Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel

Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel

4.3 232
by Michio Kaku

View All Available Formats & Editions

A fascinating exploration of the science of the impossible—from death rays and force fields to invisibility cloaks—revealing to what extent such technologies might be achievable decades or millennia into the future.

One hundred years ago, scientists would have said that lasers, televisions, and the atomic bomb were beyond the realm of physical

…  See more details below


A fascinating exploration of the science of the impossible—from death rays and force fields to invisibility cloaks—revealing to what extent such technologies might be achievable decades or millennia into the future.

One hundred years ago, scientists would have said that lasers, televisions, and the atomic bomb were beyond the realm of physical possibility. In Physics of the Impossible, the renowned physicist Michio Kaku explores to what extent the technologies and devices of science fiction that are deemed equally impossible today might well become commonplace in the future.

From teleportation to telekinesis, Kaku uses the world of science fiction to explore the fundamentals—and the limits—of the laws of physics as we know them today. He ranks the impossible technologies by categories—Class I, II, and III, depending on when they might be achieved, within the next century, millennia, or perhaps never. In a compelling and thought-provoking narrative, he explains:
· How the science of optics and electromagnetism may one day enable us to bend light around an object, like a stream flowing around a boulder, making the object invisible to observers “downstream”
· How ramjet rockets, laser sails, antimatter engines, and nanorockets may one day take us to the nearby stars
· How telepathy and psychokinesis, once considered pseudoscience, may one day be possible using advances in MRI, computers, superconductivity, and nanotechnology
· Why a time machine is apparently consistent with the known laws of quantum physics, although it would take an unbelievably advanced civilization to actually build one
Kaku uses his discussion of each technology as a jumping-off point to explain the science behind it. An extraordinary scientific adventure, Physics of the Impossible takes readers on an unforgettable, mesmerizing journey into the world of science that both enlightens and entertains.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

In the writings of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, science doesn't tiptoe into the realm of science fiction; it leaps with awesome bounds. The author of Hyperspace foresees a time when the enhanced MRI devices may make it possible for us to read minds. Like a new-millennium Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, he plots a future where we might be able to simulate invisibility or travel in time. Physics of the Impossible describes how the laws of physics relate to the possibility of teleportation and telekinesis. Fellow physicist Fritjof Capra lauded this book as "extremely well researched, lively, and tremendously entertaining."

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


I. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

II. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

III. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


"Shields up!"

In countless Star Trek episodes this is the first order that Captain Kirk barks out to the crew, raising the force fields to protect the starship Enterprise against enemy fire.

So vital are force fields in Star Trek that the tide of the battle can be measured by how the force field is holding up. Whenever power is drained from the force fields, the Enterprise suffers more and more damaging blows to its hull, until finally surrender is inevitable.

So what is a force field? In science fiction it's deceptively simple: a thin, invisible yet impenetrable barrier able to deflect lasers and rockets alike. At first glance a force field looks so easy that its creation as a battlefield shield seems imminent. One expects that any day some enterprising inventor will announce the discovery of a defensive force field. But the truth is far more complicated.

In the same way that Edison's lightbulb revolutionized modern civilization, a force field could profoundly affect every aspect of our lives. The military could use force fields to become invulnerable, creating an impenetrable shield against enemy missiles and bullets. Bridges, superhighways, and roads could in theory be built by simply pressing a button. Entire cities could sprout instantly in the desert, with skyscrapers made entirely of force fields. Force fields erected over cities could enable their inhabitants to modify the effects of their weather-high winds, blizzards, tornados-at will. Cities could be built under the oceans within the safe canopy of a force field. Glass, steel, and mortar could be entirely replaced.

Yet oddly enough a force field is perhaps one of the most difficult devices to create in the laboratory. In fact, some physicists believe it might actually be impossible, without modifying its properties.

Michael Faraday

The concept of force fields originates from the work of the great nineteenth-century British scientist Michael Faraday.

Faraday was born to working-class parents (his father was a blacksmith) and eked out a meager existence as an apprentice bookbinder in the early 1800s. The young Faraday was fascinated by the enormous breakthroughs in uncovering the mysterious properties of two new forces: electricity and magnetism. Faraday devoured all he could concerning these topics and attended lectures by Professor Humphrey Davy of the Royal Institution in London.

