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Where’s My Jetpack? By Daniel H Wilson and Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku June 28, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Daniel H Wilson, Michio Kaku, Non-Fiction, Reviews.

‘Underpromise but Overdeliver’ is a mantra often heard in the customer service industry, wherein I am currently employed. Viewing the world through the prism of science fiction you could be forgiven for thinking that the future as it appears so far doesn’t quite seem to deliver the goods. 2001 has come and gone and there’s no sign of superintelligent, if a tad neurotic, computers, moonbases or manned missions to Saturn. The singularity appears just as far off as it did a decade ago. A long time ago they might have had lightsabres and interstellar travel but, despite innumerable youtube efforts, the real thing is yet to make an appearance.

Where’s My Jetpack? and Physics of the Impossible are two books that seek to make the best of this considerably disappointment, albeit in two slightly different ways.



I’ll start with the lighter of the two by Daniel H Wilson. The author has a PhD in robotics as well as form in the area of comic/popular science books, having written a guide to surviving a robot uprising. The book takes a number of staples of science fiction over the last century and looks at currently existing efforts to see how far science is from realising the dream. Beginning with transport, the titular jetpack is discussed – various versions have been tried but the main obstacle is the fact that nobody really wants to make them on a large scale. They would be worse than useless as a mode of transportation, there’s no real military application so the only peeople actively pushing for them are going to be extreme sports enthusiasts. Flying cars, moving pavements and that steampunk classic, the Zeppelin are all covered.

From here we move on to future forms of entertainment, superhuman abilities, space travel and the home of the future. We learn of a woman who lived with a dolphin for a year in a semi-submerged house, Soviet experiments in building a ‘space mirror’ – an orbital superweapon, teleportation through quantum entanglement, artificially cultured meat and the fact that the Pentagon developed the power bar.

One interesting thing is the extent to which technology has moved on in the last four years. Developments like the widespread commercial use of 3d technology in games and tv – without the nausea and vomiting that accompanied the first attempts to develop 3d without glasses – and the introduction of backscatter machines in airport security.

Where’s my Jetpack? is great fun to read, the kind of book you can flick through, pausing on those sections that catch your attention, or that you can devour easily in one sitting. The research seems solid enough, but the author eschews lengthy digressions into science and engineering, preferring quick, snappy descriptions of the history of the future and the strange, eccentric and surprising stories that come with it.

Michio Kaku is a physicist, an academic, a key figure in the development of string theory and a fantastic popular science writer. Physics of the Impossible basically uses speculative technologies from sf as a jumping off point to talk about the fringes of physics as we currently understand it. The author desribes three levels of impossibility; technologies that are beyond our capabilities at the moment but do not violate any physical laws of the universe, technologies that may be possible but are thousands or millions of years beyond our current capabilities, and finally, technologies that violate the laws of physics as we currently understand them.

Under the first category the author tackles such sf staples as forcefields, phasers, artificial intelligence, UFOs, teleportation, Death Stars and telepathic powers. He takes current theories and technologies and extends them to speculative models of possible future versions, with the expected references to Star Trek, Star Wars and other popular culture sf classics. The science here is pretty detailed but perfectly accessible; indeed one of the joys of the book for me was the way Kaku explains in simple paragraphs the kind of basic scientific facts that you are dimly aware of but if pressed might have difficulty putting into words. Stuff like superconductors, how lasers work, Bose-Einstein condensates, the kind of thing that crops up a lot in hard sf, along with a good helping of quantum physics all delivered in a fashion that is neither condescending nor overly technical. A masterclass in how to write popular science books.

The second class of impossibilities goes deeper into science fiction territory, covering faster than light travel, time travel and parallel universes. In each the author gives us a bunch of competing ideas to out line the parameters of the debates between competing theories, while giving his own views on what theories seem most likely (at least within the next ten thousand years or so.) Again, a useful for aspiring sf writers, if you’re writing a space opera and want a consistent model of interstellar travel, this would be a good starting point.

Class three impossibilities cover precognition and perpetual motion machines. These may violate the known laws of the universe but Kaku nevertheless gives a few intriguing suggestions as to how this obstacle might be overcome. The discussion of zero-point energy from the vacuum is particularly interesting. As with the rest of the book however it’s the combination of free-wheeling discussions of physics peppered with examples from history and fiction that really make these chapters.

Among the many things I learned from this book are:

King Kong, while visibly impressive would not be able to walk; his legs would collapse under his own weight. (A slightly disappointing revelation if, like me, you happen to be a fan of giant monster movies.)

The US patent office won’t issue a patent for a perpetual motion machine without a working model. (On account of too many applications over the years; the French Academy of Science stopped taking submissions in 1775 because of the sheer volume.)

There is a version of the strong Anthropic principle that suggests that the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ operates at a universal level; intelligent life develops in a universe by chance and then goes on to create it’s own ‘bubble’ universe, fine tuned for life. This cycle continues making it more likely than not for life producing universes to exist.

Both of these books are worth a read, having the capacity to reignite any latent enthusiasm for science, gadgets and novel modes of transportation. They help link fantastic ideas from fiction to real world examples and offer up different ways of viewing sf from a technological perspective.


A couple of links today. Here’s one to an article by Michio Kaku from 2005 in Prospect Magazine on the possibility of escaping into a parallel universe;



And an extra one, to the excellent site Paleofuture, looking at retro visions of the future;




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