Thursday, March 20, 2008

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku (Doubleday, 2008)

For the longest time, in the Pop Science publishing field, there were two camps: the scientists who attempted to enlighten the lay reader on scientifically verifiable concepts, such as Relativity and geology; and those books considered 'wacky', written about fringe subjects such as time travel and telepathy. These latter books were often shelved in 'New Age' sections in bookstores.

But as the new century has dawned, it's turned out that many of these 'wacko' theories, often heavily ridiculed in the scientific community, are now gaining a measure of respectability as new research in fields such as quantum physics (with the advent of super string theory), neurobiology (the emerging ideas of neuroplasticity), molecular chemistry (the manipulation of atoms on silicon wafers), among others, appear to open up new avenues of conjecture about the nature of existence, and the new possibilities of invention.

Michio Kaku boldly steps into the realm between the two camps with Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. The book is an attempt to address the disparity between science and science fiction (into which the fringe theories were often dumped). It's not a defense nor an attack, of these ideas; it simply proposes to explore in an open and curious manner, the 'possibilities' of these theories and technologies existing.

Kaku sets up a classification structure for the 'impossible':

Class I impossibilities
are technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate the known laws of physics.

Class II impossibilities are on the very edge of our understanding of the physical world, and they are technologies that might be realized on a time scale of thousands or millions of years.

Class III impossibilities are technologies that violate all known laws of physics. If they were to exist, they would essentially signify a giant shift in our understanding of physics.

With such a classification structure, Kaku then proceeds to explore ideas from pure science fiction, such as phasers, teleportation, starships, antimatter, and robots; and parapsychology and the paranormal such as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis.

Kaku's tone is playful and all-accepting, and as always, his distillation of bizarre concepts for the average reader (as in his delightful Hyperspace)is superb. And for that tried and true fan of science books, someone who keeps up with all the science magazines, there will still be a surprise or two.

My only regret is that Kaku's examples for these 'impossibilities' mostly come from film and TV, which in a sense is understandable from the mass audience goal of this book, but I feel that if he'd taken a little more time to investigate some of the more ground-breaking sf literature out there, he could have opened up avenues of further exploration for the casual reader who wanted to better conceptualize these ideas in action, as in the new wave of Space Opera of Neal Asher, Peter Hamilton, etc. and the heady idea-laden works of Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, to name but just a few examples.

Nevertheless, barring such a minor criticism, Physics of the Impossible is an excellent attempt to entertain and enthrall through the combination of pop culture SF and nuts-and-bolts science.

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