Monthly Archives: September 2015

Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku

physics of the impossible - michio kakuThis week, I finished Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible. We all love a little escapism now and then. Whole genres are built on things like time travel and parallel universes and extraterrestrials, but deep down, we know that none of that stuff could really happen. No matter how open-minded we think we are, there’s a little part of us that adjusts his monocle and scoffs “impossible”.

When I’m trying to decide whether or not something is possible, the first question I ask myself is “does this obey the laws of physics?”. Just last weekend, I asked myself the same question when I looked at the stack of clothes that needed to be ironed. The laws of physics govern matter and energy and, since a few creases didn’t matter to me, I couldn’t find the energy to iron anything.

No? My girlfriend didn’t buy that one either….

We’re living in a world of matter and energy, so if you want to know how possible something is you need to ask a physicist. Physicists have this reputation for being beige, betweeded misfits – a reputation that Michio Kaku sheds like an electron off of a positive ion. See! Terrible jokes like that have been sucking the fun out of physics for decades!

hoverboard-back-to-the-futureThe book tackles all of the big, important questions in science: Could you really build a death star? Are aliens watching you at night? Will they ever make a goddamn hoverboard?! Kaku’s answers to questions like these are easy to understand, fun to read and initially surprising.

I say ‘initially’ because after a while, you realise that all of these questions have the same answer: Yes, it’s possible, but probably not in this galaxy, or even this dimension and definitely not for coal-burning savages like us.

Kaku frames the book around the Kardashev Scale, a way to demonstrate how advanced a civilisation is based on the amount of energy they can make use of. The scale includes Type I, Type II and Type III civilisations. The bad news is that humans haven’t even attained Type I status. To do that we’d need to harness nuclear fusion, cultivate antimatter or build a giant solar panel in space.

If you think that’s mad, a Type II civilisation could wrap a whole star up in solar panels, and a Type III civilisation could do it to all the stars if they really put their minds to it.

Part one covers class I impossibilities, or things that can theoretically be achieved by Type I civilisations. This covers all kinds of madness from force fields to telepathy to robots. Kaku then rolls up his sleeves to tackle class II impossibilities like time travel, before going completely over the top in Part III with subjects like precognition.

Wrong flask, dipshit!

“No, Jesse! You’re sciencing all wrong!”

I’m definitely not what you’d call a scientist, but this book made complete sense to me, 90% of the time. I didn’t just understand what I was reading – I was quite often blown away with how profound it was. At one point, he suggests that intelligent beings like us (well, maybe not us) might be the microscopic agents of universal evolution.

I think that’s what that part meant anyway…

An actual physicist might read this book and think it’s over-simplified wish-wash designed as entertainment for the non-physicist masses. Well, I’m just an idiot in no position to judge how accurate his theories are and, as a member of the non-physicist masses, I can give it a big stamp of approval.

The only downside to Physics of the Impossible is that it was published in 2008 – and a whole lot of science has happened since then. Even if it’s not exactly current, you should definitely give it a go. Take it with you on the daily commute – you’ll be thoroughly amazed and you’ll look a bit smarter.

Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick DeWitt

Undermajordomo Minor - Patrick DeWitt“What do you want from your life, Lucy?”

“Not to die”

“Beyond that. Were you to live, what would you hope might come to pass?”

“Something to happen”

So, Christmas came early for Patrick DeWitt fans with the release of his third novel, Undermajordomo Minor. The Sisters Brothers, his Booker shortlisted 2011 western put him right there on my awesome authors list. Cracking open his latest offering, I hoped against all hope that it wouldn’t be a huge disappointment.

Luckily, it didn’t even take a full chapter to set my mind at ease.

Undermajordomo Minor follows Lucy (Lucien) Minor as he spreads his 17 year-old wings and leaves the old homestead behind to see what the rest of the world has in store. In the blurb, Lucy is described as a ‘compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling’. While this is more-or-less true, he’s still a very likeable character.

In his small-town, teenage innocence, his primary goal in life is to engineer a situation in which he can point at something with a pipe. That’s not much of an aspiration, I suppose, but what more can you expect from someone who, on their deathbed, merely wishes that he wasn’t so bored.

