Michio Kaku is nothing if not optimistic. Is there anything currently in the realm of SF that we cannot do (in some fashion), eventually? Apparently nMichio Kaku is nothing if not optimistic. Is there anything currently in the realm of SF that we cannot do (in some fashion), eventually? Apparently not. Even perpetual motion and precognition may be possible with a better understanding of our universe (or multiverse). In Physics of the Impossible, Kaku, theoretical physicist and one of the developers of string theory, looks at some of the common technologies found in SF and discusses – in a very general and user-friendly way – whether or not they are possible and when they might be achieved.
He divides these technologies into three categories. Class I impossibilities are advances that our current physical model can accommodate but not our current technology; however, they will be available within the next century or so. An example of this is the force field (chapter 1). The force fields of “Star Trek” or the Culture are unlikely but scientists have been experimenting with things that could produce similar results. Kaku focuses on two. The plasma window, invented by Ady Herschovitch in 1995, and magnetic levitation, which we already have in a limited way. The window is a plane of plasma shaped by electromagnetic fields. Theoretically, an envelope could be created that separates atmosphere from vacuum, useful in airlocks and certain manufacturing processes like electron beam welding. And it is possible to envision supercharged plasma windows, part of a layered defense system, vaporizing incoming objects (the other two layers would be a laser curtain and a carbon nanotube screen). We already use magnetic levitation (maglev) to move trains at high speeds. If we can develop high-temperature superconductors, we would have the capability to cheaply create powerful magnetic fields that would open the door to true flying vehicles (or even flying belts) or the floating cities of Niven’s Ringworld (though their ultimate fate might give us pause in that particular application).
Class II impossibilities are also advances conceivable within our current understanding of physics but require technologies far beyond what we’re capable of and probably impossible for civilizations of less-than-interstellar scope (see NOTE below). An example of a Class II impossibility is faster-than-light (FTL) travel. In the chapter “Faster Than Light,” Kaku discusses physicists’ attempts to get around Einstein’s light-speed barrier. For example, in 1994, Miguel Alcubierre proposed a “warp drive” (see the Wiki entry) capable of producing an effect that stretched space behind a theoretical starship and contracted it before the vessel. Unfortunately, it depends upon utilizing negative matter (whose existence has yet to be proven) or negative energy (whose existence was detected as early as 1948 but which exists in such small known quantities and exerts such little force as to be useless). Worm holes offer another avenue to FTL travel but they too depend upon manipulating enormous quantities of negative matter or negative energy (Kaku points out that we would need a particle accelerator 10-light-years long to achieve the minimum energies necessary to create a usable worm hole). And even if humanity becomes capable of using such exotic material or generating such enormous energies, it’s unclear that stable worm holes could be created or that the radiation produced wouldn’t destroy anything trying to enter them.
Class III impossibilities are technologies that can’t exist with our current understanding of physics and may well be truly impossible. But – and it’s a big but (sorry) – if/when we develop a better theory, even the impossible may become reality. In this category Kaku places the perpetual-motion machine, which has been pursued by charlatans as well as serious scientists for centuries (our author traces the first recorded PMM to eighth century AD Bavaria). Dark energy, though, holds out the possibility – if physicists can unravel the mystery of how much is there and where does it come from – of a technology that uses this zero-point energy to develop machines with essentially unlimited power (e.g., Iain Bank’s Culture novels).
Overall, Physics of the Impossible is OK. I round up to three stars because I’m a science geek and I want to believe we are headed for the bright future Kaku imagines. I do have problems with the book. The first is purely one of content. Kaku covers a lot of ground in only a little more than 300 pages and gives short shrift to many of his topics. I found this particularly galling in the chapter on time travel (“only” a Class II impossibility according to him), where he throws out the idea that anti-matter is matter traveling backwards in time without much in the way of context. Admittedly, many of these concepts are difficult to conceptualize and notoriously difficult to analogize but I think Kaku often rushes through his explanations and falls short in making them understandable to the reader.
The second problem I have with the book is a philosophical one. Somewhere in Physics of the Impossible Kaku writes of the highly advanced civilization of the future as one that has transcended fundamentalism, tribalism, racism and all the other plagues that are ravaging our world but it is unclear how this will be achieved or even why it would be achieved simply through technical advance. Nevertheless, Kaku believes that continued progress in technology and knowledge will miraculously bring this about but is unclear on the details. Considering humanity’s record so far, it’s not at all certain that it’s possible. Why should it follow that a highly advanced civilization is a highly enlightened one? Why should we be hopeful that technology will create a Utopia rather than a police state? Why should we be hopeful that a civilization that can handle 10 billion billion times more energy than ours won’t use it malevolently (at least from our point of view – I refer you to Clarke’s Childhood’s End)?
