I read science books; sometimes, it’s light science—see Bonk—and sometimes its damn near science fiction—see The New Time Travelers or Black Bodies and Quantum Cats. The latter holds a particular fascination with me, since things like time travel have always been close to my heart1.
I had not heard of Michio Kaku before I added Physics of the Impossible to my reading list, but he’s kind of a big deal in the theoretical physics field; when you were smoking pot and slacking off in high school, he was winning national science fairs and smashing atoms in his garage. In other words, he’s a really smart guy; he’s also the kind of scientist—like Stephen Hawking—who is a prolific author, attempting to distill the more important or interesting concepts of his field into accessible books for laymen.
Physics of the Impossible is a look at the various hobby horses of science fiction and fantasy—time travel, spaceships, lasers, teleportation, &c.—and categorize them in one of three classes:
- Class I impossibilities are those things which are not currently impossible, but may be within decades or a century. They do not violate any existing laws of physics, but may have logistical or technical issues which we cannot currently surmount.
- Class II impossibilities are those things which also do not technically violate any laws of physics, but which may not be technically possible for thousands or millions of years—e.g. time travel.
- Finally, Class III impossibilities are those phenomenon which violate our current understanding of the laws of the universe and therefore cannot be achieved without a discovery that fundamentally changes the universe—e.g. perpetual motion machines.
Curiously, most of the items covered fall into the first category, meaning that some variant of them are not only feasible, but perhaps even attainable within my lifetime. Of all the information in the book, this is the most surprising (and delightful).
I hadn’t expected a theoretical physicist to be particularly engaging; Kaku is actually an accomplished author, however. And while his prose, yes, is occasionally a little dry, or wandering, I found his treatment of the subject(s) to be an excellent. Kaku, like a lot of scientists, was inspired by the shows and movies such as Star Trek; Roddenberry’s &oelog;vre was never just about rayguns and spaceships, but about the moral implications of technology and the explored universe. Appropriately, Kaku doesn’t shy away from the ethical problems that would accompany the logistical, physical, and technology innovations necessary for the phenomena being addressed. Teleportation (in the sense that it’s physically possible), for instance, raises questions about continuity of consciousness and real death.
As an endeavor to provide an accessible window in a slice of complicated science, does Physics of the Impossible reach the gold standard set by Hawking or Bryson? Or Feynman? Maybe not; I don’t find Kaku as eminently readable, but it’s a damn good try, regardless. You might have a hard time staying interested if you aren’t a sci-fi fan, but especially if you are, Kaku provides an engaging and fulfilling read.
- When I was 11 or 12, I endeavored to write collection of three stories relating to time travel, though the words are lost to the ages now.[↩]