"Physics of the Impossible"
August 23, 2008

It wasn’t the title of the book that intrigued me. It was the subtitle: "A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel." The author, Michio Kaku, was interviewed on a local radio show and when he started mentioning Star Wars and Harry Potter I cocked an eyebrow. For his high school science fair project, Michio Kaku assembled an atom smasher in his mom’s garage. He went to the Westinghouse company and gathered 400 pounds of scrap transformer steel. Over Christmas he wound 22 miles of copper wire on his high school football field. Eventually he built a 2.3-million-electron-volt betatron particle accelerator, which generated a magnetic field of 20,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field. His goal was to generate a beam of gamma rays powerful enough to create antimatter. Uh-huh. He eventually went on to cofound string field theory. Yeah. Super nerd? No doubt. Geek like us? Definitely! See for yourself.. 

In this book Michio Kaku breaks down 15 different subjects and places them each into one of 3 categories: Class I Impossibilities, Class II Impossibilities, and Class III Impossibilities. Class I’s are impossible today but do not violate the laws of physics. Class II’s sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world. Class III’s violate the known laws of physics (there aren’t many of these – yay!)

Now here’s what makes the book fun for people of our demeanor: each subject is introduced by an example or two that falls right out of the geek library. Here are some examples…

 • In the chapter on Starships he addresses at length the different types of propulsion systems that would possibly allow interplanetary travel. One of these is the "Slingshot Effect." He writes: "This method, in fact, was used in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, when the crew of the Enterprise hijacked a Klingon ship and then sped close to the Sun in order to break the light barrier and go back in time."

• Opening the chapter "Faster than Light" Kaku writes: "In Star Wars, as the Millennium Falcon blasts off the desert planet Tatooine, carrying our heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the ship encounters a squadron of menacing Imperial battleships orbiting the planet. The Empire’s battleships fire a punishing barrage of laser blasts at our heroes’ ship that steadily break through its force fields. The Millennium Falcon is outgunned. Buckling under this withering laser fire, Han Solo yells that their only hope is to make the jump into "hyperspace." In the nick of time the hyperdrive engines spring to life. All the stars around them suddenly implode toward the center of their view screen in converging, blinding streaks of light. A hole opens up, which the Millennium Falcon blasts through, reaching hyperspace and freedom."

• Writing about the possibilities of time travel he cites the scene from Superman I, when Superman rockets himself around the Earth, faster than the speed of light, until time itself goes backward.

• Continuing on the same topic the author addresses some of the paradoxes and conundrums of time travel. In describing resolutions to the problems he describes the plot of Terminator 3, and Doc Browns parallel universe explanation in Back to the Future.

• Addressing Perpetual Motion he helps illustrate the issue with this: "On an episode of The Simpsons, entitled "The PTA Disbands," Lisa builds her own perpetual motion machine during a teachers’ strike. This prompts Homer to declare sternly, "Lisa, get in here…in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" 

• In the preface he talks about some of the inspiration he had directing him towards science: "As I grew older I began to realize that although Flash Gordon was the hero and always got the girl, it was the scientist who actually made the TV series work. Without Dr.  Zarkov, there would be no rocket ship, no trips to Mongo, no saving Earth. Heroics aside, without science there is no science fiction." 

But even without all these cool references this book is amazing. Its very exciting to see how things like invisibility, teleportation, psychokinesis and robots stack up to what we know about physics today. For DC fans the chapters "Parallel Universes" and "Antimatter and Anti-universes" are especially intriguing! The book is not just a bunch of pop culture references, however. You will learn some fascinating things about our physical world, the role Newton, Einstein and many others have played in explaining complex concepts, and when the heck we’ll be able to own a real light saber!

TAGS:
Danny "CantinaDan" Neumann
Action figure anthropologist, Professor Cantina Dan Neumann has been a scholastic contributor to the online community studying the complex world of parumplasticus populus {little plastic people} since the turn of this millenium. His primary focus is the visual cataloging of species exhibits through photo-journalism.
Read other articles by Danny "CantinaDan" Neumann.

 

 

 

3 Comments »

  • Lt. Clutch says:

    Wow!

    Sounds like a great, informative, and fun read! I’ll look this one up on Amazon. Michio seems to know his stuff when it comes to physics and science, but not every guy or gal can tie it up so well to so many different aspects of pop culture. Thanks for the heads up, Dan!

    A lightsaber? Lasers are being used in medicine for decades now. How cool would it be to move the tech up a notch? If we got communicators like Kirk and crew when cells came along, I wouldn’t doubt seeing lightsabers someday.

  • Cantina-Dan says:

    Thanks, Clutch!

    In regard to lightsabers, Michio firsts lays out the complications: impossible to solidify light, light beams do not terminate in midair, etc…
    What I enjoyed about the book is illustrated by how he begins the next paragraph: “Actually there is a way…”

  • Erik superfriend says:

    Ok, this is one cool book. Something I would have read a decade or two ago in my spare time. These days I just hope to find somethign like this on TV. Maybe its time to read this stuff again. I did love stuff like this. Thanks for mentioning this and reminding me there is cool stuff out there to read besides Harry Potter.

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