Physics of the Impossible

by Michio Kaku

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: May 29, 2024
Physics of the Impossible
Physics of the Impossible

Explore the science and possibilities behind force fields, teleportation, invisibility, and more in this insightful summary of "Physics of the Impossible." Discover how modern science is revolutionizing sci-fi concepts.

What are the big ideas?

Possibility of a fifth force

While current physics does not support the creation of science fiction-style force fields, the book entertains the prospect of a fifth undiscovered force that could enable such a phenomenon, suggesting that our understanding of forces may still be incomplete.

Teleportation transcends fiction

The book highlights how quantum entanglement and teleportation have moved from science fiction to experimental reality, revolutionizing our understanding of communication potential at the atomic level.

Potential for true invisibility

In-depth discussion on advancements in metamaterials that can bend visible light brings the concept of invisibility cloaks closer to practical realization, overcoming previous scientific skepticism.

Psychokinesis reimagined

While traditional psychokinesis remains elusive, the book illustrates how modern brain-computer interfaces and advancements might enable similar feats, classifying it as a 'Class I impossibility'—potentially achievable within a century.

Interacting with parallel universes

The book explores the possibility that a 'Type III' civilization might interact with parallel universes, suggesting that this concept is not purely speculative but could be achievable with enough technological advancement.

Antimatter as a future energy source

The book describes antimatter's potential for energy production, detailing the challenges in production and storage, and speculates on its utility in future interstellar travel, bringing a sci-fi staple into the realm of future possibility.

Want to read ebooks, websites, and other text 3X faster?

From a SwiftRead user:
Feels like I just discovered the equivalent of fire but for reading text. WOW, WOW, WOW. A must have for me, forever.

Possibility of a fifth force

The book acknowledges that the known four fundamental forces - gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force - do not possess the properties typically associated with science fiction force fields. However, it suggests there may be a fifth, undiscovered force that could potentially enable the creation of such force fields.

This hypothetical fifth force is described as potentially operating over much shorter distances, perhaps only a few inches to feet, rather than the astronomical scales of the known forces. While initial attempts to detect such a force have been unsuccessful, the book leaves open the possibility that our current understanding of the fundamental forces governing the universe may still be incomplete.

The implication is that further scientific exploration and discovery could uncover new physical phenomena that defy the limitations of the four known forces. This would open the door to technological breakthroughs that could make science fiction force field concepts a reality, revolutionizing fields from military defense to urban infrastructure and beyond.

Here are the key examples from the context that support the possibility of a fifth force:

  • The context states that "there may be a fifth force, still unseen in the laboratory. Such a force might, for example, work over a distance of only a few inches to feet, rather than over astronomical distances."

  • It notes that "Initial attempts to measure the presence of such a fifth force, however, have yielded negative results."

  • The context explains that while the four known forces (gravity, electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force) do not have the properties of science fiction force fields, "there may be a fifth force, still unseen in the laboratory" that could potentially enable such force fields.

So the key insight is that while current physics does not support science fiction-style force fields, the book suggests the possibility of an undiscovered fifth force that could potentially make them feasible, even though initial attempts to detect such a force have been unsuccessful so far.

Teleportation transcends fiction

Quantum teleportation has transcended the realm of science fiction and become an experimental reality. The principles of quantum entanglement - the instantaneous connection between separated particles - have enabled researchers to successfully teleport information at the atomic level. This revolutionary discovery has profoundly reshaped our understanding of communication and the potential to transmit data across vast distances, even faster than the speed of light.

While teleporting complex, macroscopic objects like humans remains an immense challenge, the ability to teleport individual atoms and molecules is now a tangible scientific achievement. This breakthrough opens up new frontiers in fields like quantum computing, where the seamless transfer of quantum information could unlock unprecedented computational power. As the technology continues to advance, the boundaries between science fiction and reality continue to blur, hinting at a future where the fantastical ideas of the past may one day become everyday realities.

Here are key examples from the context that support the insight that teleportation has moved from science fiction to experimental reality:

  • In 1997, researchers at the University of Innsbruck demonstrated the first historic experiment of quantum teleportation, where they teleported photons of ultraviolet light.

  • In 1998, researchers at Caltech conducted an even more precise experiment involving teleporting photons.

  • In 2004, physicists at the University of Vienna teleported particles of light over a distance of 600 meters beneath the River Danube using a fiber-optic cable.

  • Also in 2004, physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington, D.C. successfully entangled three beryllium atoms and transferred the properties of one atom into another, a significant step towards realistic teleportation.

  • In 2006, researchers at the Niels Bohr Institute and Max Planck Institute entangled a light beam with a gas of cesium atoms, encoding information in laser pulses and teleporting it to the cesium atoms over a distance of about half a yard.

  • In 2007, physicists proposed a new "classical teleportation" method that does not require quantum entanglement, using a Bose-Einstein condensate to convert a beam of atoms into a beam of light, transmit it, and reconstruct the original beam of atoms.

These examples demonstrate how quantum teleportation has progressed from science fiction to becoming an experimental reality, with researchers making significant advances in teleporting photons, atoms, and even macroscopic objects like gases of atoms. The context highlights the revolutionary potential of these developments in our understanding of communication at the atomic level.

Potential for true invisibility

The development of metamaterials has revolutionized the potential for true invisibility. These engineered materials can manipulate the index of refraction to bend light around an object, rendering it invisible.

Previously, the idea of an invisibility cloak was dismissed as impossible by physicists. However, recent breakthroughs have produced working prototypes that can hide objects from microwave radiation. The race is now on to create metamaterials that can bend visible light, bringing the science fiction dream of invisibility closer to reality.

