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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor