Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku

(Singing) It’s impossible . . . to stick a Cadillac up your nose–it’s just impossible . . .
–Steve Martin

I think we’ll all agree that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century by now, no matter how you count, but I still can’t take the teleporter to work or put on the invisibility cloak when the JWs come calling.

Kaku takes a serious look at the hopes of technology, especially as we’ve seen it in science fiction and explains the limits of (1) what we can do now and (2) what we expect or hope to be able to do someday. He classifies technologies in “Class I” (impossible today, but not in violation of the known laws of physics, and achievable within the next century); “Class II” (almost beyond our understanding of the physical world, so that they would require millenia if not more to achieve); and “Class III” (in violation of the known laws of physics–there are few of these, including perpetual motion machines and precognition).

Teleporting of living beings doesn’t seem likely, even in the far future; that is, if you want to stay living when you get where you’re going. There’s already some work on invisibility by bending of light waves around an object, but for now researchers are stuck on how to make an object invisible at all angles.

He looks at the alternatives available for interstellar travel–but even the best theories will probably require generations of travelers to make the trip. Would you set out for a new world in the knowledge that the traveling will be your whole life and that even your children will never get there? UFOs as described in popular reports come into the discussion, and Kaku tries to analyze what types of technology could allow the movements of the UFOs as described. I had never considered this:

[A]ll known rockets depend on Newton’s third law of motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction); yet the UFOs cited do not seem to have any exhaust whatsoever. And the g-forces created by zigzagging flying saucers would exceed one hundred times the gravitational force on Earth–the g-forces would be enough to flatten any creature on Earth.

He probably thinks that Peter Parker couldn’t survive a fall from the top of a ten-story building onto the roof of a car when his spidey webs give out–skeptic!

Wormholes have some conceptual support and could be a way of making interstellar travel possible, but as much as Kaku explains things, it becomes clear that the Icarus is not going to fly across the galaxy with Charlton Heston and crew–even the concept is only of small particles making the trip.

The discussion of perpetual motion machines contains a great restatement of the three laws of thermodynamics:

First Law: You can’t get something for nothing (conservation of matter and energy).
Second Law: You can’t break even (entropy always increases).
Third Law: You can’t even get out of the game (it’s impossible to reach absolute zero).

Also interesting is this tidbit: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will not consider an application for a perpetual motion machine unless the inventor submits a working model–the only type of device for which there is such a requirement.

The book takes science fiction seriously enough to compare its visions to what we know now. There’s an example of a researcher getting his inspiration from Star Trek to solve Einstein’s theory of gravity (the Alcubierre drive, inspired by the gravity propulsion device).

Can I at least have Rosie the robot to get me my pipe and slippers at the end of the day, like Mr. Jetson?

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One Comment on “Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku”

  1. Sara Says:

    “Can I at least have Rosie the robot to get me my pipe and slippers at the end of the day, like Mr. Jetson?”

    That’s why you have me. You buy a pipe and slippers, and I’ll give them to you!


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