Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Bill Thompson finds Michio Kaku's science impossibly bad
Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist with a chair at the City University of New York and a respectable list of academic publications in his chosen field of string theory. He has also enjoyed an impressive career in the media, both at home in the US, where he appears on everything from PBS to Larry King, and in the UK.
Time, his recent four-hour documentary for the BBC, established him as the media’s favourite physicist, the scientific equivalent of Jacob Bronowski or David Starkey, and his global fame is reinforced by his packed website, where one can find answers to questions about parallel universes, buy cool “Limited Edition” science posters or download the last hundred editions of his radio show Science Fantastic.
His books, with reader-friendly titles like Visions, Hyperspace and Parallel Worlds, are bestsellers and now with Physics of the Impossible we are promised “the first truly authoritative exploration of the real science of tomorrow”, looking at the technologies commonly deployed in science fiction and asking whether they are theoretically possible.
The promise, however, is not fulfilled. Kaku’s attempts to determine whether key tropes of science fiction such as time travel, invisibility, teleportation or ray guns are theoretically possible are inadequately constructed and often incoherent, while the book as a whole is badly structured, repetitive and poorly argued, leaping from topic to topic with no real logic, and offering little explanation of key technical terms or theoretical models.
I know enough basic physics to have managed to fight my way through it, but anyone who does not already understand quantum theory (which he persists in calling “the quantum theory”) and general relativity would quickly give up the struggle.
Small details reveal just how little care has gone into the writing. When Schrödinger described his thought experiment involving a cat in a sealed container, the radioactive material released a poison rather than firing a gun, as Kaku seems to believe (the noise of the gun might have given the game away to those outside). The strong and weak nuclear forces are not responsible for the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. A robot’s cameras do not see “straight and curved lines” which they convert to pixels. And in the 1958 version of The Fly the scientist does not become a mutated, monstrous fly – he gets a fly’s head and claw. It was in David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake that Jeff Goldblum mutated.
This is not pedantry. Small mistakes like this reveal a lack of attention that fatally undermines the larger arguments made in the book – if we cannot trust the author to check these small details then why should we believe anything he writes about the possibilities of time travel or the energy required to teleport a human?
This is a very bad book, carelessly written by a populariser of science who seems to believe that a knock-off collection of poorly constructed essays about cool aspects of physics will impress an audience who will blame their lack of comprehension on their own inadequacies as readers instead of his failure to explain properly.
It may well be that an assiduous editor with a physics degree will have managed to correct the more egregious factual and grammatical errors that made their way into the uncorrected proof I was sent to review, but even if these are removed it is not worth reading.
The depressing thing is that many people will see Kaku’s name on the cover and shell out for it on the basis of his over-the-top television persona, only to end up feeling alienated from science after they struggle through the first couple of chapters. And they may never pick up another physics book
Physics of the Impossible is published by Penguin