Michio Kaku: Physics made accessible – even fun!

June 1, 2008 at 10:05 pm (books)

I was delighted to open the Style & Arts section of today’s Washington Post and see this piece on Michio Kaku. As it happens, I am currently making my way, in a relaxed, nonlinear fashion, though his Physics of the Impossible.

In Florida, in my junior year in high school, I took chemistry and fell head over heels in love with the subject. As the teacher was a young, adorable guy from Boston with that great accent, I fell for him as well. Many were the afternoons that my lovestruck friends and I spent “helping out” in thre chem lab, sighing over Mr. P. while we washed beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks.

Anyway, I got an A for the year in chemistry (no surprise there!), and full of the hubris of youth, I went on to take physics my senior year. What a humbling experience that proved to be! I was utterly bewildered, from the first day of class. Ultimately I scraped by with a D – my first ever. I was mortified!

So, I had reasons to feel hostile toward physics. But in later years, I came to realize how intimately physics was intertwined with the history of the first half of the twentieth century. And books began to appear that could be read, enjoyed, and understood by the nonscientist lay person. Two that I enjoyed in recent years were The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart and Before the Fallout by Diana Preston.

The Prologue in Before the Fallout begins as follows:

“On 6 August 1945, the Christian Feast of the Transfiguration, the Festival of Light, a young mother, Futaba Kitayama, looked up to see ‘an airplane as pretty as a silver treasure flying from East to West in the cloudless pure blue sky.” Someone standing by her said ‘A parachute is falling.’ Then the parachute exploded into ‘an indescribable light.’

Preston goes on to describe what happened next to these unsuspecting persons.The scene remains etched in my mind, probably forever. Silver treasure indeed…

We can only be thankful that physics is now the subject of lively intellectual inquiry, and that we can read about it and experience a sense of wonder instead of dread. In fact, writers like Michio Kaku make physics seem like the stuff of dreams. He refers frequently to the classics of science fiction as well as films like Star Wars and Star Trek, describing a specific scenario from a book or movie and then discussing it in terms of the laws of physics as they are currently known and understood. Fascinating stuff!

Here are some chapter titles in Physics of the Impossible: Force Fields, Invisibility, Phasers and Death Stars, Telepathy, Psychokinesis, Robots, Time Travel, Parallel Universes, Precognition, Perpetual Motion Machines. Michio Kaku considers each of these topics in the light of what is – or might in future be – feasible in accordance with the laws of physics. I read the first two chapters, Force Fields and Invisibility, and then skipped ahead to Time Travel and Parallel Universes. What a long, strange, and thoroughly exhilarating trip it’s (so far) been!

Professor Kaku has a wonderfully sly sense of humor. In explaining how messy and complicated it would be if people traveled into the past, he observes: “History would become an unending madcap Monty Python episode, as tourists from the future trampled over historic events while trying to get the best camera angle.”

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