mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Michio Kaku Lecture: Physics of the Impossible

(This seems to be my week for recommending books for science fiction writers.)

Last night, Nomi and I went to the Museum of Science to hear a talk by Dr. Michio Kaku.

Dr. Michio Kaku, Michael A. Burstein Dr. Michio Kaku, Michael A. Burstein
Copyright © 2008 by Nomi S. Burstein. All rights reserved.

Kaku is a theoretical physicist who has written a few very popular books on physics and what he thinks the future will bring. His current book is Physics of the Impossible, in which he discusses a variety of technologies that most of us think of us as science fiction, but which Kaku speculates will happen for real, some of them very soon.

In the book, he lays out three different classes of impossibility, as follows:

Class I Impossibilities, such as teleportation, telepathy, and invisibility, are consistent with the laws of physics as we know them and might become real within the current century.

Class II Impossibilities, such as time travel and travel faster than the speed of light, lie at the edge of known physics.

Class III Impossibilities, such as perpetual motion machines and precognition, defy the laws of physics as we currently understand them.

His talk skimmed some of the topics in his book, including invisibility and teleportation. He also discussed robots and artificial intelligence, and my favorite topic, time travel. He showed a few clips from a BBC series he's hosting, Visions of the Future, which is supposed to be broadcast in the United States sometime in 2009, but I'd love to track down a copy earlier if I can.

Kaku is clearly a fan of science fiction; his lecture slides were sprinkled with pictures from Star Trek, 2001, Terminator, and other media SF, and the cover of his latest book clearly shows a TARDIS as the time machine plunging through the wormhole. At one point, in an attempt to explain the paradoxes inherent in time travel, Kaku described a scenario that I quickly realized was the plot of Robert A. Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies–" (F&SF, March 1959). I wish he had identified it as such, though, as that might have inspired people in the audience to track it down.

When discussing the rise of the Internet and the shrinking of the computer chip, Kaku showed an artist's representation of a pair of contact lenses with chips that would give you immediate access to the Internet directly in your field of vision. The lenses would also help you identify people's faces, and I started to think about a former student of mine who has prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. With contact lenses such as these, no one would ever have to know.

One thing Kaku mentioned does have me a little worried. Over the past few decades, astronomers have observed many gamma ray bursts (GRBs), short-lived bursts of high-energy photons, the most energetic events occurring today. GRBs are often caused by two energetic stars orbiting each other, occasionally emitting a burst of these photons across the sky. (For more information on gamma ray bursts, check out NASA's website on Gamma-Ray Bursts.)

Why did Kaku bring these up? Well, apparently, one of the potential gamma-ray bursters out there, WR 104, is only 8000 light-years away and, um, pointed right toward us. Should it send a burst of gamma rays in our direction, it could conceivably fry the planet we live on. Since I'm the type of guy who already worries about collisions from near-Earth asteroids and the eventual heat death of the universe, now I have something else to worry about. Thanks a lot, Dr. Kaku. :-)

Like "The Coming Convergence" by Stanley Schmidt, which I recommended earlier this week, "Physics of the Impossible" is a great read for both science fiction writers and people interested in what the future will bring.
Tags: books, science, science-fiction

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