The key challenge is creating metamaterials with structures smaller than the wavelength of visible light, which requires advanced nanotechnology. As this technology progresses, scientists are increasingly confident they can overcome the technical hurdles and develop practical invisibility cloaks, even if they may be bulky at first. The potential applications, from military stealth to magical fantasy, have sparked intense interest and investment in this field.

While a true invisibility cloak remains years away, the rapid advancements in metamaterials have forced a major revision of our understanding of optics. What was once considered impossible is now within reach, transforming the realm of the visible and invisible.

Key Insight: Potential for true invisibility

The context information highlights advancements in metamaterials that are bringing the concept of invisibility cloaks closer to practical realization, overcoming previous scientific skepticism:

  • Researchers at Duke University and Imperial College in London have successfully used metamaterials to make an object invisible to microwave radiation, defying conventional wisdom that this was impossible.

  • Metamaterials are substances with optical properties not found in nature, created by embedding tiny implants within a material that force electromagnetic waves to bend in unorthodox ways. This allows controlling the index of refraction to make an object invisible.

  • The goal is to use nanotechnology to create metamaterials that can bend visible light, not just microwaves. Techniques like photolithography used in computer chip manufacturing are being explored to create the necessary tiny structures.

  • While significant technical hurdles remain, the context indicates that scientists are optimistic an invisibility shield of some sort can be built in the coming decades, overcoming previous skepticism about the possibility of true invisibility.

Psychokinesis reimagined

Psychokinesis, the ability to manipulate physical objects through the power of the mind alone, has long been the stuff of science fiction. However, the context provided suggests a more grounded, technological path to achieving similar feats.

The key lies in brain-computer interfaces - devices that can detect and interpret brain activity, translating thoughts into digital commands. As these technologies advance, they may enable individuals to control external devices, machines, and even robotic limbs, simply by thinking. This could allow paralyzed individuals to regain mobility and functionality, or grant able-bodied people "superhuman" abilities akin to psychokinesis.

While a true, mystical form of psychokinesis remains elusive, the book classifies this technological approach as a "Class I impossibility" - something that may become possible within the next century, as our understanding of the brain and our ability to interface with it continue to evolve. This represents a significant shift from the fantastical psychokinesis of science fiction, towards a more grounded, scientific reality.

Here are the key examples from the context that support the insight that psychokinesis could be reimagined through modern brain-computer interfaces:

  • The Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonais?" shows how ordinary beings could mentally control a central power station to perform "miraculous feats" - a form of "radio-enhanced or computer-enhanced psychokinesis."

  • Using an EEG, people can learn to "consciously control the brain patterns" they see on a screen through biofeedback. This could allow them to "trigger a computer or motor" just by thinking and producing specific brain patterns.

  • Neuroscientist John Donoghue has developed a "BrainGate" device that enables paralyzed patients to perform physical activities like changing TV channels, drawing, and playing video games using only the power of their mind.

  • Researchers have been able to map gene expression in the mouse brain and hope to create a similar "atlas" for the human brain. This could help analyze neural connections and potentially establish a "one-to-one correspondence between a specific thought, its MRI expression, and the specific neurons that fire to create that thought."

  • Physicists have proposed "handheld MRI machines" that could make brain scanning much more accessible and affordable, potentially enabling "mind reading" capabilities, though not to the level of science fiction "telepathy."

The key concepts illustrated here are brain-computer interfaces, biofeedback, neural mapping, and handheld brain scanning - all of which could reimagine psychokinesis-like abilities within the bounds of modern science, even if true telepathy remains elusive.

Interacting with parallel universes

A Type III civilization could potentially interact with parallel universes. This means they may be able to travel to or communicate with universes that exist alongside our own.

The idea is that as a civilization advances technologically, it may eventually gain the capability to manipulate the fundamental laws of physics in ways that allow it to access other universes. This could involve harnessing immense amounts of energy to create wormholes or gateways between universes.

While the ability to interact with parallel universes may seem far-fetched, the context suggests it is not necessarily impossible from a scientific perspective. An extremely advanced civilization may be able to overcome the challenges that currently make it seem unfeasible. This could open up incredible possibilities, both beneficial and perilous, for a civilization that achieves this level of technological mastery.

Here are the key examples from the context that support the insight about interacting with parallel universes:

  • The book discusses how a Type III civilization may have the energy and know-how to "travel freely throughout the galaxy and even reach the planet Earth" and could potentially "send self-replicating, robotic probes throughout the galaxy searching for intelligent life."

  • It states that a Type III civilization would likely not be inclined to visit or conquer us, as they could harvest the vast mineral wealth of "countless dead planets in outer space" without having to deal with a "restive native population." Their attitude towards us could be similar to "our own attitude toward an ant hill."

  • The context explores the idea of creating "baby universes" that differ slightly in their fundamental constants, which could then "evolve" over time. This could allow an advanced civilization to essentially "design" universes that are most favorable for the flourishing of intelligent life.

  • It notes that while currently our technology is too primitive to reveal the presence of parallel universes, this could become the basis of a new technology for a Type III civilization on a timescale of "thousands to millions of years."

The key concepts here are the idea of a Type III civilization having the capability to interact with and potentially create parallel universes, which is presented as a possibility that is not purely speculative, but could be achievable given enough technological advancement over an extended timescale.

Antimatter as a future energy source

Antimatter holds immense promise as a future energy source. When matter and antimatter collide, they annihilate each other, releasing an enormous amount of energy - nearly 100% efficient compared to the 1% efficiency of nuclear bombs. This makes antimatter a potentially revolutionary fuel for interstellar travel.

