Hyperspace, Michio Kaku

Oxford, 1994, 359 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-19-508514-0

Long-time readers of these reviews have undoubtedly noticed that I don’t give formal ratings to books. No stars, no percentiles, no “X out of Y”, nothing. The reason is simple; in my mind, formal ratings are a shortcut, and shortcuts are damnably simple. Sure, so you can glance at the rating a decide in half a second if I liked the book or not. On the other hand, you can glance at the rating and not read the review. Or e-mail me endlessly because I gave the same rating to both THE DISPOSSESSED and SEX-HUNGRY MATHEMATICIANS and you feel that’s a personal insult to you, LeGuin and non-sex-hungry mathematicians around the world.

(What’s the link with Hyperspace? Stay with me.)

In brief; I don’t do perfect ratings in these reviews. Privately, I do keep some sort of rating for trivial purposes (It facilitates sorting for “the best/worst SF/mystery book written in 19XX?”) but rarely do I give anything over a 90%: The perfect 100 should be reserved for something like The Bible (If I believed in it, or if it stopped a bullet fired at me), or a book so mind-blowing that it would do nothing less that completely change my outlook on life and (preferably) make me a measurably better person.

Hyperspace doesn’t get the 100, but for the first hundred pages, it looked like it might get a 95. Written by a honest-to-goodness scientist, Hyperspace has the ambitious goal of bringing the reader up to date on the state of theoretical physics. Michio Kaku has the distinction of having made some important advances in this domain in addition of being an exceptional science vulgariser. With Hyperspace he has produced something as good as James Gliek’s Chaos, my scientific-nonfiction-yardstick.

Briefly put, Kaku takes the reader through the entire history of theoretical physics, from the Greeks to today. The point he makes repeatedly is that the laws of physics are far simpler that we think, if we can conceive of them as being manifestations, “echoes” of higher-dimensions phenomenons. Much like shadows on a plan, the laws of the universe could be shadows of hyperspace. It sound crazy, almost SF, but Kaku makes it utterly convincing. And that’s one of the lesser revelations.

You will have to possess some solid physics to understand some of what Kaku says. I’ve got three semesters of college-level physics, and I was lost on a few of the most technical pages. But the level of vulgarization is still impressive: Even a relatively smart high-school student could grasp what’s being said without being too overwhelmed too long. A large dose of the hardest-SF out these also helps, perhaps too much: The last chapters of the book are extrapolations on known facts, but they’re going to appear commonplace to SF readers used to Ringworlds, Time-corps and galactic wars.

But the first half of the book is definitely not pedestrian. Michio shows why Einstein’s work was so important. He talks about string theory, a piece of twenty-first century physics “nobody’s smart enough to understand now.” He chronicles the fascinating lives of some of the smartest people ever. He explains the link between maths and science.

But most of all, he makes a testament to the importance, the excitement and the achievements of Science. That alone makes it a must-read.

Hyperspace is one of the best books I’ve read. Period. My view of the world was reformatted every five pages or so. It’s exalting, unbelievable, breathlessly exciting and deeply moving at the same time. For a self-avowed atheist, it’s the closest thing to religious epiphany. Recommended!

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