Physics of the Impossible is Michio Kaku’s latest science book and it is heavily influenced by science fictional ideas that may seem impossible, but in reality have definite scientific underpinnings (force fields, starships, FTL, time travel and others). Along the way he classifies these SF-nal ideas into three categories: Type I Impossibility (impossible today, but don’t violate laws of physics), Type II (skirt the edges of our understanding, may be possible in centuries or millennia), and Type III (violate our understanding of physics and, if possible, will require a complete re-evaluation of our understanding of physics). If you liked our interview with Mr. Kaku, you’ll most definitely enjoy this book.
Physics of the Impossible is the first book by Mr. Kaku that I have read. I’ve wanted to read his previous books but never got around to reading them. If they’re anything like this book, that is an oversight on my part that I must address. Physics of the Impossible is Kaku’s take on a wide array of science fictional ideas and how ‘impossible’ they really are according to our current understanding of physics. Along they way, Kaku uses many different science fiction stories, movies and TV shows to illustrate the technologies and points he is discussing. It’s obvious that Kaku enjoys science fiction, as he makes note of the Foundation trilogy, Star Wars, Star Trek and Back to the Future among a host of others. If you’ve ever wondered just how a light saber might work, Physics of the Impossible is for you.
Although all of the sections, and ideas, covered I found to be interesting, I especially enjoyed the sections on starships (I love the idea of these), and time travel. All chapters were well thought out and explained in clear English, with only the occasionally descent into the more complicated physics underlying these ideas. Kaku is to be commended for making very difficult concepts not only easy to understand, but also fun to read about. If Kaku hasn’t been compared to a modern day Carl Sagan as a popularizer of science, he should be. I enjoyed this book that much, as much as I did Cosmos, both the book and series. But then again, I am a science (fiction) geek.
However, because the book is written for an audience with a layman’s understanding of science, Kaku doesn’t go into the kind of depth you might want to really understand the ideas he is talking about. Thankfully, there is a very nice Notes section for each chapter, and a decent Bibiliography as well that can lead you to other sources of information. Secondly, as a science fiction fan, none of these ideas was new to me, having read stories using all the various ideas over the years. Of course the idea was to explore them according to our understanding of physics, not to generate new, outlandish ideas. Perhaps the biggest nit I had was that there are several instances where the same phrase is used, verbatim, withing three or four sentences of each other. And there is a tendency to reexplain ideas that have already been covered in previous chapters. But these are minor nits in what is otherwise an excellent and entertaining read.
In our interview, commenter Larry had this to say:
Just for the sake of counterpoint, there are those in the Physics community who believe that String Theory is not a theory at all, that in order to be a theory there must be a testable hypothesis.
In his epilogue, Kaku even addresses this criticism about String Theory, basically stating that there have been many theories that have been called untestable that later turned out to be testable as our understanding and knowledge of the world around us increased. So it may be with String Theory. As for me, as attractive as a flame war between physicists sounds, I think I’ll stay away lest my head explode. You should too. Instead, go find a copy of Physics of the Impossible and enjoy.