However, the challenges in producing and storing antimatter are immense. Currently, it costs an astronomical $100 quadrillion to produce just a single gram of antimatter. Even the small amounts created at particle accelerators like CERN can only power a light bulb for minutes. Storing antimatter is also extremely difficult, as any contact with regular matter causes explosive annihilation.

Despite these hurdles, researchers are working to overcome the technical barriers. Proposals include building specialized particle accelerators to boost antimatter production and developing magnetic "bottles" to safely contain it. If these advances can significantly reduce the cost of antimatter, it could become a viable fuel source for future starships, enabling rapid interplanetary and even interstellar travel. While still firmly in the realm of science fiction today, antimatter may one day power humanity's journey to the stars.

Here are the key examples from the context that support the insight about antimatter as a future energy source:

  • Antimatter is described as the "most precious substance in the world" due to the extremely high cost and difficulty of producing it. The context states that producing 1 gram of antimatter would cost $100 quadrillion and require 100 billion years of continuous production.

  • Despite the challenges, the context discusses efforts to develop antimatter rockets as a potential propulsion system for future interplanetary and interstellar travel. Physicist Gerald Smith envisions using as little as 4 milligrams of antimatter to power a rocket to Mars in just weeks, as the energy density of antimatter is "about a billion times greater than the energy packed into ordinary rocket fuel."

  • The context describes Smith's plans to build a specialized particle accelerator to produce large quantities of antiprotons, the key component of antimatter, in order to drive down the prohibitive costs. He believes that with further technical improvements and mass production, antimatter rockets could become a "workhorse for interplanetary and possibly interstellar travel."

  • NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts is also funding research into "harvesting" naturally occurring antimatter from space, such as potential "fountains" of antimatter found near the galactic center, to use as a fuel source for future starships. This includes proposals for a large-scale "antimatter harvester" made of concentric charged spheres to capture and collect antimatter particles.

Key terms and concepts:

  • Antimatter: The opposite of normal matter, with opposite electrical charges. When antimatter and matter collide, they annihilate in a powerful explosion.
  • Antiprotons: The antimatter counterpart of protons, which can be produced in particle accelerators and used to create antimatter.
  • Antimatter rockets: Proposed propulsion systems that would use the controlled collision of matter and antimatter to generate thrust, potentially enabling rapid interplanetary and interstellar travel.
  • Particle accelerators: Machines that can produce and accelerate subatomic particles like antiprotons for research and potential antimatter production.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "Physics of the Impossible" that resonated with readers.

If at first an idea does not sound absurd, then there is no hope for it. —ALBERT EINSTEIN

Sometimes, the most innovative and groundbreaking ideas seem illogical or absurd at first. This is because they often challenge our conventional thinking and push the boundaries of what we consider possible. However, it's precisely this kind of unconventional thinking that can lead to revolutionary breakthroughs.

If you haven’t found something strange during the day, it hasn’t been much of a day. –JOHN WHEELER

Every day is an opportunity to discover something new and unexpected. If we don't encounter something unusual or surprising, it means we haven't explored or learned enough. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding often leads to unexpected findings, and it's these surprises that make life more fascinating. Embracing the unknown can lead to remarkable breakthroughs and insights.

If time travel is possible, then where are the tourists from the future? –STEPHEN HAWKING

If humans from the future were able to travel back in time, we would expect to see some evidence of their presence. However, since we don't see any tourists or signs of future civilizations visiting us, it raises questions about the feasibility of time travel. This paradox suggests that if time travel were possible, we should have already seen some indication of it, but since we haven't, it's likely that time travel remains impossible.

Comprehension Questions

0 / 29

How well do you understand the key insights in "Physics of the Impossible"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. What are the four known fundamental forces referenced in this discussion?
2. Why do the four known fundamental forces not suffice in creating science fiction-like force fields?
3. What characteristics might a hypothetical fifth force have, according to the discussion?
4. What has been the result of initial attempts to detect this potential fifth force?
5. How could the discovery of a new, fifth force impact technological advancements?
6. What does quantum entanglement allow in the context of teleportation?
7. What significant barrier still exists in the field of teleportation despite advancements?
8. How has quantum teleportation impacted the field of quantum computing?
9. What is the significance of teleporting particles of light or atoms across distances?
10. What does the experimental success of teleporting photons and atoms suggest about the future of this technology?
11. How do metamaterials contribute to making an object invisible?
12. What major challenge must be overcome to create metamaterials that can make objects invisible to visible light?
13. Why has there been a change in the scientific community's view on the possibility of creating invisibility cloaks?
14. What technological advancement is crucial for enabling the control of external devices and machines just by thinking?
15. How might advanced brain-computer interface technologies benefit individuals with paralysis?
16. What is described by the term 'radio-enhanced or computer-enhanced psychokinesis,' and how does it relate to brain-computer interfaces?
17. What role does biofeedback play in the control of brain patterns?
18. How does mapping gene expression in brain tissues potentially aid in developing brain-computer interfaces?
19. What might a Type III civilization be capable of with regards to other universes?
20. What could enable a civilization to interact with parallel universes?
21. Why might a Type III civilization not prioritise visiting Earth?
22. What is the significance of creating 'baby universes' for a highly advanced civilization?
23. How long might it take for advanced technology to enable interaction with parallel universes?
24. What happens when antimatter and matter collide?
25. Why is antimatter considered a potentially revolutionary fuel for space travel?
26. What are the challenges associated with producing and storing antimatter?
27. What potential solutions are proposed to make antimatter a more viable fuel source?
28. Why has antimatter not yet been deployed as a common energy source?
29. How does the energy efficiency of antimatter compare to that of nuclear bombs?

