A Scientific Exploration of the Impossible – I – M.S. Srinivasan

(This article is a review and a critical commentary of a fascinating book The Physics of the Impossible by an eminent physicist, Michio Kaku.)

“Earth’s winged chimeras are truth’s steeds in heaven,

The impossible God’s sign of things to be”

Sri Aurobindo

Beyond the Limits of the Possible

Science isn’t modern. There was great science in the ancient world. What is unique about modern science is the unending miracles of technology, constantly stretching the frontiers of the possible and reaching out to the impossible, moving swiftly from theoretical discoveries to practical application, making what is regarded as impossible by even the best scientific minds not only possible, but making it part of the daily life of the common man. In this book under review, the author Michio Kaku explores this aspect of modern science, telling a fascinating story about what lies in the womb of the future of science.

The themes explored in this book include well known domains of science like force fields, lasers, robots, nuclear energy; much less known, esoteric ideas of quantum of physics and cosmology like anti-matter, faster than light particles, worm holes, parallel universes; science fiction scenario like invisibility, death rays, time travel, teleportation; and shadowy corners of science belonging to the domain of parapsychology like telepathy, psychokinesis, precognition. The traditional scientific mind may dismiss some of these themes as pseudoscience. But the scientific credentials of the author of this book are impeccable. Michio Kaku is the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the cofounder of the string field theory in quantum physics. He is the author of many books on science and his bestseller Hyperspace was voted as one of the best science books by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The Hierarchy of the Impossible

The orthodox scientist confines himself to the limits of the possible, following strictly the traditional scientific method of observation of facts, analysis, hypothesis and experimentation. On the other hand, the science fiction writers stretch their minds into the impossible, indulging freely in fantasy and imagination and weaving stories around a kernel of scientific ideas. In this book, Michio Kaku tries to bridge the gap by telling how what is regarded as impossible at present is progressing towards the possible in the high temples of science. To do this, Kaku classified the “impossibles” into three categories

The first one which Kaku calls as “Class I Impossibilities” are technologies that are impossible today, but do not violate the known laws of physics and therefore might be possible within one or two centuries. They include teleportation, antimatter engines, certain forms of telepathy, psychokinesis and invisibility. The second category, Class II Impossibilities are technologies that lie at the very edge of our understanding which means, the theoretical or conceptual understanding of the basic laws and principles are not yet clear. If they are possible at all, they may take a few millions of years. They include time machines, hyperspace travel and travel through wormholes. The third category, Class III Impossibilities are technologies that violate the known laws of physics and therefore can be called as truly impossible. On this category of impossibilities, Kaku says “Surprisingly, there are very few impossible technologies. If they turn out to be possible, they would represent a fundamental shift in understanding of physics.”

In the preface to the book, Kaku describes how even some of the best scientific minds were unable to discern the potentialities of a scientific idea, invention of of technology and dismissed it as impossible. “Sadly, some of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century took the opposite position and declared any number of technologies to be hopelessly impossible”, says Kaku and gives the following examples:

“Lord Kelvin, perhaps the most prominent physicist of the Victorian era, declared that ‘heavier than air’ devices such as the airplane were impossible. He thought X-Rays were a hoax and that radio had no future. Lord Rutherford, who discovered the nucleus of the atom, dismissed the possibility of building an atomic bomb, comparing it to ‘moonshine’. Chemists of the nineteenth century declared the search for the philosopher’s stone, a fabled substance that can turn lead into gold, a scientific dead end. Nineteenth century chemistry was based on the fundamental immutability of the elements, like lead. Yet with today’s atom smashers, we can, in principle, turn lead atoms into gold. Think how fantastic today’s televisions, computers and Internet would have seemed at the turn of the twentieth century. More recently, black holes were once considered to be science fiction. Einstein himself wrote a paper in 1939 that proved that black holes could never form. Yet today, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray telescope have revealed thousands of black holes in space.”

In contrast, some intuitive minds, who are not qualified scientists, are able to predict the possibility of many inventions which were considered impossible during their times. For example, Jules Verne in his novel Parks in the Twentieth Century written in 1863, talks about fax machines, a worldwide communication network like that of our present Internet, glass skyscrapers, gas powered automobiles and high speed elevated trains. Similarly, in the following passage, Kaku describes the astonishingly accurate prediction of atom bombs by H.G Wells:

“In the 1930s, it was widely believed, even by Einstein, that an atomic bomb was “impossible”. Physicists knew that there was a tremendous amount of energy locked deep inside the atom’s nucleus, according to Einstein’s equation E=mc2, but the energy released by a single nucleus was too insignificant to consider. But atomic physicist Leo Szilard remembered reading the 1914 H.G Wells novel, The World Set Free, in which Wells predicted the development of the atomic bomb. In the book, he stated that the secret of that atomic bomb would be solved by a physicist in 1933. By chance Szilard stumbled upon this book in 1932. Spurred on by the novel, in 1933, precisely as predicted by Wells some two decades earlier, he hit upon the idea of magnifying the power of a single atom via a chain reaction, so that the energy of splitting a single uranium nucleus could be magnified by many trillions. Szilard then set into motion a series of key experiments and secret negotiations between Einstein and President Roosevelt that would lead to the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb.”

