Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku

To boldly go, with ray guns
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The Independent Culture

The good news is that death and taxes are not cast-iron certainties after all. A stockbroker could be put into cryogenic deep-freeze for a millennium, wake up, check on his investments, and discover that the natives of the future don't even know what money is. You could achieve immortality so long as you don't mind merging with a robot and becoming a cyborg.

In this brilliant, provocative, freewheeling tour around the exotic shores of physics, Michio Kaku casts his laser-like gaze over all our favourite science-fiction fantasies and assesses what our chances are of firing a ray gun, flourishing a light-sabre or jumping into hyperspace with Han Solo. Most importantly, he predicts whether we are ever going to be able to say "Beam me up, Scotty" with any degree of conviction.

Telepathic mice and giant ants aside, Kaku concludes that just about all of our wildest dreams (and nightmares) are liable to become true, some time, some place, in at least one of 11 possible dimensions. Although he assumes that ultimately everything will go up in smoke as the Earth is swallowed by the Sun, he is careful to write in an escape clause in the shape of immense starships carrying us off to infinity and beyond. And we could always try the universe next door, accessed via a handy black hole.

Kaku was inspired by watching Flash Gordon as a kid to build an anti-matter generator in his back garden. It won him a scholarship to Harvard. He went on to become a co-founder of string theory, and now he teaches at New York University.

The great thing about Kaku is that he would not even understand the very British idea of the "two cultures", CP Snow's split between well-spoken literary types, and scientists, who carry their brains around in vats and are incapable of communicating with other earthlings. Kaku sees Plato, St Augustine and Bertrand Russell as occupying the same space-time continuum as Einstein, Heisenberg and Hawking. And they are all sitting around reading HG Wells and Asimov, and watching reruns of Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While Einstein liked to think in terms of pictures, Kaku typically thinks in terms of movies, especially ones with Hollywood endings. Although he allows for the possibility of global hara-kiri, or visiting death stars, on the whole he has an inspiringly upbeat and good-humoured vision of the future. In a "Type I civilisation" (according to Nikolai Kardashev) we would be able to harness all the energy of our home planet; Type II would use the sun's power to colonise other planets, while Type IIIs would be virtual masters of the universe, akin to gods. We, for now, are Type 0, with aspirations to promotion.

Kaku comes up with three parallel types of "impossibility". But we have to de-emphasise the "im" part. His civilisation is the ultimate in positive thinking. With enough energy and application, we can come up with not just a better phone, but a whole new universe. One thing Kaku proves beyond doubt: that physics is cool.

Andy Martin's 'Stealing the Wave' is published by Bloomsbury

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