Physics of the impossible — Summary

Take a journey into the world of spectacular and futuristic physics

In the nineteenth-century, Jules Verne’s contemporaries laughed off his fantasies about devices like fax machines, worldwide communication networks and rocket ships to the moon. Today of course all those things are normal for us. Even moderately old science fiction movies depict technologies which later were developed.

But what about technologies that seem impossible today? That’s what this book tries to analyze and explain. This book is an invitation to exercise your mind and go big on imagination and learn something about physics along the way.

The science of force fields and invisibility cloaks

The concept of force fields originated from the work of the great nineteenth-century scientist Michael Faraday. His lack of mathematical training he used hand-drawings to understand the concept instead of mathematical equations. This lead to the beautiful diagrams of lines of force that we know from physics textbooks.

Force fields in science fiction are invisible yet impenetrable barriers able to deflect lasers and rockets. A force field could have a profound effect on every aspect of our lives. The military could use a force field to become invulnerable. Structures like bridges and superhighways could, in theory, be built by simply pressing a button. Force fields could be used to protect cities and their inhabitants from the effects of storms, and they could even be built by force fields. Force fields would, in essence, replace glass, steel, and mortar.

But force fields like the ones featured in Star Trek possible? It is clear that they are one of the most difficult devices to create in the laboratory. But by combining several different technologies it might be possible to create force fields able to deflect rockets. One could use a Plasma molded by magnetic and electrical fields and add a lattice of carbon nanotubes to it. How exactly is not clear of course, but there are windows of opportunity.

Phasers and death stars might be possible

The Death Star from the Star Wars franchise is a weapon the size of an entire moon. It is able to destroy an entire planet with his energy ray. But are weapons like that even possible? What about the lightsabers from Star Wars?

Although it might be difficult to believe, in nature, there are radiation blasts like those from a gamma ray which are able to fry a planet.

Today, the military already uses lasers in their missile defense systems. A handheld laser gun might be possible in the near future. A planet destroying death star, however, is far away from the current technological capabilities and likely will be for a long time. The death star does not go against the laws of physics, however.

Teletransportation is possible in theory

How often have you wished to be able to teleport yourself while you were stuck in traffic or while you were in a long-distance relationship?

The good news is, scientists have already succeeded in teleporting objects. The bad news is, they only are able to teleport individual atoms. Something complex as a human being would need the computational power of a quantum computer and that technology is still in rudimentary phases and currently, transportation requires extremely low temperatures.

The interesting thing is that a teleport does not physically transmit the atom itself but only its state. The atom from point A has to be reconstructed with help of the teleported information in point B.

Telepathy and psychokinesis

For over a century scientists have investigated mind-reading, extrasensory perception, and psychokinesis, the ability to move objects with the mind. While there is no solid evidence that people can read minds, technology is getting better and better in reading the brain activity. The problem is that the electrical signals emitted from the brain are extremely weak and even if they were stronger so we could more easily measure them, we have no way to unscramble and interpret the all the signals.

MRI technology is one of the top technology for identifying human brain patterns and scientists are compiling a “dictionary of thought” trying to convert the measured patterns into human emotions. MRI technology is getting closer to enable handheld gadgets but is still far away from deciphering the plethora of individual thoughts a human mind can produce.

But what about psychokinesis? Psychokinesis is the ability to move objects just by thinking about them. Can technology make this possible one day? Indeed, we have already created biofeedback devices, devices which can communicate brain waves to a computer and thus enable the movement of devices. Paralyzed people benefit immensely from these devices. Not only can they move robotic limbs, they even can engage in video games.

In the next century, the technology will be developed to a point where we can control nanotechnology through biofeedback to perform tasks which would seem like magic today.

Artificial Intelligence and smart Robots

We have been fascinated by the idea of intelligent machines a long time. But while modern computers can perform exceptional calculations, there are some things they still struggle with. Common sense for instance, is something hard to program into a computer. Engineers have long tried to make rules such as “fire can be dangerous” but the problem is there are millions of such rules and programming them into computers hasn’t been successful.

A newer and much more successful approach is to allow robots to learn from experience just as animals and humans do. Instead of trying to make rules about how they should move through a room, engineers let them bump into walls and learn how to not make those mistakes again. When we are infants we don’t memorize rules about common sense, rather we develop common sense from our experience. This type of learning has been very successful and as a result, some of MIT professor Rodney Brooks’ robots now are collecting data for NASA on Mars.

Extraterrestrial life

Scientists are working hard to find intelligent life-forms in the universe. As our technology improves, our chances to discover life forms increases. Our telescopes are getting better and so does our capacity to interpret what they show us.

So what exactly do scientists look for in their search? There are some elements which are required for life as we know it. We know that water is essential for life on our planet, it acts as a very good solvent for chemicals which then enable the creation of more complicated structures. Carbon is another important element because it allows the creation of complex molecules through its four bonds. Another important thing is that the planet has a moon because without one a planet is massively unstable which can induce extreme weather conditions and thus make it less habitable for life-forms.

Another thing scientists look out for is a Jupiter-like planet in the planet’s solar system. A big planet like Jupiter neutralizes many roaming asteroids with his great gravitational pull.

Despite the high expectations to find life somewhere,  we have no conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial visits (UFO’s) yet. 95% of the sightings can be explained by natural phenomena or hoaxes, the remaining 5% such as the CIA documented sightings of UFO’s over Iran in 1979 remain a mystery.

Leaving our solar system

There are many dangers to humanity if we remain only on earth. Wars and asteroids are just some examples. If humanity wants to survive in the long run, we need to figure out how to go interplanetary and eventually leave our solar system.

To make it happen we need new propulsion systems. Two possible options are ion and plasma engines. Plasma engines heat hydrogen gas to a million degrees Celsius at which it becomes plasma in the form of a powerful jet. Ion engines eject ion beams to propel the spaceship, NASA has already used an Ion engine to fuel Deep Space 1 in 1998.

Once a propulsion system exists there is the challenge to make the travel save as we cannot expose ourselves to the radiation out of Earth’s atmosphere. Another thing is the gravitational pull, without it our muscles atrophy and other long-term problems happen to our health.

Faster than light travel might also be possible by designing a warp engine. The engine would circumvent the light speed stated by Einstein’s equations by warping the space around the ship. Wormholes are another possible highway to go directly from one point of space to another one. Unfortunately, these would require a colossal amount of negative energy.

Are you curious yet? Definitively get this book. It is my personal recommendation to check out Michio’s books because he has a very accessible, interesting way to write. Your perspective will change a lot and you will learn lots of new things.

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Also published on Medium.