One day Professor Davy severely damaged his eyes in a chemical accident and hired Faraday to be his secretary. Faraday slowly began to win the confidence of the scientists at the Royal Institution and was allowed to conduct important experiments of his own, although he was often slighted. Over the years Professor Davy grew increasingly jealous of the brilliance shown by his young assistant, who was a rising star in experimental circles, eventually eclipsing Davy's own fame. After Davy died in 1829 Faraday was free to make a series of stunning breakthroughs that led to the creation of generators that would energize entire cities and change the course of world civilization.

The key to Faraday's greatest discoveries was his "force fields." If one places iron filings over a magnet, one finds that the iron filings create a spiderweb-like pattern that fills up all of space. These are Faraday's lines of force, which graphically describe how the force fields of electricity and magnetism permeate space. If one graphs the magnetic fields of the Earth, for example, one finds that the lines emanate from the north polar region and then fall back to the Earth in the south polar region. Similarly, if one were to graph the electric field lines of a lightning rod in a thunderstorm, one would find that the lines of force concentrate at the tip of the lightning rod. Empty space, to Faraday, was not empty at all, but was filled with lines of force that could make distant objects move. (Because of Faraday's poverty-stricken youth, he was illiterate in mathematics, and as a consequence his notebooks are full not of equations but of hand-drawn diagrams of these lines of force. Ironically, his lack of mathematical training led him to create the beautiful diagrams of lines of force that now can be found in any physics textbook. In science a physical picture is often more important than the mathematics used to describe it.)

Historians have speculated on how Faraday was led to his discovery of force fields, one of the most important concepts in all of science. In fact, the sum total of all modern physics is written in the language of Faraday's fields. In 1831, he made the key breakthrough regarding force fields that changed civilization forever. One day, he was moving a child's magnet over a coil of wire and he noticed that he was able to generate an electric current in the wire, without ever touching it. This meant that a magnet's invisible field could push electrons in a wire across empty space, creating a current.

Faraday's "force fields," which were previously thought to be useless, idle doodlings, were real, material forces that could move objects and generate power. Today the light that you are using to read this page is probably energized by Faraday's discovery about electromagnetism. A spinning magnet creates a force field that pushes the electrons in a wire, causing them to move in an electrical current. This electricity in the wire can then be used to light up a lightbulb. This same principle is used to generate electricity to power the cities of the world. Water flowing across a dam, for example, causes a huge magnet in a turbine to spin, which then pushes the electrons in a wire, forming an electric current that is sent across high-voltage wires into our homes.

In other words, the force fields of Michael Faraday are the forces that drive modern civilization, from electric bulldozers to today's computers, Internet, and iPods.

Faraday's force fields have been an inspiration for physicists for a century and a half. Einstein was so inspired by them that he wrote his theory of gravity in terms of force fields. I, too, was inspired by Faraday's work. Years ago I successfully wrote the theory of strings in terms of the force fields of Faraday, thereby founding string field theory. In physics when someone says, "He thinks like a line of force," it is meant as a great compliment.

The Four Forces

Over the last two thousand years one of the crowning achievements of physics has been the isolation and identification of the four forces that rule the universe. All of them can be described in the language of fields introduced by Faraday. Unfortunately, however, none of them has quite the properties of the force fields described in most science fiction. These forces are

1. Gravity, the silent force that keeps our feet on the ground, prevents the Earth and the stars from disintegrating, and holds the solar system and galaxy together. Without gravity, we would be flung off the Earth into space at the rate of 1,000 miles per hour by the spinning planet. The problem is that gravity has precisely the opposite properties of a force field found in science fiction. Gravity is attractive, not repulsive; is extremely weak, relatively speaking; and works over enormous, astronomical distances. In other words, it is almost the opposite of the flat, thin, impenetrable barrier that one reads about in science fiction or one sees in science fiction movies. For example, it takes the entire planet Earth to attract a feather to the floor, but we can counteract Earth's gravity by lifting the feather with a finger. The action of our finger can counteract the gravity of an entire planet that weighs over six trillion trillion kilograms.

2. Electromagnetism (EM), the force that lights up our cities. Lasers, radio, TV, modern electronics, computers, the Internet, electricity, magnetism-all are consequences of the electromagnetic force. It is perhaps the most useful force ever harnessed by humans. Unlike gravity, it can be both attractive and repulsive. However, there are several reasons that it is unsuitable as a force field. First, it can be easily neutralized. Plastics and other insulators, for example, can easily penetrate a powerful electric or magnetic field. A piece of plastic thrown in a magnetic field would pass right through. Second, electromagnetism acts over large distances and cannot easily be focused onto a plane. The laws of the EM force are described by James Clerk Maxwell's equations, and these equations do not seem to admit force fields as solutions.

