Two of my hobbies are history and physics. Unsurprisingly, two of my favorite TV channels are History and the Science Channel.
I especially love it when my two hobbies collimate.
Probably my favorite show right now (and I have to be very choosy of the shows I watch, given my ridiculously packed schedule) is The Universe – incredible show. One of the recurring guys on the show is Michio Kaku, who is perhaps my favorite current theoretical physicist.
Yes, I’m a physics groupie.
I have read other things by Michio, and when he became a regular on The Universe, especially on the Parallel Universes episode, I found out he’d released a new (at that time) book – Physics of the Impossible. I had intended to buy his book – I really, really had – but for a variety of reasons put it off.
Mostly because I’m already reading several other books, including John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life and Starlight, Time and the New Physics, with a truckload of other books on tap (most notably, The Race Set Before Us – thanks to Michael Newnham – and The Orthodox Church, with a smattering of books on Lutheranism, as well as painfully and slowly working my way through Summa Theologica and The Ante-Nicene Fathers… I have no spare time…) Those books, while interesting, I read because they expand my thinking related to my calling as a pastor. Physics of the Impossible is my mind-candy – something I read for the pure joy of it, a book to unwind with at the end of a hectic day. But given that I’m (a) dirt poor [did I mention that I’m a pastor?] and (b) very extremely short on discretionary time, to add another book to my stable of “currently reading” for a long time was just too much to reasonably consider.
So it’s taken me quite some time to pull the trigger and pony up the Washingtons to buy Michio’s book.
Over a fleeting break during my day-job-to-support-my-habit, I finally bought & downloaded it.
I’m only in the preface, and I’m absolutely hooked. Some quotes to give you the flavor:
I was just a child the day when Albert Einstein died, but I remember people talking about his life, and death, in hushed tones. The next day I saw in the newspapers a picture of his desk, with the unfinished manuscript of his greatest, unfinished work. I asked myself, What could be so important that the greatest scientist of our time could not finish it? The article claimed that Einstein had an impossible dream, a problem so difficult that it was not possible for a mortal to finish it. It took me years to find out what that manuscript was about: a grand, unifying “theory of everything.” His dream – which consumed the last three decades of his life – helped to focus my own imagination. I wanted, in some small way, to be a part of the effort to complete Einstein’s work, to unify the laws of physics into a single theory.
Given the remarkable advances in science in the past century, especially the creation of the quantum theory and general relativity, it is now possible to give rough estimates of when, if ever, some of these fantastic technologies may be realized. With the coming of even more advanced theories, such as string theory, even concepts bordering on science fiction, such as time travel and parallel universes, are now being re-evaluated by physicists. Think back 150 years to those technological advances that were declared “impossible” by scientists at the time and that have now become part of our everyday lives. Jules Verne wrote a novel in 1863, Paris in the Twentieth Century, which was locked away and forgotten for over a century until it was accidentally discovered by his great-grandson and published for the first time in 1994. In it Verne predicted what Paris might look like in the year 1960. His novel was filled with technology that was clearly considered impossible in the nineteenth century, including fax machines, a world-wide communications network, glass skyscrapers, gas-powered automobiles, and high-speed elevated trains.
Not surprisingly, Verne could make such stunningly accurate predictions because he was immersed in the world of science, picking the brains of scientists around him. A deep appreciation for the fundamentals of science allowed him to make such startling predictions.
Ironically, the serious study of the impossible has frequently opened up rich and entirely unexpected domains of science. For example, over the centuries the frustrating and futile search for a “perpetual motion machine” led physicists to conclude that such a machine was impossible, forcing them to postulate the conservation of energy and the three laws of thermodynamics. Thus the futile search to build perpetual motion machines helped to open up the entirely new field of thermodynamics, which in part laid the foundation of the steam engine, the machine age, and modern industrial society.
We ignore the impossible at our peril.
The purpose of this book is to consider what technologies are considered “impossible” today that might well become commonplace decades to centuries down the road.
Already one “impossible” technology is now proving to be possible: the notion of teleportation (at least at the level of atoms). Even a few years ago physicists would have said that sending or beaming an object from one point to another violated the laws of quantum physics. The writers of the original Star Trek television series, in fact, were so stung by the criticism from physicists that they added “Heisenberg compensators” to explain their teleporters in order to address this flaw. Today, because of a recent breakthrough, physicists can teleport atoms across a room or photons under the Danube River.
If you’re as fascinated by these things as I am, you will love this book.
So say we all.