that a great scientist called Albert Einstein had just died. The newspapers published a photograph of his desk, and on it was the unfinished manuscript of his latest work, the unified field theory. I could think of nothing more fascinating than finding out what it was this great scientist had spent 30 years of his life chasing without success. I wanted to finish the manuscript.

From then on I began to read all about Einstein. I also read a lot of science fiction. I wrote a biography of Einstein as a school project and this opened up a world for me. My teachers thought I was a little bit odd, asking questions about stars and galaxies and time and space, but when I read about Einstein I could see at what point you get a PhD, at what point you get a professorship, when you are expected to do great works. I could see a career path in all this and I decided to follow it.

I was still in high school when I built an atom smasher in the garage from scrap metal. It won a prize at the National Science Fair and helped me get a scholarship to Harvard, where I finally met professors who could answer my questions. Through going to many libraries and reading many books I began to piece together what Einstein's unified field theory was all about. It was the greatest scientific chase of all time - the theory of everything. It was the theory that would explain light, gravity and the nuclear force; the theory that would explain why stars shine, why gravity holds the solar system together, why the atom works, why cells are possible, why humans are possible. It would be the theory that, as Stephen Hawking put it, "would allow us to read the mind of God".

Many of my professors at Harvard, and later at Berkeley where I did my PhD, were close friends of Einstein and had lots and lots of Einstein stories. What attracted me most about him was his love of playful simplicity. All the equations in the world are useless unless people can picture what you mean. When Einstein talked of space and time, for instance, he would imagine himself running, chasing after a light beam.

Einstein was an immigrant. He had left Nazi Germany around 1933 and the fact that, like me, he came from a humble background, impressed me. It meant that if you were hard-working and knew the thrill of discovery, you could reach for the moon. Another thing I liked about Einstein was his commitment to social change. He was concerned about people and the effect the bomb had on society. He didn't stay inside an ivory tower.

He was also very humble, and a nice person. There is a story about a schoolgirl writing to him, asking him to solve a homework problem for her. And he did - he proved her geometry high school theorem for her. That episode so impressed me.

I'm on the Internet now, and I get hundreds of kids asking me questions about black holes, the 10th dimension (an extension of Einstein's unified field theory) and science fiction, and I try to send them back decent responses,because I think it is important that the next generation feels that thrill. When they write to me, they say exactly what I said when I was young, that they have never met a physicist before.

Michio Kaku, 52, is professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York. His latest book, "Visions", explores the science of today and predicts some of the amazing developments of tomorrow. He lives in Manhattan, New York

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