3 & 4. The weak and strong nuclear forces. The weak force is the force of radioactive decay. It is the force that heats up the center of the Earth, which is radioactive. It is the force behind volcanoes, earthquakes, and continental drift. The strong force holds the nucleus of the atom together. The energy of the sun and the stars originates from the nuclear force, which is responsible for lighting up the universe. The problem is that the nuclear force is a short-range force, acting mainly over the distance of a nucleus. Because it is so bound to the properties of nuclei, it is extremely hard to manipulate. At present the only ways we have of manipulating this force are to blow subatomic particles apart in atom smashers or to detonate atomic bombs.

Although the force fields used in science fiction may not conform to the known laws of physics, there are still loopholes that might make the creation of such a force field possible. First, there may be a fifth force, still unseen in the laboratory. Such a force might, for example, work over a distance of only a few inches to feet, rather than over astronomical distances. (Initial attempts to measure the presence of such a fifth force, however, have yielded negative results.)

Second, it may be possible to use a plasma to mimic some of the properties of a force field. A plasma is the "fourth state of matter." Solids, liquids, and gases make up the three familiar states of matter, but the most common form of matter in the universe is plasma, a gas of ionized atoms. Because the atoms of a plasma are ripped apart, with electrons torn off the atom, the atoms are electrically charged and can be easily manipulated by electric and magnetic fields.

Plasmas are the most plentiful form of visible matter in the universe, making up the sun, the stars, and interstellar gas. Plasmas are not familiar to us because they are only rarely found on the Earth, but we can see them in the form of lightning bolts, the sun, and the interior of your plasma TV.

Plasma Windows

As noted above, if a gas is heated to a high enough temperature, thereby creating a plasma, it can be molded and shaped by magnetic and electrical fields. It can, for example, be shaped in the form of a sheet or window. Moreover, this "plasma window" can be used to separate a vacuum from ordinary air. In principle, one might be able to prevent the air within a spaceship from leaking out into space, thereby creating a convenient, transparent interface between outer space and the spaceship.

In the Star Trek TV series, such a force field is used to separate the shuttle bay, containing small shuttle craft, from the vacuum of outer space. Not only is it a clever way to save money on props, but it is a device that is possible.

The plasma window was invented by physicist Ady Herschcovitch in 1995 at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York. He developed it to solve the problem of how to weld metals using electron beams. A welder's acetylene torch uses a blast of hot gas to melt and then weld metal pieces together. But a beam of electrons can weld metals faster, cleaner, and more cheaply than ordinary methods. The problem with electron beam welding, however, is that it needs to be done in a vacuum. This requirement is quite inconvenient, because it means creating a vacuum box that may be as big as an entire room.

Dr. Herschcovitch invented the plasma window to solve this problem. Only 3 feet high and less than 1 foot in diameter, the plasma window heats gas to 12,000°F, creating a plasma that is trapped by electric and magnetic fields. These particles exert pressure, as in any gas, which prevents air from rushing into the vacuum chamber, thus separating air from the vacuum. (When one uses argon gas in the plasma window, it glows blue, like the force field in Star Trek.)

The plasma window has wide applications for space travel and industry. Many times, manufacturing processes need a vacuum to perform microfabrication and dry etching for industrial purposes, but working in a vacuum can be expensive. But with the plasma window one can cheaply contain a vacuum with the flick of a button.

But can the plasma window also be used as an impenetrable shield? Can it withstand a blast from a cannon? In the future, one can imagine a plasma window of much greater power and temperature, sufficient to damage or vaporize incoming projectiles. But to create a more realistic force field, like that found in science fiction, one would need a combination of several technologies stacked in layers. Each layer might not be strong enough alone to stop a cannon ball, but the combination might suffice.

The outer layer could be a supercharged plasma window, heated to temperatures high enough to vaporize metals. A second layer could be a curtain of high-energy laser beams. This curtain, containing thousands of crisscrossing laser beams, would create a lattice that would heat up objects that passed through it, effectively vaporizing them. I will discuss lasers further in the next chapter.