From the Impossible to the Possible

As described earlier, Kaku classifies the impossibilities of science into three categories and illustrates each category with many examples. In each example, he describes what is the present condition or status of the science or technology, how it is progressing towards the realm of the possible. Let us now examine some of them.

We may take first the example of teleportation because it illustrates vividly how modern science works moving from theory to experiment and practical application. Kaku defines teleportation as “the ability to transport a person or object instantly from one place to another” and describes how this technology “could change the course of civilisation and alter the destiny of nations”.

“It could be irrevocably alter the rules of warfare: armies could teleport troops behind enemy lines or simply teleport the enemy’s leadership and capture them. Today’s transportation system- from cars and ships to airplanes and railroads, and all the many industries that service these systems would become obsolete; we could simply teleport ourselves to work and our goods to market. Vacations would become effortless, as we teleport ourselves to our destination. Teleportation would change everything.”

According to old Newtonian Physics, which conceived the atom as fixed, distinct, separate and material entities, teleportation is even theoretically impossible. But with the advent of quantum physics, which conceives the atom as at once a particle and a wave, teleportation becomes a theoretical possibility. The quantum theory allows the possibility of an atom in its wave form to be transported from one place and rematerialized at another place. A series of experiments demonstrated this theoretical possibility at the atomic level.

In 1995, scientists at IBM led by Charles Bennett showed that it was possible to teleport objects at the atomic level. The first historic demonstration of quantum teleportation in which photons of ultraviolet light were teleported occurred in 1997 at the University of California. In 2004, physicists at the University of Vienna were able to teleport particles of light over a distance of 600 metres beneath the river Danube using a fibre optic cable. In the same year 2004, quantum teleportation was demonstrated not with photons of light, but with actual atoms bringing us a step closer to a more realistic teleportation device.The physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington DC successfully entangled berryllium atom and transferred the properties from one atom to another.

In 2006, yet another great advance was made for the first time involving a macroscopic object. Physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and Max Planck Institute in Germany were able to teleport a beam of light entangled with a gas of caesium atoms over a distance of about half a yard.

In 2007, physicist Aston Barley proposed an experiment which involves a beam of about 5000 particle disappearing from one place and appearing somewhere else which he claims “closer in spirit to the original fictional concept”. In this experiment, a beam of rubidium atom is taken, convert all its information into a beam of light across a fibre optic cable and then reconstruct the original beam of atoms in a distant location. Commenting on this proposed experiment, Kaku states,”If this claim holds up, this method would eliminate the number one stumbling block to teleportation and open up entirely a new way to teleport increasingly large objects.”. Talking about the future possibilities of teleportation, Kaku writes

“Given the progress we have made, when might we be able to teleport ourselves? Physicists hope to teleport complex molecules in the coming years. After that perhaps a DNA molecule or even a virus may be teleported within decades. There is nothing in principle to prevent teleporting an actual person , just as in the science fiction movies, but the technical problems facing such a feat are truly staggering. In fact, it will take many centuries, or longer before everyday objects could be teleported, if it is possible at all”

But there are some problematic spots in these conclusions of Kaku, like for example,”There is nothing in principle to prevent teleporting an actual person….”. Our eminent physicist seems to ignore a very tricky problem in teleporting a person. We humans are not mere bodies made of atoms, molecules or DNA. We have a mind and possibly a soul or to put in more general terms, a consciousness. So teleporting a person means not only teleporting her body but also her consciousness. Is it possible to teleport the consciousness of a person along with her body by using physical science and technology? This is not merely a technological problem but raises some fundamental psychological and spiritual questions. The answer to these questions depends on our conceptions of our own self and our consciousness. The traditional scientific mind views consciousness as an epi-phenomenon of matter and tends to equate brain with the mind or consciousness.  If we believe in this conception, then teleporting of people along with their consciousness is not impossible because in this perspective, when we are able to teleport the body and brain of a person, we are also teleporting her consciousness. But if we believe in the spiritual perspective which conceives mind and consciousness as something distinct from body and brain, which can persist even after the death of the body and brain, then teleporting a person along with his consciousness using physical science and technology belongs to what we may call as the Class IV impossibility!

This limitation of perspective of Kaku, who is a physicist looking at everything including psychological factors from a predominant physical angle, pursues his discussion of parapsychological phenomena like telepathy and telekinesis.

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