I just finished Michio Kaku’s 2008 book Physics of the Impossible, which left me with a renewed admiration and respect for this great mind and true master-communicator of popular science. So warm and inviting is the language and its presentation that the reader doesn’t at all feel condescended to at the hands of the considerable “dumbing down” he’s receiving on subjects like string theory, quantum mechanics, special relativity, particle physics, etc.
The central concept of the book is excellent: the word “impossible” is relative, and thus needs to be applied very carefully. The history of science consists of thousands of years of man deeming certain ideas impossible — only to have many of them fully developed and operational a decade or so later. And there are so many doozies in recent memory, e.g., the declarations in the late 19th Century that heavier-than-air flight was impossible and that all the great discoveries in the field of physics had already been made.
So Kaku cleverly breaks the world of the “impossible” down into grades: Class I, II, and III impossibilities. Class I means “impossible now, but conceivable in the next 100 years,” as compared to Class III at the other end of the spectrum, which means “this violates the current and all possible future laws of physics.”
I was interested that Kaku views ideas that are not in accord with the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics (which render perpetual motion unattainable) as Class III impossibilities. I.e., he thinks we’re more likely to travel in time machine or bend spoons with our minds than we are to build a machine that doesn’t consume energy.
I have to admit that I beamed with delight when Kaku discussed his experiences on this subject. He tells us that he has a stream of seemingly intelligent people in his life who bring him perpetual motion machines and ask him to check them out to verify that investors may be wise to back them.
Though I have about one-millionth the exposure to the people and concepts of physics as Kaku (not to mention the level of comprehension), I run into this kind of thing constantly. Just last week I had a discussion with an “inventor” of such a device who asked me to travel to New York to examine it, to whom I wrote:
I read your analysis, but it doesn’t show what you’re claiming it does. The energy lost in resistance will always be greater than the energy gained in regeneration. And there is no need for me — or anyone else — to see it physically to know that; it’s a condition imposed by the second law of thermodynamics, of which there has never been a valid counter-example.
I’ve seen dozens of attempts to prove that someone has worked around this, and they’ve all been bogus. In fact, I get assertions like this at the rate of at least one per week. Some of them (and I’m not suggesting yours in one) are bald-faced attempts at fraud; I ran into a guy out here in California trying to raise money from credulous investors to build a prototype of something that was theoretically impossible — and I believe he clearly understood that. He’s now under criminal investigation.
The relevance to all of us trying to develop clean energy solutions is clear: there is no free lunch. Having said that, there are many flavors of renewable energy whose efficiencies are improving steadily — as their costs are coming down. Depending on how you measure it, we’re only a few years away from “grid parity” — the point at which an incremental megawatt of energy from solar will be the same as that of a coal-fired power plant.
In any case, I hope readers will check out Kaku’s terrific book. It carries with it the master’s typical charisma, along with his characteristic sense of both humor and humility. It’s fast-moving and extremely well done — from its dramatic opening until its poignant closing remarks. Most important, it’s comprehensive in its dealings with dozens of things that curious people want to explore in addition to how we power our planet: UFOs, teleportation, time-travel, ESP, wormholes, parallel universes, the building blocks of the universe and its ultimate fate. Trust me: you won’t be disappointed.