And behind this laser curtain one might envision a lattice made of "carbon nanotubes," tiny tubes made of individual carbon atoms that are one atom thick and that are many times stronger than steel. Although the current world record for a carbon nanotube is only about 15 millimeters long, one can envision a day when we might be able to create carbon nanotubes of arbitrary length. Assuming that carbon nanotubes can be woven into a lattice, they could create a screen of enormous strength, capable of repelling most objects. The screen would be invisible, since each carbon nanotube is atomic in size, but the carbon nanotube lattice would be stronger than any ordinary material.

So, via a combination of plasma window, laser curtain, and carbon nanotube screen, one might imagine creating an invisible wall that would be nearly impenetrable by most means.

Yet even this multilayered shield would not completely fulfill all the properties of a science fiction force field-because it would be transparent and therefore incapable of stopping a laser beam. In a battle with laser cannons, the multilayered shield would be useless.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Physics of the Impossible 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 231 reviews.
J_H_Bytell More than 1 year ago
This is an entertaining read. Although Mr. Kaku is a quantum physicist, he is able to communicate the relevant concepts very clearly, avoiding most of the jargon and esoterica that someone of his background usually produces (S. Hawking, et al.) . As someone who likes to think that the impossible is not, this title jumped out and grabbed me. I believe that whatever man can imagine, he can create. If not now, then sometime. Obviously, Kaku believes this too. But he has the chops to back up his analysis, whereas all I can do is dream. So, a book like this really hits the spot for me. But I also think the skeptics would find this a worthwhile read, if only for the fun of trying to poke holes in the analysis. I'd wager this will be harder than they think.
PhysicsPhreak More than 1 year ago
Physics of The Impossible is a fascinating book that dives into the "impossible realms" of the physics world. The book is divided up into Class I, Class II, and Class III impossibilities. Topics include force fields, invisibility, teleportation, time travel, precognition and everything inbetween. The message in this book is that there is no such thing as "impossible". Even the most far-fetched ideas may one day become a reality, and change the course of humanity. The technologies of today were once thought to be impossible. "Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax." - Physicist Lord Kelvin, 1899. I recommend this book to people who have a strong interest in the physics. This book is written for advanced high school students and up. I highly recommend for other people to read this book, as it opens up a whole new light to the possibilities of the future to come. This book offers a different way of looking at the world. All of the concepts described in the book are connected to the past, present, and future. I liked that the topics discussed were relevant to me in my life, however, what I didn't like that some of the ideas were repeated more than necessary. Overall, the book was very well written. I would recommend other works by Michio Kaku, as he is a fantastic writer in this scientific field. Other works of his include Hyperspace, Parallel Worlds, Visions, and Beyond Einstein.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Easy to follow and understand. Wish I could spend an hour just asking him questions.. especially about the last part of the book. Interesting to read about all the new things planned to help solve the unknowns that still exist out there. Have read all his books and wish he would write one a year so average people like myself could continue to be informed in a manner that is understandable and fascinating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In 300+ pages the author walks the reader through the state-of-the-art of physics theory. And does it with wit and literary verve, without technical jargon or mathematical formulae (except for E=MC2, which most of us are aware of even if we don't understand it through and through). Kaku himself is an authority and has personal access to the many others he interviewed for this book. That he can make his material so compelling, clear, and even entertaining is amazing. That said, neophytes (myself included) should not expect a quick, light read. Well worth a bit of time and patience.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An in depth look of how things that are seemingly impossible can be proved to happen through physics of the universe. Michio Kaku explores various pieces of the impossible such as becoming invisible, psychokinesis, and teleportation. This is a very interesting and in depth reading and I only suggest it to those who have background physics. I did not have any background in physics and the book was still interesting but I feel I would have had a better grasp on the concepts with more information regarding physics and science. My favorite part of the book was the piece on time travel because it seemed so simple yet it has been disproved so many times.
NateofCincy11235813 More than 1 year ago
I am a college student double-majoring in computer science and physics. I have seen Michio Kaku on The Science Channel many times. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more from him. I looked him up and saw that he has written a few books. This was my first book I chose to read written by him. He writes detailed and constructs his ideas in a way so that the general reader will understand. For those uninterested in physics, but like science a little enough to appreaciate technology or science fiction, then read this book. There are many interesting topics covered such as lasers, invisibility, teleportation, robots and such. He gives some history on scientists or scientific ideas throughout each concept covered. To other college students pursuing the science degree, though you have probably heard of most of the ideas covered, you will still find this interesting to read. Michio is a inspiration and I look forward to reading his other books that I bought; "Parallel Worlds" and "Einstein's Cosmos".