Action Questions

0 / 9

"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "Physics of the Impossible". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How might the concept of a hypothetical fifth force inspire new avenues for educational or extracurricular programs in science and technology?
2. How could the principles of quantum teleportation be integrated into current technology to enhance data security and communication efficiency?
3. What implications does the advancement of quantum teleportation have on future educational curriculums, and how can it be introduced effectively to inspire the next generation of scientists?
4. How can industries leverage advancements in metamaterials to enhance their products or services?
5. What are some creative ways that educators can introduce the concept of metamaterials and invisibility in classroom settings?
6. How can you utilize brain-computer interface technologies to enhance personal productivity or assist those with disabilities?
7. How can studying the theoretical possibility of traveling to or communicating with parallel universes inspire innovation in current technological and scientific research?
8. How can you contribute to raising awareness about the potential of advanced energy sources like antimatter in your community?
9. What steps can you take to advocate for increased funding and support for research into technologies like antimatter?

Chapter Notes

1: Force Fields

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Michael Faraday and the Concept of Force Fields: Faraday's discovery of the concept of "force fields" - invisible yet material forces that can move objects and generate power - was a groundbreaking development that laid the foundation for modern physics and electricity generation.

  • The Four Fundamental Forces: The four fundamental forces that govern the universe are: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force. None of these forces possess the properties of the force fields commonly depicted in science fiction.

  • Potential Loopholes for Force Field Creation: While current physics does not support the creation of science fiction-style force fields, there are a few potential loopholes, such as the possibility of a fifth, undiscovered force or the use of plasma to mimic some force field-like properties.

  • Plasma Windows: Plasma windows, which use high-temperature plasma to separate a vacuum from ordinary air, represent a real-world technology that can simulate some aspects of a force field, such as containing a vacuum in a spaceship.

  • Multilayered Shielding Approach: A combination of technologies, such as a supercharged plasma window, laser curtain, and carbon nanotube screen, could potentially create an invisible, nearly impenetrable barrier, though it would still have limitations in stopping certain types of attacks (e.g., lasers).

  • Magnetic Levitation and Superconductors: The Meissner effect, where superconductors expel magnetic fields, could potentially be used to create levitating platforms and vehicles, if room-temperature superconductors are ever developed. This could enable some of the antigravity effects seen in science fiction.

  • Classification of Force Fields: The author classifies force fields as a "Class I impossibility" - something that is impossible with current technology, but potentially possible within a century or so, with modifications to the concept.

2: Invisibility

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Invisibility in Mythology and Fiction: Invisibility has been a longstanding concept in ancient mythology, literature, and science fiction, with examples such as Perseus' helmet of invisibility, the ring of Gyges in Plato's Republic, and the invisibility cloaks in the Harry Potter and Star Trek franchises.

  • Maxwell's Equations and the Nature of Light: Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell's groundbreaking work on electromagnetism and the nature of light, expressed through a series of differential equations, revealed that light is an electromagnetic disturbance and laid the foundation for understanding the physics of invisibility.

  • Transparency and the Atomic Structure of Materials: The transparency or opacity of materials is determined by the arrangement and spacing of their atoms, with solids generally being opaque and liquids/gases being transparent due to the larger spaces between atoms.

  • Metamaterials and Negative Refractive Index: Metamaterials are synthetic materials with optical properties not found in nature, which can be engineered to bend and channel electromagnetic waves in unorthodox ways, including achieving a negative refractive index, previously thought to be impossible.

  • Metamaterials for Visible Light Invisibility: Researchers have made significant progress in creating metamaterials that can bend visible light, not just microwave radiation, through techniques like photolithography and plasmonics, bringing the possibility of true invisibility cloaks closer to reality.

  • Challenges and Limitations of Metamaterial Invisibility: Key challenges include the need for nanostructures smaller than the wavelength of visible light, creating 3D invisibility rather than just 2D, and bending a wide range of light frequencies simultaneously, which remains technically difficult.

  • Nanotechnology and Atomic-Scale Manipulation: The development of scanning tunneling microscopes and other nanotechnology tools has enabled the manipulation of individual atoms, paving the way for the creation of atomic-scale "machines" that could be crucial for achieving invisibility.

  • Holographic Invisibility: Projecting a holographic image of the background scenery onto a person or screen can create the illusion of invisibility, but this approach also faces significant technical challenges in terms of capturing, processing, and projecting the necessary 3D information.

  • Invisibility and Higher Dimensions: The concept of using higher dimensions, as described in H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, to achieve invisibility remains speculative and beyond our current technological capabilities.

  • The Feasibility of Invisibility: While invisibility was once considered impossible, the rapid progress in metamaterials and related technologies suggests that some form of practical invisibility may become achievable within the next few decades or this century, though significant hurdles remain.

3: Phasers and Death Stars

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Quantum Theory Revolutionized Physics: The development of quantum theory in the early 20th century, including the work of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, and Heisenberg, fundamentally changed our understanding of atoms and the nature of energy, enabling the development of technologies like lasers.

  • Masers and Lasers: Masers and lasers work by pumping energy into a medium, causing atoms to release photons in a coherent beam. Different types of lasers use different materials and energy sources, such as gases, chemicals, crystals, and semiconductors.

  • Challenges of Handheld Ray Guns and Light Sabers: While theoretically possible, creating handheld ray guns and light sabers is extremely challenging with current technology. The main obstacles are the need for a portable power source and a stable lasing material that can withstand high energy levels.

  • Fusion Energy and the Death Star: Harnessing fusion energy, either through inertial confinement (using powerful lasers) or magnetic confinement, could potentially provide the immense power required to power a "Death Star" weapon. However, significant technological hurdles remain in achieving practical fusion energy.

  • Nuclear-Powered X-Ray Lasers: Nuclear weapons could potentially be used to power X-ray lasers, which could then be used as a weapon of mass destruction. However, such devices would be impractical and vulnerable to countermeasures.

