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Physics of the Impossible

I love Christmas break; it gives me a chance to step back and engage my imagination. Creative powers seem underused in my engineering education, but vacations in Arkansas give me time to dream, and to read. I hope you enjoy the latest book review!

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku provides a reasonable overview of the science that might someday make common science fiction themes possible in real life. An easy read that doesn’t pay justice to the complexities of the underlying theories, it nevertheless provides a conceptual summary that might point students aspiring to research in these areas in the general direction.

Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel   [PHYSICS OF THE IMPOSSIBLE] [Hardcover]

Taken in its entirety, this book subtly teaches things that many young scientists and engineers don’t understand. As Kaku states, physics is subject to fashions and fads, just like the rest of the world. The scientific infrastructure is subject to power plays and popularity contests. But, it’s designed to enable long-term collaboration on excruciatingly difficult (sometimes impossible) challenges. In many cases, theories are tested indirectly, and these indirect observations cumulatively provide empirical evidence to support (or reject) a given theory. As an example of this disparity between what students learn in the classroom and what’s common in the research enterprise, Kaku discusses the Copenhagen School. He remarks that this line of thought is taught in every PhD quantum mechanics textbook, but many research scientists no longer follow it. Such textbooks often present a certain angle as though it were indisputable fact.

Although I read it start-to-finish like a novel, it’s arranged more like a reference book; a reader can turn to any chapter of interest (e.g., invisibility devices) to get a quick overview of the state of the art (circa 2008) on this topic as a jumping point into further research. (Kaku provides plenty of endnotes.) The book is divided into three parts, classifying each topic as a Class I, II, or III impossibility based on whether it may be achieved in the next century, a millenia or more, or never without a major change in our fundamental understanding of the world. Kaku then describes each as a product of civilizations on the Kardashev scale. Physics of the Impossible also includes ample historical references, which provided a nice context for the discussed scientific developments (e.g., one scientist was harassed about his ideas until he committed suicide, another was badgered by the police when they discovered his homosexuality).

Most importantly, this book is fodder for the creative scientist or engineer. Science fiction has inspired so many of us to pursue science and engineering as careers, but often our dreams are killed by the education system. Although these problems are incredibly complex and challenging, it’s such “sexy” ideas that inspire youth to ever-greater heights. Educators must inspire future generations; educational reformers might incorporate a transcendental or higher purpose for motivating students to tackle greater challenges. And motivated students are necessary to continue driving scientific progress.*

I’ve posted a couple interesting excerpts on my tumblog.

* This is commonly recognized by the scientific community; for example, Kaku suggested that if Feynman wasn’t a “naive” graduate student, he might not have considered the advanced wave solution to Maxwell’s equation, which led to the idea that antimatter is critical to causality).

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