This 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!
The 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.
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.