Book Review: Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku
When I was preparing my Nerdnite talk and Lasers in SF posts back in February, I did a lot of reading, ranging from a textbook on laser processing of materials to a novel about the Death Star.
All of these books were interesting and useful, but the one standout on the list was Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible. This is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read on the science of science fiction, and I highly encourage you to give it a go.
Kaku structures the book around three different classes of “impossibilities.” He starts with what he calls “Class I impossibilities,” which are technologies that aren’t possible today, but which don’t violate any of the known laws of physics and might be possible with the right scientific advances. In this section, Kaku devotes each chapter to a different technology, and does a fantastic job of helping us think through how technologies we have today might someday develop into the stuff of science fiction.
For example, in his section on psychokinesis, he mentioned that we already have the technology to implant computer chips into the brain to pick up neural signals, and that these signals can be used to control computers (or computer-controlled objects). Then he reminded us of an earlier discussion about room temperature superconductors and levitation. So what if, he asks, we could link these two systems together and use magnets to levitate objects simply by thinking? Sure, it’s not quite psychokinesis in the sense of pure mental energy, but it’s a way we might someday use technology to achieve the same effect.
These sorts of discussions gave Kaku a great venue for discussing the potential uses – and the limits – of a wide variety of up-and-coming technologies. In most cases, he also discusses the underlying science in clear, accessible language.
After the long section on Class I impossibilities, Kaku moves on to things that are decidedly more impossible. These latter sections focus on technologies that aren’t technically against the laws of physics but aren’t anywhere within reach of our current capabilities (Class II impossibilities, like time travel), as well as those that directly violate known laws of physics (Class III impossibilities, like perpetual motion). These sections are necessarily a little more abstract than those on Class I impossibilities, but still very interesting reading.
One of the most delightful things about this book is that Kaku makes use of an incredibly broad cross-section of the science fiction canon. From Harry Potter to Star Trek (he even references specific episodes) and from Metropolis to Minority Report, his discussions span many diverse sub-genres of science fiction, and there’s something there for everyone.
I think taking this broad approach made the book particularly successful for two reasons. First, it gives you the sense that Kaku really loves his subject. I found myself thinking that he must take just as much delight in being a science fiction nerd as I do! And second, it helps the book appeal to a broad range of readers.
Some “science of science fiction” books, like ones that focus exclusively on the physics of Star Wars or the physics of Star Trek, are so narrowly targeted that it’s hard to maintain interest in them if you’re not already a die-hard fan. By broadening his focus, Kaku not only is able to address a wider range of technologies, but he also makes his discussions interesting and accessible to readers who aren’t already experts in a specific science fiction universe.
As for the science, Kaku’s explanations are very clear, in every-day language, without falling into the trap of “dumbing it down” for non-technical readers. If you do already know a lot about physics you might wish for more detail in some sections, but I doubt that will detract from your enjoyment of the book.
It’s true that you probably will enjoy the book more if you’re a bit of a SF nerd (if only because you’ll catch more of Kaku’s nerdy references), but Kaku really does not require you to know a lot about science OR science fiction before you begin reading.
There are a few parts of this book that feel a tiny bit dated, even though the book is relatively recent (published in 2008). For example, in the section on artificial intelligence, Kaku discusses the limitations faced by driverless cars – many of which have been substantially overcome by Google in the past year or two. On the whole, however, the technologies Kaku describes are very cutting-edge, and that keeps the book feeling fresh and exciting.
Kaku’s writing was on the whole very engaging. He sometimes slipped into long parenthetical notes which would have been fine on equal footing with the main text, which was a little distracting, but wasn’t a severe problem once I got used to it. Overall, I really can’t say enough good things about this book, and I highly recommend it.
Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Grade: A for Awesome!
Amazon link: clicky
By the way, I recently discovered that this book was also adapted into a series for public television. I can’t find anywhere to get it on DVD, but several clips are available on Youtube, and it looks like a lot of fun. If you’d like to check it out, here’s a clip about lightsabers – enjoy!
P.S. Sorry I’ve been MIA from the blog & the twitterz. The start of summer got a little hectic, and caught me by surprise! But I have several new posts in the pipeline, so you shouldn’t have to wait quite as long for the next one