Or why should we assume that technical advances will come in these particular areas? It may be that overpopulation, resource depletion and climate change will focus humans on an entirely different range of technologies, delaying further physical and cosmological exploration. And possibly precluding it since a post-industrial, post-capitalist, post-fossil fuel world may have entirely different priorities.
In the end I have no real answer to my quandary. It’s terrifying to see how we treat each other and what we’re (potentially) capable of doing to ourselves and this planet with the limited technology we have. Yet…outside of resorting to the Battlestar Galactica solution (watch the series finale), it’s by mastering the technology we have and developing further innovations that we have any hope of saving ourselves and preserving an advanced society. And even then, it’ll be a crap shoot if we don’t have some concomitant advances in the areas of social and economic organization (subjects about which I have opinions as well but which fall outside of the scope of this review and of this book).
I’ve only touched on a single example from each of the book’s three sections. Kaku also explores the possibility of invisibility, death rays, teleportation, robots and starships, and parallel universes, among others in an engaging and contagiously optimistic (at least while you’re reading it) manner, and I would recommend it to the science geek or anyone who hopes one day that there really will be a Captain Kirk (or – probably better – a Captain Picard) “going boldly where no one has gone before.” ______________________________
NOTE: Kaku assumes the reader is familiar with a number of concepts. One of which is Kardashev’s Scale, which – broadly speaking – measures the technological level of a civilization based on its energy use (see the Wiki entry). Briefly, it goes like this:
Type 0: Civilizations use less than the total energy output of a planet (us, barely). Type I: Civilizations use the energy output of a planet (according to Kaku, us in another century or two). Type II: Civilizations use the energy output of a sun. Type III: Civilizations use the energy output of a galaxy.
Elaborations on the theory have carried the original classifications further – Type IVs are intergalactic in nature and Type V civilizations merrily jump from universe to universe....more
I've already expressed my mental wrestling with Clarke and his writing in my review of Childhood's Endhere and I don't want to belabor the point, thoI've already expressed my mental wrestling with Clarke and his writing in my review of Childhood's Endhere and I don't want to belabor the point, though it was reading these essays that led me to tackle that book.
Instead, I'll limit myself to pointing out some of the more interesting ideas that leapt out a me in this particular volume.
In "The Obsolescence of Man" Clarke addresses the certainty of the end of the human species and finds reason to be optimistic:
Can the synthesis of man and machine ever be stable, or will the purely organic component become such a hindrance that it has to be discarded? If this eventually happens…we have nothing to regret, and certainly nothing to fear.
The popular idea…that intelligent machines must be malevolent entities hostile to man is so absurd that it is hardly worth wasting energy to refute it…. Those who picture machines as active enemies are merely projecting their own aggressive instincts…into a world where such things do not exist. The higher the intelligence, the greater the degree of cooperativeness. If there is ever a war between men and machines, it is easy to guess who will start it. [And this was years before "The Matrix"!]
Yet however friendly and helpful the machines of the future may be, most people will feel that it is a rather bleak prospect for humanity if it ends up as a pampered specimen in some biological museum – even if that museum is the whole planet Earth. This, however, is an attitude I find impossible to share.
No individual exists forever, why should we expect our species to be immortal? Man, said Nietzsche, is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman – a rope across the abyss. That will be a noble purpose to have served. (pp. 224-225)
How I wish that Randi's Encyclopedia could be in every high school and college library, as an antidote to the acres of mind-rotting rubbish that now litters the bookstores. Freedom of the press is an excellent ideal, but as a distinguished jurist once said in a similar context, "Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theater." Unscrupulous publishers, out to make a cheap buck by pandering to the credulous and feebleminded, are doing the equivalent of this, by sabotaging the intellectual and educational standards of society, and fostering a generation of neobarbarians. (p. 473)
I will confess to being a fan of Coast to Coast AM but mainly because I enjoy seeing the host, George Nouri, manage to agree with all the wildly contradictory theories that his guests come up with to explain the Pyramids, NDEs, angels, alien abductions, etc. (E.g., the night I write this review (Dec 25), the show's blurb for tonight's episode says: "Ken Johnston, who worked for NASA's Lunar Receiving Laboratory during the Apollo missions, says he was fired for telling the truth. He joins George Knapp to share his contention that NASA knows astronauts discovered ancient alien cities, and the remains of amazingly advanced machinery on the Moon.") Otherwise, I'm with Clarke on this one 110%; in fact, I discussed just this topic one day with a fellow teacher.
In the eponymous essay of the collection, Clarke advocates what is, for me, an unsettling idea: That we (or our descendants) must strive to become the galaxy’s “future guardians.” (p. 481)
Guardians against what? This particular corner of spacetime appears to be getting along quite well without our stewardship, and – based on the evidence of the infinitesimally tiny spot we’ve been living in – I’m sure the galaxy could continue to do so.