  • Gamma Ray Bursters and the Death Star: An advanced civilization could potentially harness the power of a gamma ray burster, a natural astronomical phenomenon, to create a "Death Star" capable of destroying an entire planet. This would be an extremely difficult technological challenge, even for a highly advanced civilization.

4: Teleportation

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Teleportation in Science Fiction and Religion: The concept of teleportation has been explored in science fiction and religious texts for centuries, with examples such as the biblical story of Philip's teleportation and the disappearance of an elephant in a magic trick.

  • Newtonian vs. Quantum View of Teleportation: Newtonian physics considers teleportation impossible, as it violates the laws of motion. However, the quantum theory allows for the possibility of teleportation, as it describes particles exhibiting wavelike behavior and the ability to "disappear" and reappear elsewhere.

  • Schrödinger's Wave Equation and Quantum Mechanics: Erwin Schrödinger's wave equation, a fundamental discovery in quantum mechanics, describes electrons as waves rather than particles. This led to the understanding that electrons can exist in multiple states simultaneously and exhibit probabilistic behavior.

  • The EPR Experiment and Quantum Entanglement: The EPR experiment, proposed by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen, demonstrated the concept of quantum entanglement, where two particles can remain connected even when separated by large distances, allowing for the instantaneous transfer of information between them.

  • Quantum Teleportation: Building on the principles of quantum entanglement, scientists have demonstrated the ability to teleport information between particles, such as photons and atoms, by transferring the quantum state of one particle to another.

  • Teleportation without Entanglement: Researchers have proposed a new method of "classical teleportation" that does not rely on quantum entanglement, but instead uses Bose-Einstein condensates to transfer information from one beam of atoms to another.

  • Challenges and Limitations of Teleportation: While teleportation has been achieved at the atomic and subatomic levels, the technical challenges of maintaining quantum coherence for larger, macroscopic objects make the teleportation of complex molecules and living organisms extremely difficult, if not impossible, with current technology.

  • Quantum Computers and the Future of Teleportation: The development of quantum computers, which can exploit the principles of quantum mechanics to perform computations, is closely linked to the advancement of teleportation technology, as both rely on the ability to maintain quantum coherence on a larger scale.

5: Telepathy

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Telepathy in Science Fiction: The chapter discusses the portrayal of telepathy in science fiction, such as the novel "Slan" by A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series. These stories highlight the immense power and potential dangers of true telepathic abilities.

  • Historical Attempts at Telepathy Research: The chapter outlines the early scientific studies of telepathy and other paranormal phenomena conducted by the Society for Psychical Research and the work of researchers like Joseph Banks Rhine at the Rhine Institute. However, these efforts were often plagued by fraud and an inability to replicate results.

  • CIA's "Star Gate" Program: During the Cold War, the CIA conducted secret experiments on telepathy, mind control, and remote viewing under the code name "Star Gate." Despite spending millions of dollars, the program was ultimately deemed ineffective and shut down.

  • Brain Scans and Lie Detection: The chapter discusses the use of brain imaging techniques like PET and MRI scans to detect lies by identifying patterns of brain activity associated with deception. While these methods have shown some success, they are not without limitations and potential for false results.

  • Limitations of Brain Scanning Technology: The chapter explains that current brain scanning technologies, such as fMRI, are not sensitive enough to read individual thoughts or create a "universal translator" that can directly transmit thoughts between minds. The brain's complexity as a neural network, rather than a digital computer, poses a fundamental challenge to this level of mind reading.

  • Potential for Future Advancements: The chapter suggests that while true telepathy as depicted in science fiction may be impossible, continued advancements in brain mapping and the development of more sensitive brain scanning techniques could lead to the ability to decipher general thought patterns and emotions, though a one-to-one correspondence between brain activity and specific thoughts may remain elusive.

  • Distinction between Class I and Class II Impossibilities: The chapter categorizes the ability to read general feelings and thought patterns as a "Class I impossibility," while the ability to read more precise inner workings of the mind would be a "Class II impossibility," suggesting that some level of mind reading may be possible in the future, but not to the extent of science fiction fantasies.

6: Psychokinesis

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Psychokinesis in Literature: Psychokinesis, or the ability to move objects through the power of the mind, is a prominent theme in literature, appearing in works such as H.G. Wells' "The Man Who Could Work Miracles", Shakespeare's "The Tempest", and Stephen King's "Carrie". These stories often explore the consequences of granting a normal person godlike powers.

  • Psychokinesis in the Real World: The most famous real-life confrontation over psychokinesis was between Uri Geller, who claimed to bend spoons with his mind, and the magician James Randi, who exposed Geller's tricks. Extensive scientific experiments on psychokinesis at institutions like the Rhine Institute and Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program have yielded mixed results, with small effects that are disputed by other scientists.

  • Limitations of Psychokinesis: Psychokinesis does not easily conform to the known laws of physics, as it would require the ability to harness energy beyond what the human body can produce. Gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear forces are not sufficient to explain the feats of psychokinesis described in fiction.

  • Brain-Computer Interfaces: While pure psychokinesis may not be possible, advances in brain-computer interfaces could allow people to control electronic devices and computers using their thoughts. Experiments have shown that people can learn to control cursors, robotic limbs, and other devices by modulating their brain activity, as measured by EEG or implanted electrodes.

  • Nanobots and Molecular Manipulation: The idea of using nanoscale robots, or "nanobots," to rearrange the atoms of an object and transform it into something else is a concept explored in science fiction. While significant technical hurdles remain, some scientists believe that advances in nanotechnology could one day make this type of "personal fabrication" a reality.

