Allen Lane £20

Physics of the Impossible, By Michio Kaku

Precognition may not be possible, but a speculative physicist can predict a future of teleportation and starships

Michio Kaku doesn't know the meaning of the word "impossible". Or rather, to be slightly more accurate, he has redefined the term to enable him realistically to examine and predict the future of science and technologies, from teleportation and time travel to robots and starships.

If this sounds like wild speculation, well, that's half right – it's certainly speculative, but it's far from wild. Kaku is well placed to try to imagine what developments might possibly occur in the fields of science and technology over the coming years, centuries, millennia and aeons.

He is an esteemed theoretical physicist and one of the world's leading authorities on string theory (essentially an attempt to discover a "theory of everything" combining all of the known physical forces), and he also specialises in future science, having presented several television programmes on the topic, most recently the BBC4 documentary Visions of the Future.

Handily, for those of us not au fait with the process of speculating on the future of physics, he's split his impossibilities into three categories. Class I impossibilities are technologies which are impossible today, but don't violate the known laws of physics. Kaku reckons that these impossibilities – including things such as teleportation and psychokinesis – might be possible in some reduced form sometime within the next couple of hundred years.

Class II impossibilities such as time machines and hyperspace travel are at the very edge of our scientific understanding, and may take millions of years to become possible. And the trickiest of all, Class III impossibilities, are technologies which break the laws of physics as we know them. Surprisingly, there are very few of these, and Kaku only examines two, perpetual motion machines and precognition (seeing into the future).

If this all sounds like pie in the sky, think again. After all, how would physicists 200 years ago have reacted if you'd told them about the internet, the atomic bomb or the moon landings? What would they have made of Einstein's theory of relativity?

What this book amounts to, in effect, is a serious look at the science behind all the crazy futuristic ideas that have been cropping up in science fiction over the years. Indeed, there are so many references to Star Trek and Star Wars scattered throughout this entertaining journey, that you sometimes wonder if physicists just spend all their time watching old sci-fi re-runs and trying to work out how to recreate the technologies included in them.

That's not to say that Physics of the Impossible is far-fetched. Kaku is very careful to present his cases in terms of recent scientific and technological developments where possible, and for the most part he is a clear and engaging writer, able to tackle some mind-boggling physics concepts in terms which are fairly easy to grasp.

In this respect, he fares better in the earlier chapters, when dealing with his Class I impossibilities. As the book progresses into more and more speculative territory, he is forced to rely less on extrapolating current research and development, and more on purely theoretical physics.

He indulges himself a little when talking about possible time travel and parallel universes, including perhaps a little too much high-end theory for the average reader, but that is a minor fault in what is otherwise a truly fascinating read.

So, what are the chances of force fields, telepathy, sentient robots and teleportation occurring in our lifetimes? Pretty good, but not in the way that Captain Kirk or Han Solo experienced them, that's for sure. Teleportation, for example, is already possible at a quantum level, scientists having successfully transported the information about an atom across a lab instantaneously. It's hugely complex, fraught with problems, and we're still a very, very long way from "Beam me up, Scotty". But the physics does back it up.

Similarly, researchers working on helping paralysed people have had some success in using brain waves to actually manipulate physical objects. Using microchips inserted in the brain, special software and hardware and a process called a biofeedback loop, patients can train their brains to signal for tasks to be performed. Again, this is a million miles from Carrie burning down the school dance in the Stephen King horror film, but it's remarkable nevertheless.

And what about starships? Kaku examines no less than 10 different methods of travelling to the stars, from plasma engines to solar sails, space elevators to nanoships. For many of these ideas, the physics is well known, but there are still colossal problems to overcome in terms of creating suitable technology at a cost which wouldn't cripple the world's economy.

In one sense, this is an intriguing vision of our possible development over the forthcoming millennia, but at the same time it's also frustrating. After reading Kaku's boundless enthusiasm for the future, what you wouldn't give for a real-life time machine to travel forwards and see just how accurate his predictions are.

Doug Johnston's new novel is 'The Ossians' (Viking £12.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015