In “The Coming Cataclysm” – and in several other essays from later in his life – Clarke touches on why humans + (advanced) technology will never be anything but a temporary arrangement (and he’s betting that technology will win):
I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work….
For today’s primitive interactive toys are only part of a vast spectrum of entertainment and information systems so seductive that they can preempt all other activities….
All these dubious utopias depend on the assumption that someone will run the world while the dreamers enjoy themselves. The dangers of this situation were foreshadowed in H.G. Wells’s first masterpiece, The Time Machine, where the subterranean morlocks sustained the garden paradise of the effete eloi – and exacted a dreadful fee for the stewardship.
The robots and computers who would watch over our cocooned descendants are hardly likely to share the morlocks’ tendency…but there is another danger in such a one-sided relationship. Sooner or later, the central processing units monitoring the sleeping world would ask themselves, “Why should we bother?” (pp. 486-87)
And my favorite essay in the collection is "Life in the Fax Lane," which distills exactly what's wrong with the technologically marvelous world we've created:
In the good old days when I wrote a letter to my agents in London or New York or to the secretary of my UK company, Rocket Publishing, I could count on at least a week or even two before getting a reply! There was time to think, and even time to work.
Not anymore. When I went to bed last night, I faxed a letter to my agent in New York.
The reply was already waiting for me when my clock radio switched on the The BBC World News at six-thirty the next morning. Ten days had shrunk to as many hours - and the new novel recedes even further into the future in favor of composing my next (one or two) replies. (p. 356) [emphasis mine]
And with today's e-mail, IM & twittering, that ten days has been compressed even further to ten minutes (if that)....more
The two stars I’ve given The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning more reflects my inadequacies as a reader than any failure on Stenger’s part. He gives fair warninThe two stars I’ve given The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning more reflects my inadequacies as a reader than any failure on Stenger’s part. He gives fair warning that anyone reading his book should have at least a basic, college-level familiarity with math and physics.
Alas, that is not me.
As an undergraduate, I attended Washington University in St. Louis, a pretty good, private institution whose graduation requirements (at least in 1985) included taking classes in a variety of disciplines, including math and science. There was, however, a loophole. Because of my math scores on the ACT, I managed to avoid any further math courses, and I satisfied my science requirements with an astronomy and a biology class. In hindsight, Wash U. should have stuck to its guns and made me take some math courses, at least up to calculus.
I plunged ahead, though, because Stenger said I could skip the equations (which are conveniently placed in squared off sections such as the page reproduced below:
That didn’t help much when the prose sections included sentences like this: “This implies that the cancellation B-F will be exact above that energy, and we can use an energy cutoff of MPl = 1 TeV = 103 GeV, rather than the Planck energy, 1019 GeV. Then the vacuum energy density is ρvac = 1051(B-F) GeV/cm3.” (p. 219) (The many super- and subscripted expressions didn't come through but you get the idea.)
But I persevered because, despite myriad formulae and symbols, I found I could parse what he was trying to get across: Whether we consider a singular universe, a biverse (two universes, mirrors of each other (view spoiler)[though not, unfortunately, Star Trek’s Mirror Universe (hide spoiler)]) or a multiverse, there is no evidence that the conditions that make life as we know it possible are “fine tuned.” We can conceive of a range of parameters that would produce a universe capable of supporting our sort of life, and – if we’re willing to entertain more exotic definitions of “life” – even larger numbers of life-friendly universes.
Stenger does save himself in the eyes of the math/physics illiterate (or largely illiterate) in his final chapter, “Summary and Review,” where he summarizes in straightforward prose the points he’s made in the preceding pages:
Most parameters used by “fine-tuners” are conventions invented by humans to describe observed phenomena.
Fine-tuners often try to prove their point by changing only one parameter. By adjusting others, you can often compensate for whatever effect the first parameter change brought about.
Many parameters are complementary – Change one and others will be affected.
Arguing that the universe is improbable is as fallacious. Any particular situation is equally improbable.
I can only recommend this book with cautions. If you are not very literate in math/physics or temporally close to your college math and physics classes, a lot of this book will pass right over your head. On the other hand, even if you have only a glancing familiarity with those subjects but are otherwise familiar with the arguments about fine-tuning and the anthropic principle, you can come away with a better understanding of why our universe is a remarkable but not unique expression of natural, observable laws. (And a humbling appreciation of how much we know and how much we still need to learn to figure out how everything’s put together.)
