Saturday, June 30, 2012

Physics of the Impossible

I haven't finished reading through the book yet, but I need to make a pitch for this book. It was published in 2008 (I've mentioned I'm behind the curve, right?) by Michio Kaku, and it's called Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel. This book might as well be called The Science Fiction Author's Guide to Making Impossible Technology Plausible. Kaku writes in a very clear and very easy to read tone, and there's not a lot of intimidating equations inside of the book (clearly, he took a lesson from Hawking: Hawking was told by his publisher that each equation reduces book sales, so he only included one equation - Einstein's famous equation), and Kaku makes understanding how these science fiction tools and tropes interact with the diverse world of theoretical physics easy it understand (as easy to understand given the subject matter can be, anyway).

This is a good book. I'm going to have to recommend this to anyone interested in understand how real science interacts with the world of science fiction.

In the book, Kaku tackles numerous science fiction tropes and breaks them up into different "classes" of impossibilities: Class I impossibilities are "technologies that are impossible today but do no violate the known laws of physics. So they might be possible in this century, or perhaps in the next, in modified forms." Class II impossibilities are technologies that "sit on the very edge of our understanding of the physical world. If they are possible at all, they might be realized on the scale of millennia to millions of years in the future." Class III impossibilities are "technologies that violate the known laws of physics." Impressively enough, if you overlook "science fantasy", there are very few of these devices present in modern science fiction.

For his Class I Impossibilities, Kaku ponies up with the following fictional tropes/technologies: Force Fields, Invisibility, Phasers and Death Stars, Teleportation, Telepathy, Psychokinesis, Robots, Extraterrestrials and UFOs, Starships and Antimatter and Anti-universes.

Under Class II, Kaku put Faster Than Light travel, Time Travel, and Parallel Universes.

Under Class III, Kaku put Perpetual Motion Machines and Precognition.

In each chapter or section, Kaku takes a critical look at the technology on hand, and shows how those technologies or tropes may come to pass, either in the form that we recognize them as or in a slightly different form. Having been working in (hard) science fiction for the last 6 some years, I'm familiar with a few of those tropes that fall under Class I; I wouldn't necessarily classify them as Class I, but you have to remember that at one point, they were considered impossible. A very interesting example of this that Kaku gives that I had no idea of is the discover of Metamaterials; previous to the discover of metamaterials, invisibility and negative refraction were considered impossible by the Laws of Optics. Since we've discovered metamaterials, the Laws of Optics have had to be rewritten to conform with the new discovery.

I learned about metamaterials through Eclipse Phase, so it was bit of a surprise to see them turn up in this book as an "impossibility," but that's a case of "science marches forward" moreso that Kaku not doing the research - because heavens knows, he's done his homework. Not to mention, Kaku did say that Class I impossibilities were things that will likely be realized in this century or the next in some form.

Telepathy and Psychokinesis were a surprise to see on there too, but then I remembered the concept of the wireless network, which is pretty much what Kaku uses to explain how they might happen - for instance, a world where you fully integrated into your environment, turning on the light might mean no more than just thinking about it. But that's still psychokinesis, in the strictest sense; the medium is just different. Telepathy is a similar concept; using an advanced MRI or CAT scan technology to make psychokinetic technologies possible.

Teleportation really surprised me, though. We're not talking teleportation like the teleporters on Star Trek, though; no, this is one way, because the thing on the other end gets destroyed in the process. This teleportation is also achieved through liberal application of Einstein's famous "spooky action at a distance" - quantum entanglement. While you can't send information using quantum entanglement, it's possible to teleport things using the mechanism. Which is exactly how teleportation might work. Which, again, would destroy the thing on the other end, causing it to materialize on the other end. Sure you could teleport yourself - you'd just die in the process, that's all. Still, this technology wouldn't be used for teleporting people. It'd be used for moving information, or moving small objects.

My eyes were on Class II, though. Especially that first one - Faster than Light travel. As a hard science fiction writer, anything I can use to justify FTL is a boon; especially since the inclusion of FTL bumps you towards the soft end of the scale really fast, and the soft end might as well be fantasy since you're doing just about as much research. The chapter covered what I had already come to expect from FTL sciences, though - the Alcuberrie metric, wormholes, and a bit about Planck energy and the creation of baby universes at the quantum foam level. The good news is that all of them are possible given a Type III civilization. The bad news is that we're not even a Type I civilization yet, so we're not going to be using FTL tomorrow unless we stumble upon the remains of a great Type III civilization and can use their toys.

I've been aware of some time that Time Travel was within the laws of physics. I was surprised to learn that there was nothing stopping it from happening, either; Hawking tasked an army of people to justify his proposed law prohibiting time travel but low and behold, nothing became of it. Every scientist has a moment where they say something that doesn't jive with reality: Einstein's was the dismissal of quantum theory and quantum entanglement. I made a post earlier dealing with Kelvin's dismissal of heavier-than-air flying machines and radio. Newton likewise dismissed certain possibilities; this is a reminder that these are just men, who can and did make mistakes. Time travel, and the possibility of time travel, might be Hawking's "Einstein dismissing quantum theory" moment. And really, would that take away anything from the mountain that is this man's legacy? No, it wouldn't. Of course, time itself is really, really weird, so that's likely why this sets on the very edge of possibility.

Your Class III impossibilities require overturning basic, fundamental laws of physics to work. Perpetual Motion Machines talks a bit about Zero-Point Energy - or energy created by fluctuations at the quantum foam level, and other weird, spooky science stuff that defies common sense but not the laws of physics are explored, but at the end of the day, a perpetual motion machine remains in the realm of fantasy or hucksters, hoaxers, and deceivers (of both themselves and others).

Precognition is one that you wouldn't expect to see that high on the list; it surprised me. I had no idea that it would be as hard as it is and that it violated a fundamental rule of the universe; Precognition was the easiest of the psychic abilities for me to justify in most games. But if you think about it, the fact that precognition violates the iron rule of cause and effect is very noticeable. Something must happen to have an effect. The effect is never felt before that something happens. That's so simple that it's easy to overlook, but if you think about it, it's that way in every aspect of our life. You do something, and something happens because of it. Something doesn't happen before you do it. In quantum mechanics, certain states of matter - like antimatter - go backwards in time, but they still don't violate causality. Really, anti-matter going backwards in time is what restores causality. Even invoking the venerable tachyon won't get you out of this; physicists believe that the purpose of the tachyon was to set off the big bang and little else. Which means that only precognition and perpetual motion machines are truly "impossible."

So there we go - so long as you stay away from perpetual motion machines and precognition, you can find yourself medium-hard science fiction at best.

This is pretty good book. Very simple and easy to read, with Kaku putting things in ways that are easy to understand. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in theoretical physics, future technologies and fictional science fiction tropes, and other fields. It's a good read, with a lot of useful information.

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