Shlome More than 1 year ago
Dr. Kaku, and another great book! After reading his book, PHYSICS OF THE IMPOSSIBLE, It really made me see how advanced the world of today is, yet how much longer there is until the things in this book become a reality. Like the Super conductors at room temperature, or the teleportation methods, or even Time travel! Its all a mystery right now, but in the very near future even 5 years from now, it can all become a reality. In his book, He makes sure that not only Physics experts could read his book, But even the average reader like myself. Kaku Brings up many refrences to star trek showing that he is a star treck fan, yet in star treck every single thing that he describes in his book is a reality. From invisibility, to force fields, to warp-speed, He explains how this is possible, and the latest news upon these subjects. Kaku is a great writer, and can really hook the reader, onto the subject. Every chapter talks about something new, so that its not just a repetitive book. He is a great writer, and keeps what he talking about, every now and again mentioning star treck, and how in star treck they use what ever he's talking about (mostly force fields). He talks about how it could improve the everyday life of the human civilization, and greatly make the world of tomorrow today. Its a recomended book for any one who likes sci-fi, yet has a feel for physics. It covers what most Sci-Fi movies/Books contain, Yet Has an understanding of physics, so its not just a book talking about who knows what, but it has a purpose, and meaning.
NJMetal More than 1 year ago
Dr. Michio Kaku's "Physics of the Impossible" is the type of book that blows you mind open with the possibilites. Dr. Kaku is one of the most prolific physicists on the modern age. In "Physics of the Impossible" he explores the realistic possibilities of the science fiction of today becoming the science fact in the not too distant future. In fact, for the most part, the stuff of sci-fi novels will not only become the fodder for tomarrow's non-fiction novels but the fiction may be near childs play as to what the future holds in store for us. Your mind will explode as the possibilites of space and time travel become real in ways you may not realize. More often then not Dr. Kaku reveals we are closer then the general public may even realize. Even when the truely impossible is presented, Dr. Kaku reveals the pathways we must travel (over hundred and thousands of years) in order to get there. For expample, time travel is disucssed as a very real possibility. We know how to do it we lack the ENERGY needed to do it. Wild! For the most part, Micio Kaku is masterful at putting very very detailed physical science into laymans terms that the average joe can understand. However, there are times where I just couldn't wrap my mind around the concepts being destribed. It did not turn me off, I was able to barely grasp the concepts and read through it in a haze. Those moments were few and far between and should be expected when discussing deep physical concepts. This book was the catalyst for the television series Sci-Fi Science. If you enjoy that show or mythbusters or any similar types of programs this book is for you. Of course if your a future science buff this is also essential reading.
KUKELS More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be a great read as well as informative. The author explains the topics so that you don't have to be a scientist to understand the content. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys physics or just wants to explore a different aspect of life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book provides an understandable view into the complex world of physics and quantum mechanics while also tackling the tough topics people unaccustomed to physics would not necessarily get. This book is great for any interested in physics.
BODILLIGAF More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hated physics in high schoool & college. The text books were difficult to read and boring as h--l. I barely passed the classes. I wish my instructors would have used a book like this to supplement the text books. Difficult concepts are introduced in a easy to understand manner. Did i mention the text books.used in high school & colllege were boring? I rarely give a book as a five. This book was easy/enjoyable to read. It deserves a 5
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It analyses every possible detail of the sciencific and tecnic evolution with its history from an idea to what is today and how will be in the future. I Highly recomend if u love science!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love this book! I like the fact that Mr. Kaku is able to communite the relevant concepts very clearly to the average person.  He kept my attenation  through out the whole book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dr Kaku, as in his numerous other works, excels at breaking down the sophisticated foundations of physics and cosmology and applying them to the futuristic fantasies of science fiction in language the average person can comprehend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Michio Kaku writes a stimulating and perceptive account regarding what may long been regarded as impossible, but with current science, may no longer be so regarded. It is a good account of difficult concepts, presented so the unscientific reader can understand.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I will then
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Humm.. we have polarized invisable cloaks now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Know the future read this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read if you are interested in what the future holds for mankind. Easy to read and packed full of good info.