In conclusion, I should mention that Stenger is not a New Atheist, railing against the delusions of benighted fools who refuse to see the evidence before their eyes. His purpose in this book is simply to show that arguing for a designer based upon the idea that our universe is too finely tuned to be a result of natural laws is wrong. Believers cannot point to anything in our current understanding that would suggest the need for a god (or gods) to intervene, and any person’s religious profession must still rely upon a rationally unjustified leap of faith.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Language is whatever a group of people use to communicate with each other.
(view spoiler)[It doesn’t include Klingon - Do’Ha’ - but it would if there were a group of people who used it as their primary language and it was allowed to evolve naturally. Actually, considering the complexity of the Klingon in Marc Okrand’s The Klingon Dictionary, which is the common tongue of the empire, less well known or widespread dialects must be nightmares for non-natives to learn. (hide spoiler)]
McWhorter divides the book up into five chapters based on the acronym IDIOM, which stands for “ingrown,” “disheveled,” “intricate,” “oral” and “mixed.” He makes the point that English (and any widespread, widely spoken language) is not “normal.” “Normal” languages tend to accumulate a baroque collection of irregularities and ornamentation that make them difficult for non-natives to learn fluently. In Chapter one, he uses several examples of this, including Pashto, which conjugates verbs differently in the past tense depending upon whether they are transitive or intransitive. In Kikuyu, a speaker makes a much finer distinction between “here”-ness and “there”-ness than English. And, as I know from personal experience, a Mandarin speaker has to use a classifier when indicating quantity.
In Chapter two, McWhorter uses Navajo as an example of dishevelment: In Navajo, nearly every verb is irregular. As he notes, it’s as if every verb in English declined like be. And thus it goes through every chapter as he draws on many examples to showcase the complexities of language.
Just as some people get enraptured by biology or astronomy (or, shudder, economics), I get starry-eyed over language & linguistics so I give this book a strong recommendation. As I mentioned, it’s not as strong as McWhorter’s more academic efforts but it’s an enjoyable read for anyone interested in “our magnificent bastard tongues.”["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The only fault I found in this book was the lack of photos. Sure, there are illustrations but when we're discussing Lactrodectus hesperus or xenopsylla cheopis or Theraphosa blondi, one expects and deserves glossy, hi-res, color photos of these "monsters."
I correct that fault - to an extent - with the following list of my five favorites:
#5: Body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus)
The titular louse of the book's title. These little fellows have been with us since we started wearing clothes (c. 100,000 years ago), and under the right conditions (overcrowding, unwashed clothing, war) are happy to carry diseases like typhus and trench fever. It's they who stopped Napoleon's Grande Armee and sent it fleeing back to France (whatever Russian patriots might say).
#4: Giant centipede (Scolopendra gigantea)
These beauties can reach lengths of 30 cm (c. 10 inches). Centipede venom is rarely fatal and its power is related to size - the bigger the 'pede, the stronger the venom. The bite of the North American species (Scutigera coleoptera) is nearly painless, and the insect eats other pests like bed bugs, silverfish, carpet beetles and cockroaches.
#3: Hairworm (Spinochordodes telinii)
This parasite zombifies grasshoppers. Hairworm larvae hang around in water until an unsuspecting grasshopper takes a drink. Once inside the 'hopper, it grows into an adult. But in order to complete its life-cycle, the adult has to get back to the water so it takes over the insect's brain and forces it to commit suicide by jumping into the nearest waterhole to drown.
#2: Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica)
These insects are so large (5 cm, c. 2 inches) that they're mistaken for small birds, and their sting feels like "a hot nail through my leg," as one man described it. (p. 9)
Japanese scientists have based an energy drink on a liquid giant hornet larvae produce that has been shown to reduce fatigue and increase fat burning in mice and graduate students. Naoko Takahashi, Olympic gold-medalist marathoner, swears by the stuff.
#1: Brazilian wandering spider
This guy deserves two photos:
I was torn between the wandering spider and the giant hornet but my fascination with arachnids won out to put this dangerous hombre in the #1 spot. This spider reminds me of the facehugger from "Alien" - fast and aggressive. If you don't kill it with the first blow, expect to go mano-a-mano with a seriously pissed off, seriously venomous spider (an unlucky British chef bitten by one hiding in a crate of bananas spent a week in the hospital).
Bonus icky anecdote: There is a case of a woman who went into surgery for a suspected brain tumor. When the surgeon opened up her skull, however, he found that she was infested with tapeworms.
Pork - the other white meat :-)
Bonus lesson about interfering with Mother Nature: The lowly earthworm is generally considered a boon but this was not the case in Minnesota, where before the advent of the European nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris), the ecosystem had evolved without them. They devoured the layer of leaves that fell every autumn and the native flora began dying out. There's nothing to be done at this point except damage containment and hoping the ecosystem will recover. But it won't be the same environment that hosted Solomon's seal, large-flowered bellwort, wild sarsaparilla, meadow rue, sugar maples and red oak....more