Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Book Review : Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku

This is a great book for all science fiction writers. In case you're not familiar with him, Kaku is a theoretical physicist* who here takes a serious look at some of the tropes and devices commonly used in SF (time travel, phasers, teleportation etc.) But this isn't one of those works that sneers at the crazy ideas of those writer types. On the contrary, Kaku is clearly a fan and demonstrates a pretty good knowledge of SF. He says himself it was a boyhood delight in the genre that turned him onto physics in the first place.

The result is that there's a treasure-trove of solid scientific material in here for SF writers to draw on. Not that I'm that hung up on strict veracity to science in SF myself, as some writers and readers clearly are. Story always wins, I think. But the more you diverge from believable science, the more likely you are to alienate a section of your potential readers. Plus I also found that reading the book gave me several great ideas for new stories.You could do a lot with gamma-ray bursters, for example.Or nanoships. Or antimatter rockets.

Kaku's writing is always clear and he obviously knows what he's talking about. And it's surprising just how much stuff actually probably isn't impossible. Time travel? FTL? Invisibility? Kaku sees all these as ultimately possible, in that they don't appear to contravene any known laws of physics. We just can't do them yet. He returns to the SF canon again and again and then explains how, actually, quite a lot of it just might work.

At times I would have liked him to explain things a little more. He mentions, for example, that you can't use quantum entanglement to communicate instantaneously across the galaxy (darn, there goes the plot for at least one of my published stories) and I had to spend a bit of time thinking about why that is. Perhaps it's just so obvious to him he felt it didn't need explaining. I think I get it now ...

Oh, and loath as I am to pit my 'O' level in physics against his brain-the-size-of-a-planet wisdom, it does seem to me he does get it wrong when he discusses precognition. This, he says, is definitely impossible because it transgresses basic Newtonian physics; it short-circuits cause and effect. But then he also says "In principle, Newtonian mechanics states that if you had a large enough computer, you could compute all future events". So, if you could build such a machine then that means you could predict the future doesn't it?

Anyway, great book. Must read some of his others.



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