Lucy’s exciting new life begins when he takes a job at the Castle Von Aux, as the assistant to the majordomo, Mr Olderglough. Things aren’t all sunshine and gumdrops at the castle – the Baron hides away in the daytime and prowls the halls at night, mad with heartbreak since the Baroness upped sticks and headed to the West.

Meanwhile, Lucy explores the village, becomes acquainted with the local thieves and gamblers and meets Klara, the object of his affection. That goes just about as smoothly as you’d expect and reinforces one of the themes of the book – that love is about the worst kind of torment that can befall a man.

All-in-all, I loved the book. It’s funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny; it’s fantastical, without the need for witches and goblins; and it feels like you’re being told a story. After reading a couple of what-does-it-really-mean type books, a fireside tale like this was the breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.

Will you like it? I can’t answer that unfortunately, but I can say that you should give it a go. Actually, what are you doing at the moment? If you can, get down to your local bookshop and read the first chapter. If you find you’re on chapter 5 before you know what’s happened, then take that bad boy home and prepare yourself for a jolly good read!

(Pay for it first, obviously)

Incidentally, if you’re in London on the 1st October, Patrick DeWitt will be appearing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road for a chat with Jessamy Calkin. You can buy your tickets here for a piddling 8 quid a pop. What else are you going to do on a Thursday evening?

Player One – Douglas Copeland

player one douglas couplandI’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve got a penchant for global catastrophes. I’d happily stack tin cans in my bunker all day long listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor on some crackly AM radio.

So I couldn’t really say no when I read the blurb of Douglas Coupland’s Player One – a real-time 5 hour ordeal between a group of strangers in an airport lounge (of all places) as civilisation collapses outside.

I like Douglas Coupland – I always have, but like so many things, I’ve worried that I might just like the idea of Douglas Coupland. He’s that cool Canadian author that cool people talk about at cool parties (I’m sure).

There was a time when I aspired to being one of those cool people, and it’s during this period that I read Generation X (the pink paperback that sticks out amid all the other titles in the “Cult Fiction” selection of your local bookshop). That was a while ago and, with the added cynicism of years, I was open to disappointment as I cracked open Player One.

Everything worked out grand in the end because the book was fantastic!

It’s about a group of flawed people trying to figure out what to do next as everything they know collapses around them. Joni Mitchell said ‘you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone’, and it’s the sudden absence of modernity that brings its flaws and follies into stark contrast.

Player One was actually written for the 2010 Massey Lectures (an event that’s played host to people like Noam Chomsky, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood) and each chapter was delivered as an hour-long lecture in different Canadian cities.

The book gets a big thumbs-up from me and I’ll probably go back and read some more of Coupland’s work. I won’t even mind too much if there isn’t a massive apocalypse in the plot.

Falling Man – Don DeLillo

falling man don delilloYou don’t approach a novel about 9/11 expecting giggles-a-plenty, and that’s definitely not what you get in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. The story mainly follows Keith, an employee who manages to escape the south tower before it collapses and walks back into the home of his estranged wife and son, carrying a briefcase that doesn’t belong to him.

In a typically post-modern style, the book progresses in a series of scenes, bouncing backward and forward in time. You might like that kind of thing, but if you’re not used to it, you’ll probably find yourself rereading paragraphs with a grumpy look on your face.

For something that’s probably classed as the most dramatic event of the 21st century, DeLillo plays everything down, choosing to subtly hint at how the attack affects the characters. Then again, if you’re looking for a suspense-filled 102 minutes of terror and tragedy, that book probably won’t exist – at least not until 9/11 is seen as something that was on the news a long, long time ago.

For me, Falling Man fell a bit flat but, in fairness, my experience was spoiled a little by the occasional notes left in the margin by the previous owner. Nobody likes to be influenced by an unqualified stranger and, out of stubbornness, I refused to consider whether the third paragraph on page whatever was a meditation on the nature of identity.

So I might have deliberately missed the point.

In any case, if you’re looking around for a novel based on the 9/11 attacks, Falling Man will inevitably appear on every list you find. It’s definitely worth a read, but it’s not likely to brighten up your day.