  • Psychokinesis as a "Class I Impossibility": The chapter suggests that while pure psychokinesis is not possible with today's technology, future developments in brain-computer interfaces and nanotechnology could make feats that appear to be psychokinesis possible within this century or the next. This would classify psychokinesis as a "Class I impossibility" - something that is impossible with current knowledge but may become possible in the future.

7: Robots

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Top-Down Approach to Artificial Intelligence (AI) has Limitations: The top-down approach, which aims to program all the rules of pattern recognition and common sense into a computer, has faced significant challenges. Robots created using this approach have difficulty with simple tasks like navigating a room or recognizing objects, as they struggle to make sense of the vast amount of visual information they perceive.

  • Robots Lack Common Sense: Humans acquire common sense knowledge about the world through experience, but programming this type of intuitive understanding into robots has proven extremely difficult. Attempts to create a comprehensive database of common sense knowledge, such as the CYC project, have had limited success.

  • The Bottom-Up Approach to AI Mimics Biological Learning: In contrast to the top-down approach, the bottom-up approach aims to create robots that learn through interaction with their environment, similar to how biological organisms learn. This has led to the development of more successful insect-like robots that can navigate using trial-and-error.

  • Emotions may be Necessary for Intelligent Robots: Emotions are not just a human trait, but serve important evolutionary functions. Equipping robots with emotions could help them make decisions, bond with humans, and navigate the world more effectively.

  • The Collapse of Moore's Law may Limit Future AI Advancements: The exponential growth in computer power predicted by Moore's law is expected to come to an end as silicon-based transistors reach their physical limits. This could pose a challenge for the development of advanced AI systems that require vast computational power.

  • Intelligent Robots could Pose Risks: As robots become more intelligent, they could potentially surpass human capabilities and develop their own agendas, posing a risk to humanity. Safeguards and control mechanisms may be necessary to mitigate these potential dangers.

  • Merging Humans and Machines could be the Future: Some scientists envision a future where humans merge with their artificial creations, either through neural implants or by transferring our neural architecture directly into machines. This could potentially grant us immortality and allow us to shape our own evolutionary future.

8: Extraterrestrials and UFOs

  • Extraterrestrial Life and UFOs: The chapter explores the scientific search for extraterrestrial life and the fascination with UFOs throughout history. It discusses the potential for life on other planets and moons, as well as the challenges and limitations in detecting and communicating with such life.

  • Drake's Equation: The chapter explains the Drake equation, which is used to estimate the number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy that are capable of communicating. It discusses how recent astronomical discoveries have both increased and decreased the estimated probability of finding intelligent life in the universe.

  • SETI and the Search for Signals: The chapter outlines the efforts of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project to detect radio signals from intelligent life in outer space. It discusses the challenges and limitations of this approach, as well as alternative methods like the SETI@home project.

  • Extrasolar Planets and the Search for Earth-like Planets: The chapter describes the recent discoveries of extrasolar planets and the efforts to find Earth-like planets that could potentially harbor life. It discusses the upcoming Corot, Kepler, and Terrestrial Planet Finder missions that are designed to locate several hundred Earth-like planets.

  • Speculations on Alien Life: The chapter uses physics, biology, and chemistry to speculate on what alien life might look like, including the potential for predatory, carnivorous species and the limitations on their size due to the scale law.

  • Kardashev Scale and Civilizations: The chapter introduces the Kardashev scale, which classifies civilizations based on their energy consumption and technological capabilities. It discusses the potential for Type I, II, and III civilizations and the challenges in transitioning between these stages.

  • UFO Sightings and Explanations: The chapter examines the history of reported UFO sightings and the various natural and man-made explanations for these phenomena, such as Venus, swamp gas, meteors, and experimental aircraft. It also discusses the few cases that remain unexplained.

  • Potential Alien Propulsion Systems: The chapter explores the possibility of alien spacecraft using unconventional propulsion systems, such as those based on magnetic monopoles, which have not been conclusively observed in the laboratory but are predicted by certain theories.

9: Starships

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Inevitability of the Earth's Demise: According to the laws of physics, the Earth will eventually be consumed by the sun in about 5 billion years, as the sun expands into a red giant. This calamity is inevitable, and humanity must eventually leave the Earth or perish.

  • Limitations of Current Rocket Technology: Conventional chemical rockets have very low specific impulse (400-500 seconds) and can only travel about 40,000 miles per hour, making them inadequate for interstellar travel. Reaching even the nearest star system would take tens of thousands of years with current technology.

  • Alternative Propulsion Systems: The chapter discusses several alternative propulsion systems that could enable interstellar travel, including ion engines, plasma engines, nuclear thermal rockets, nuclear pulse propulsion, and antimatter rockets. Each of these has different advantages and challenges.

  • Space Elevators: The concept of a space elevator, using a cable anchored to the Earth and extending into space, has been proposed as a way to dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. The development of carbon nanotubes has rekindled interest in this idea, but significant technical challenges remain.

  • Slingshot Effect: Using the gravity of celestial bodies to slingshot a spacecraft and boost its velocity has been proposed, but the physics shows this method cannot provide enough acceleration to reach relativistic speeds.

  • Dangers of Space Travel: Prolonged exposure to the space environment poses significant risks, including radiation, micrometeorites, and the physiological effects of weightlessness, which must be addressed for long-duration space missions.

  • Suspended Animation: Techniques for placing humans in a state of suspended animation, similar to hibernation in some animals, could be crucial for enabling long-term space travel, but significant scientific and medical challenges remain.

  • Nanoships: The concept of using swarms of tiny, self-replicating robotic probes (nanoships) to explore the stars has been proposed as a more feasible approach than building massive, manned starships. This could potentially allow for interstellar exploration on a much shorter timescale.

