The science fiction lover reads Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku

Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku This is a book about the technologies that will shape our lives in various ways in the near future and in the coming 100 years. It's all extrapolated from the current front line of technology and from new knowledge that is anticipated to be exploited soon. Michio Kaku is a physicist who has made a name as a popularizer of science, through his books and as host of various TV shows. Physics of the Future is based on interviews with scientists and people who are involved in developing and trying out the discussed technologies.

The title is a bit misleading – it's clearly chosen because the book is in some ways a sequel to Kaku's Physics of the Impossible, which discusses seemingly impossible things people do in fiction and what it would take to make some of them possible. Physics of the Future is not about what we will learn in physics in the future. Not even only about how physics will be applied in the future. It's about computers, robots, medicine, economics, energy and, yes, about space travel. Every chapter is divided into three parts: the current state of the art, what we might be able to do around mid century, and visions for the "far future" in about 100 years.

Many of the ideas are discussed in the light of two principles: Moore's law and "the caveman principle". Moore's law states roughly that computers double in capacity every two years. At some point in the not so far future Moore's law will break down because it meets the physical limits of how small we can make our integrated circuits. The caveman principle is just that people are basically the same as in the stone age. Our preferences and needs are rooted in that human nature, and this will shape how we implement our technologies and shape our future.

Of course things will not play out exactly the way described in the book, and this is discussed in the introduction. The book is about what we might do, based on what we know now, and this is the available information that we need to work with when imagining the future. A reader of popular science magazines might already be familiar with most of the things and ideas discussed here (I found this especially true for the chapter about space travel), but here a lot is collected in the same place in a nice package where you can start to appreciate how various advances can work together. Someone who is new to all of this might find the book fairly dense, but still readable.

Michio Kaku is clearly enthusiastic over the subject, and very optimistic. It's a mostly bright future he describes, where we use our collected wits and deal constructively with the problems caused by global warming and the end of oil. I actually feel that the positive picture he paints sometimes borders on the naive, when he glosses over the ethical problems with some of the inventions he describes. Yes, there are problems with creating entities with minds and make them serve us. And what responsibilities do we have to our "designer babies"? (As a friend of mine stated it: how fun is it 30 years later, when your genes are really out of fashion?) I understand that these discussions may be beside the point and that Kaku doesn't want to fill the book with them, but I miss acknowledgments that ethics can be relevant and important in shaping the future.

Some comments about economics, history and other relevant subjects far from physics also seem a bit oversimplified. I'm sure that Michio Kaku has done his research and that he has fact checked everything against experts, but being one myself I know that physicists are not necessarily experts of everything, and I reserve the right to be a bit skeptical about his historical analyses. Nevertheless I enjoy the enthusiasm and the optimism, because it makes it easy and entertaining to read the book. I put many question marks in the margins of the discussions about for example how exactly Europe came to be more successful than China and the Ottoman empire, but that doesn't spoil the rest of the book.

Perhaps the least successful chapter is the last one, "A day in the life in 2100", which is intended to illustrate what life might be like when we have access to all of the things described in the preceding chapters. It reads like science fiction from the 1930's, only with updated gadgets, and leaves me feeling unsatisfied when I put the book down. Michio Kaku is a good writer of popular science, but not as talented at fiction, and for this story did not add anything of value.

I have read enough good SF to have little patience with bad SF. This brings me to my real problem with reading this book, which is not a failure of the book but rather of me as a reader. My reading mind is shaped by decades on a high-SF-diet. The thing that keeps nagging me through the book is that the author seems to be completely unaware of science fiction literature after about 1982 or so. I know, it's very unfair to judge a book because it fails to do something the author didn't intend at all in the first place. (Actually, I hate it when people do that. I stopped reading reviews on online bookstores because of that.) I just cannot help it.

Physics of the Impossible by Michio KakuFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes Neverness by David Zindell
The Golden Age by John C. Wright The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson 

You see, I keep thinking of the perfect examples of how everything mentioned in this book is discussed in science fiction, new and old. If you talk about super intelligent mice I want to mention Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. If you talk about recreating Neanderthals I want to mention Neverness by David Zindell. If you talk about regrowing lost limbs I think of Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. If you talk about augmented reality (digital information superimposed on your senses) I think of The Golden Age by John C. Wright and The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. If you talk about extended life spans I want to mention the treatment of that in the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. When it comes to nanotechnology, why not mention The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, which I recently reviewed here.

This list just goes on forever.

Michio Kaku instead takes most of his examples from ancient mythology and talks about "the power of gods". The rest of his illustrating examples come from Star Trek and SF blockbusters, which he seems to like but not take very seriously. That is fair enough but leaves me feeling a bit frustrated. I think I personally would have preferred to read a book about technologies in fairly current science fiction literature with discussions of if and when these might be available in reality, and the science behind. The book I wish I had is an updated version of the classic The Science in Science Fiction, edited by Peter Nicholls. It was published in 1983 and is still readable, but it's too old to contain cyberpunk, new space opera, and a lot of cool scientific ideas which have been commonplace in SF recently – such as many of the things discussed in Physics of the Future. I wish someone would write an updated version of The Science in Science Fiction. I actually wish that I could write it myself (something that I could not do alone, that's for sure).

It's not Michio Kaku's fault that I feel frustrated by this. Physics of the Future is entertaining and I think the author succeeds with what he has set out to do: discussing future technologies. Thinking about it, I wonder if it would not also be a nice source of inspiration for SF writers.

(By the way: yes, it bothers me that my quick list of science fiction examples contains no works by women. That is something worth discussing.)