Tag Archives: Michio Kaku

Visions, Michio Kaku

Anchor, 1997, 403 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 0-385-48499-2

Science-as-solution has taken a beating over the last century. While pundits of the Victorian era could confidently claim that “Science will solve everything!”, they were too close to the soot and grime of Industrial-era London to know better. We have the benefit of hindsight, and names like Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Challenger and Thalidomide to remind us of what happens when mistakes happen.

In this context, it’s a bit adventurous to write a book with a subtitle like “how science will revolutionize the 21st century”. Even though Americans haven’t lost their lust for new technology (as exemplified by the five years it took for the Internet to enter mainstream status), surely we’ve seen the end of the “scientific revolutions”, haven’t we? It’s not as if there are sizeable dragons to be explained away yet, right? Aren’t we reaching the end of science?

Ironically, this “end of science” argument closes Charles Sheffield’s book Borderlands of Science, a similarly-themed overview of the limits of today’s science. Kaku begins with this questions, answering it with a compelling argument: While it is true that we are reaching the limits of the Age of Understanding -a Theory of Everything is even in sight-, we are only beginning the Age of Mastery, where we’ll apply our pure knowledge in increasingly practical ways.

This Age of Mastery, according to Kaku, will spring from three different sources: the Quantum revolution, computer revolution and biomolecular revolution.

Readers already familiar with the field of scientific vulgarization probably already recognize Michio Kaku’s name from his previous book, the superb Hyperspace, which managed to teach superstring theory in an entertaining fashion. Vision doesn’t equal the sheer fun of the previous book, but stand alone as a successful attempt to survey today’s science and to predict where it will lead us in 2050 and beyond. Obviously, no single person can make such a judgement. Sheffield’s Borderlands of Science was a half-failure because he didn’t have the necessary knowledge to make accurate projections beyond the realm of physics. Kaku sidesteps the difficulty by donning a reporter’s hat and interviewing specialists outside his own sphere of competence. The result is a book that does feel like an overlong TV documentary at times, but that also covers most of the important subjects.

And so we go from ubiquitous PCs to global communications to artificial intelligence to beyond silicon to DNA decoding to genetic therapy to molecular medicine to longevity to genetic engineering to interstellar colonization. All subjects are examined in three different time frames: From here to 2020, from 2020 to 2050 and beyond 2050. Each major theme is followed by a counterpoint chapter which questions the pro-scientific assumptions of the previous chapters. If Visions somehow isn’t complete, well, it sure does feel complete.

As with any overview, there are rough patches. Ironically, the single major strength of Hyperspace, a sense-of-wonder at new theories, simply isn’t present in Visions, which for the most part presents material that’s quite familiar to anyone following technology news: Nanotechnology and immortality and semi-sentient computers have been discussed to death in Science-Fiction and socio-technological forums; while their inclusion is essential to Visions, they’re not new or especially mind-bending.

But it doesn’t really matter: Visions packages a really thorough mini-guide to science in a few hundred pages, and does so with a good sense of organization, plenty of sources, a good index and a very accessible writing style. Best read by individuals not currently aware of the cutting-edge fields of research, but also enjoyable by anyone else. Good stuff.

Still, I wonder how well it’ll read ten, twenty-five years from now… at the current pace of research, it almost looks as if we might be well beyond his most optimistic projections by then!

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!