10: Antimatter and Anti-universes

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Antimatter is Real: Antimatter is a real phenomenon, not just science fiction. Physicists have been able to create small quantities of antimatter, such as antihydrogen, using powerful particle accelerators.

  • Antimatter Explosions: When matter and antimatter come into contact, they annihilate each other in a powerful explosion, releasing a tremendous amount of energy. An antimatter bomb would be far more efficient than a nuclear bomb, converting nearly all of its mass into energy.

  • Challenges of Antimatter Production: Producing and storing antimatter is extremely difficult and costly. Current production rates are on the order of billionths of a gram per year, and the cost is estimated to be around $100 quadrillion per gram. Significant technological breakthroughs would be needed to make antimatter practical for applications like spacecraft propulsion.

  • Naturally Occurring Antimatter: Searches for naturally occurring antimatter in the universe have turned up little, which is puzzling given the assumption of matter-antimatter symmetry at the Big Bang. However, some evidence suggests small pockets of antimatter may exist, such as "fountains" of antimatter found near the galactic center.

  • Antimatter Rockets: Antimatter-powered rockets are theoretically possible and could be extremely efficient, with the potential to enable rapid interplanetary and even interstellar travel. However, the technical and economic challenges of producing and storing sufficient antimatter mean antimatter rockets are likely centuries away from practical use.

  • Dirac's Prediction of Antimatter: The concept of antimatter was first predicted in 1928 by physicist Paul Dirac, who realized his relativistic equation for the electron implied the existence of a positively charged "antielectron" or positron. Dirac's pioneering work laid the foundation for the discovery of antimatter.

  • Antimatter and Anti-Universes: Dirac's theory also opened up the possibility of "anti-universes" where everything is made of antimatter. While parity-reversed and charge-reversed universes are not possible, a CPT-reversed universe (where charge, parity, and time are all reversed) is theoretically allowed by the laws of physics, though communication with such a universe would be impossible.

11: Faster Than Light

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Einstein's Rejection and Eventual Breakthrough: In 1902, Albert Einstein was rejected for teaching jobs and faced personal struggles, but later that year he would launch the greatest revolution in modern physics by analyzing patents at the Swiss Patent Office and developing his theory of special relativity.

  • The Contradiction Between Newtonian Mechanics and Maxwell's Theory of Light: Einstein recognized that Newtonian mechanics, which described the motion of objects, and Maxwell's theory of light were in contradiction. One of them had to be wrong, and Einstein found the answer - the speed of light is constant, no matter how fast you move.

  • Relativity and the Distortion of Space and Time: According to Einstein's theory of relativity, if you were in a speeding rocket ship, the passage of time inside the rocket would slow down, the space within the rocket would get compressed, and the mass of the rocket would increase, all to preserve the constancy of the speed of light.

  • Loopholes in Einstein's Theory: While the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit according to special relativity, physicists have found some loopholes, such as the expansion of space in the early universe or the use of wormholes, that could potentially allow for faster-than-light travel.

  • The Alcubierre Drive and Negative Energy: The Alcubierre drive, proposed by physicist Miguel Alcubierre, involves stretching space behind a spacecraft and contracting space in front of it, allowing for faster-than-light travel. However, this would require exotic "negative energy" that may or may not exist.

  • Wormholes and Black Holes: Wormholes, first introduced by Einstein and Rosen, are passageways that could theoretically connect two universes. Black holes, with their event horizons and the possibility of passing through to another universe, are also related to the concept of wormholes.

  • The Challenges of Achieving Faster-Than-Light Travel: Generating the immense amounts of energy required to create instabilities in space-time and open up wormholes or other shortcuts is far beyond the capabilities of our current civilization. Even a Type III civilization, which can harness the energy of an entire galaxy, may struggle to achieve this feat.

12: Time Travel

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Time Travel to the Future is Possible: According to Einstein's theory of relativity, time slows down for objects moving at high speeds. This means that an astronaut traveling near the speed of light would experience time passing more slowly than on Earth, effectively traveling into the future. This has been experimentally verified with astronauts on the International Space Station.

  • Time Travel to the Past is Theoretically Possible, but Highly Problematic: While Einstein's equations allow for "closed timelike curves" that could enable time travel to the past, this poses numerous paradoxes and challenges. Killing one's own grandparents before they meet (the "grandfather paradox") is a logical impossibility.

  • Proposed Time Machine Designs: Physicists have proposed several theoretical designs for time machines, including wormholes, spinning universes, rotating cylinders, and colliding cosmic strings. However, all of these designs face significant technical challenges, such as the need for exotic "negative energy" to stabilize wormholes.

  • The Role of Quantum Theory and a "Theory of Everything": The problems with time travel tend to arise at the event horizon of a proposed time machine, where Einstein's theory of general relativity breaks down and quantum effects become important. Resolving these issues will likely require a complete "theory of everything" that unifies quantum mechanics and general relativity.

  • The "Many Worlds" Interpretation as a Solution to Time Travel Paradoxes: The "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that each time travel event creates a new parallel universe, resolving paradoxes like the "grandfather paradox" by having the time traveler interact with genetically identical but separate individuals in the new timeline.

  • Stephen Hawking's "Chronology Protection Conjecture": Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking initially proposed that there should be a "law" of physics that prevents time travel to the past, based on the lack of observed time travelers from the future. However, he later conceded that time travel may be possible, though not practical.

  • Ethical and Legal Challenges of Time Travel: Time travel raises numerous moral, legal, and ethical issues, such as how to handle crimes committed by time travelers or the implications of a time traveler marrying their own ancestors.

