March 11, 2008 at 10:10 PM ET
|Click for video: How impossible |
is teleportation? Physicist Michio
Kaku gives his perspective.
Just how impossible are such science-fiction concepts as teleportation and invisibility? They're not that impossible, physicist Michio Kaku says in a new book titled "Physics of the Impossible." In fact, they're considered mere Class I impossibilities - and someday soon they may be off the impossible list altogether.
Now, if you're looking for a Class III impossibility, there are only a few things in Kaku's book that rise to that level. See if you agree with his assessment.
"Many times, physicists say that certain things are impossible – like physicists said that airplanes were impossible at one point," Kaku told me. "That’s because we didn’t understand the laws of physics very well. Well, today we have a pretty good handle on Einstein’s relativity theory and quantum theory. And now we have to expand our horizons as to what is really impossible."
To some extent, it depends on what your definition of the word "impossible" is. For decades, scientists (and science-fiction authors) have talked about Type I, Type II and Type III civilizations - that is, civilizations that can harness the power of an entire planet (Type I), a star (Type II) or a whole galaxy (Type III). On this scale, we rate as a Type 0 civilization.
Kaku picks up on this idea in his classification system for impossibilities:
Kaku has always been one to give wide latitude to scientific possibilities, in a series of books including "Hyperspace" and "Visions." He told me he wrote this latest book because some of the things that were once thought to be purely science fiction are starting to look as if they're possible, at least in the realm of lab experiments if not practical applications.
"Things that a physicist would snicker at today could become possible in the coming decades," he said. "As we get a better grasp on quantum theory, we think that it may be possible to make objects invisible. It may be possible to teleport them like you see on 'Star Trek.' So some of the things that we see in science fiction could very well become science fact in the coming years."
Turning the impossible into the possible usually comes with caveats:
The reality behind achieving the impossible may not always be worth the trouble. For example, take psychokinesis, the ability to move things with your mind. Kaku classifies this as a Class I impossibility - because soon scientists could conceivably set up a system that reads your thoughts using a brain-imaging device, processes your mental command using a computer, and then levitates objects magnetically using room-temperature superconductors.
All that sounds a lot clunkier than using Uri Geller's spoon-bending trick - or just walking over and picking up the darn spoon yourself.
Speaking of Uri Geller, Kaku notes in the book that scientists aren't always good at picking up on hoaxes that seem to achieve the impossible. "Scientists are trained to believe what they see in the lab. Magicians claiming psychic powers, however, are trained to deceive others by fooling their visual senses," Kaku writes.
On the other hand, scientists (and, by the way, journalists who write about scientists) aren't always good at picking up on what is truly possible. Kaku's reference to magicians brings science-fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke's three laws of impossibility to mind:
At age 61, Kaku is hardly elderly. But is he right or wrong about scientific impossibilities? Take this quiz to find out whether you agree or disagree with Kaku's classifications, and feel free to weigh in with your own opinion below.