I want to take you to a short trip. Short, but very fast trip to the edges of our current understanding of the world. For all the humanists out there, don't be afraid. It should be apprehensible to everyone even though it's about physics. In this case it's fun physics, delivered with metaphors.
Physics of the Impossible
I've just finished reading the Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. It's the second book of his that I've read, first one was the Hyperspace. This is a popular science book, which means there's absolutely no math in it and there's practically no prerequisite knowledge to be able to understand it. The author uses metaphors to the real world to explain the mind blowing theories and research.
Moreover he uses concepts from science fiction movies, TV series and books to talk about physics. This means laser guns, light sabers, time travel and travel faster than light.
Inspiring Power of the Mind
The main theme of the book is how the borders of what's possible and what's impossible has always moved with the progress of our knowledge. Surprisingly the history of science is full of things that were deemed impossible and then happened. Enough to mention that Einstein, who reformed our whole understanding of the universe, concluded that we'll never be able to detect the gravitational waves. Lo and behold, LIGO detector has proven their existence this year (2016)!
In case you wonder, yes there's new detectors coming. For example LISA which will be composed of 3 satellites orbiting the Sun (not the Earth!) that will detect other kinds of gravitational waves. It will be then followed by the BBO (Big Bang Observer) focused on yet another way of looking at the gravitation.
When Wolfgang Pauli introduced the concept of neutrino in 1930 he said it was a catastrophic idea, because we'll never be able to prove it right or wrong. That's because neutrinos almost don't interact with the physical world. They could fly through a block of led the size of our solar system and don't even "notice" it. Just like it would move through vacuum. Now, we're not only able to detect them, but we can create beams of neutrinos!
Amazing Pace of Technological Progress
The complexity of physical laws and theories is matched by the pace of technology progress. Only 8 years have passed since the book was published. Kaku quotes experiments from 2007 which were fresh back then. It's amazing how quickly some of the technologies progressed since then. Let me give you some examples:
- Nanotubes They're the strongest material known to humans. They would be needed to construct space elvator to cheaply transport stuff into Earth's orbit. When the book was written the longest stripes of nanotubes we could produce were 15mm. Now scientists have achieved 550mm. That's almost 37 longer tubes in 8 years. This roughly follows Moore's law, which (in broad sense) says technology capacity doubles every 1,5 years.
- Quantum computer Back when Kaku wrote the book it wasn't clear if quantum computing is possible and if so, when would it become reality. Now we have first, very basic, but working quantum computers.
- Planets outside solar system There were 250 known in 2008. Now we know of 3,472 of such planets.
- Fusion power This is extremely difficult task engineers are tackling for decades. In 2008 all the experiments still required to put in more energy into the fusion reactors than they produced. However in mid 2013 scientist for the first time obtained energy from a fusion reactor. Thus proving it is possible.
The book is sprinkled with plenty of things that seem ridiculous and impossible. Yet, they fit the measurements and explain reality really well. For example the crazy idea that there's only one electron in the entire universe! It turns out that this was the initial idea that propelled Richard Feynman to build a theory (QED) that gave him the Nobel prize. The trick is that the electron zigs and zags forward and backward in time very quickly, all the time. Or the concept of parallel universes which arises in 3 areas of physics independently. So there must be something to it.
Testament to the Power of Human Brain
All in all this is a pleasant and very entertaining read. It increased my faith in human kind. The end of the book contains the list of things that seem to be really impossible. Surprisingly, there's only two things of this kind: precognition and perpetuum mobile. The rest is just a matter of progress of our understanding and engineering. Curiosity FTW!