Every science fiction fan should read Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. Kaku surveys all the famous concepts of science fiction, often referencing when he first encountered the idea in famous science fiction books, movies and television shows. With each idea, aliens, starships, light sabers, death rays, robots, and so on, Kaku sets the stage by bringing the reader up to speed with the physics behind the idea. He carefully explains what we know, what current experiments relate to the concept, and what future science might still discover.
I bought Physics of the Impossible on audio and liked it so much that I bought a hardback copy for reference. This week, the Science Channel is rerunning the three episodes of Kaku’s Visions of the Future which makes a perfect visual supplement to the book, showing Kaku going around the world visiting labs working on these cutting edge breakthroughs that will lead to our science fictional future. Many of the experiments Kaku talks about in the book can be seen in these videos.
Michio Kaku divides his book into three areas:
Class I Impossibilities – “These are technologies that are impossible today but that do not violate the known laws of physics.”
- Force Fields
- Phasers and Death Stars
- Extraterrestrials and UFOs
- Antimatter and Anti-universes
Class II Impossibilities – “These are technologies that sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world.”
- Faster than Light
- Time Travel
- Parallel Universes
Class III Impossibilities – “These are technologies that violate the known laws of physics.”
- Perpetual Motion Machines
Kaku is very generous here in his categorizations. For example telepathy. He doesn’t try to make a case for what most people would think of as telepathy, one person reading another person’s mind. Instead he shows how close we might get with machines that can scan minds and read vague conceptual patterns in the scan. By chance, 60 Minutes ran a segment on Mind Reading this week.
Follow the link to see a video that illustrates exactly what Kaku was covering, and presents even newer findings. They show people in a MRI machine drawings of basic objects like a knife or hammer and scientists can record the brain images and analyze them with a computer. The 60 Minutes’ producer volunteered to be scanned and was shown ten objects. The computer program then analyzed her brain scans, correctly identifying 10 out of 10 objects. This isn’t telepathy, but it’s pretty darn amazing.
The book does this over and over again, referencing dozens of cool contemporary science experiments. There have been many books like this one, for example, The Physics of Star Trek back in 1995 by Lawrence M. Krauss. The Kaku book is just the latest, so it has the most current survey of neat science tech. I love to read such books every two or three years to catch up on the latest discoveries. These books are sobering for the science fiction fan, and they explain why I give such bleak predictions about science fiction in my recent essay, Science Fiction in My Lifetime.
I gave far better odds on intelligent robots than Kaku. I based my prediction on models in nature. For example, before there were airplanes we watched birds, so we knew something could fly. Consider faster than light travel. We have never observed any object traveling faster than light, so I consider FTL travel an extreme long shot. We know biological machines can be intelligence and offer a continuum of examples from the lowest animals to humans. Airplanes are not like birds, but they fly. I think we’ll eventually invent a pattern recognizing artificial neo-cortexes that can match and surpass our intelligence.
I highly recommend Physics of the Impossible for people who love science fiction. It’s very well written and understandable. You don’t even have to be particularly science minded to enjoy the book. And if you don’t read science fiction, this book will catch you up on a lifetime of far out ideas. Physics of the Impossible would make a fantastic eight part documentary for PBS.