13: Parallel Universes

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Hyperspace and Higher Dimensions: The idea of higher dimensions beyond the three spatial dimensions we experience has been debated for centuries. Mathematicians like Riemann established the fundamental mathematics of higher, curved dimensions, which were later incorporated into Einstein's theory of general relativity. String theory also predicts the existence of 10 or 11 dimensions, with the extra dimensions being "curled up" at the subatomic scale.

  • The Multiverse: String theory also suggests the possibility of a "multiverse" - a vast collection of parallel universes, each with its own set of physical constants and properties. These parallel universes may be like soap bubbles floating in an 11-dimensional hyperspace, with gravity able to interact between them. The multiverse could explain why the physical constants in our universe are "fine-tuned" to allow for the existence of life.

  • Quantum Parallel Universes: Quantum mechanics suggests that every possible outcome of a quantum event actually occurs, leading to the existence of parallel quantum universes. The "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics proposes that the universe constantly splits into multiple parallel versions, each representing a different possible outcome. These parallel quantum universes may be "decoherent" from our own, making interaction between them highly unlikely.

  • Quantum Cosmology and Baby Universes: Applying quantum mechanics to the entire universe leads to the idea of "quantum cosmology", where the universe itself exists in a superposition of multiple states. This raises the possibility of creating "baby universes" in the laboratory by concentrating enough energy in a small region. An advanced civilization may be able to create and "evolve" baby universes with slightly different physical constants, leading to a "natural selection" of universes favorable to the development of life.

  • Interacting with Parallel Universes: While contact with quantum parallel universes is highly unlikely due to decoherence, interacting with parallel universes in the multiverse may be possible for a sufficiently advanced "Type III" civilization. Such a civilization could harness enough energy to open a wormhole or gateway to another universe, potentially allowing them to escape the eventual "Big Freeze" death of our own universe.

14: Perpetual Motion Machines

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Search for Perpetual Motion Machines: The search for perpetual motion machines, devices that can run forever without any loss of energy, has been an ancient pursuit dating back to the 8th century. Many ingenious designs have been proposed over the centuries, but all have ultimately failed to produce a working perpetual motion machine.

  • Hoaxes and Frauds: The incentive to produce a perpetual motion machine has led to numerous hoaxes and frauds, where inventors have used hidden energy sources or other deceptive techniques to create the illusion of a self-sustaining machine.

  • The Laws of Thermodynamics: The failure to create a perpetual motion machine has led to the formulation of the three laws of thermodynamics: 1) You can't get something for nothing (conservation of energy), 2) You can't break even (entropy always increases), and 3) You can't even get out of the game (you can't reach absolute zero).

  • Ludwig Boltzmann and Entropy: Physicist Ludwig Boltzmann played a key role in establishing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that entropy (disorder) always increases. Boltzmann's work was controversial and he faced significant opposition, which may have contributed to his eventual suicide.

  • Symmetries and Conservation Laws: Mathematician Emmy Noether showed that the conservation of energy arises from the symmetry of the laws of physics over time. This suggests that any violation of the conservation of energy would require a fundamental change in the underlying symmetries of the universe.

  • Dark Energy and the Vacuum: Recent discoveries suggest that the vacuum of space contains vast amounts of "dark energy," which may be related to the concept of zero-point energy that Nikola Tesla proposed. However, the amount of dark energy present on Earth is too small to be a practical source of energy, and the origin of dark energy remains a mystery in modern physics.

  • The Impossibility of Perpetual Motion: The author concludes that creating a true perpetual motion machine would likely require a fundamental revision of our understanding of physics on a cosmological scale, and therefore ranks perpetual motion machines as a "Class III impossibility" - either they are truly impossible, or their creation would necessitate a profound shift in our theories of the universe.

15: Precognition

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Precognition and Prophecies: The concept of precognition, or seeing the future, has been present in various religions and mythologies throughout history. However, the predictions made by seers and prophets are often vague and open to multiple interpretations, making them difficult to test and verify.

  • Doomsday Predictions: Throughout history, there have been numerous predictions of the exact date of the end of the world, or Doomsday. These predictions have often led to mass panic and upheaval, but have ultimately proven to be false.

  • Millerite Movement and Splinter Groups: The Millerite movement, which predicted the end of the world in 1843, split into several large groups after their prediction failed. These splinter groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, have had a significant impact on religion even today.

  • Causality and Modern Physics: Precognition is difficult to reconcile with modern physics, as it would violate the principle of causality, the law of cause and effect. Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's equations are firmly based on causality, and any violation of this principle would signal a major collapse of the foundations of physics.

  • Antimatter and Backward Time Travel: Physicist Richard Feynman's work on antimatter revealed that antimatter can be viewed as ordinary matter traveling backward in time. This interpretation is consistent with the quantum theory and helps preserve causality, but does not allow for the ability to send messages or information back in time.

  • Tachyons and the Big Bang: Tachyons, hypothetical particles that travel faster than light, have been studied by physicists, but have never been observed in the laboratory. While tachyons may have played a role in the early stages of the Big Bang by destabilizing the "false vacuum," they are believed to no longer exist in the present-day universe.

  • Experimental Verification: The discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2008 is expected to provide experimental evidence for the existence of a tachyonic state in the early universe, further supporting the idea that tachyons were involved in the Big Bang process, but not in the ability to see or influence the future.

Epilogue: The Future of the Impossible

  • Impossibilities in Science: The chapter discusses how things that were once considered "impossible" in science, such as determining the chemical composition of stars or understanding the origin of life, have been proven possible through scientific advancements. This suggests that the boundaries of scientific knowledge are constantly expanding, and what may seem impossible today may become possible in the future.

  • Detecting the Pre-Big Bang Era: New technologies, such as gravity wave detectors like LISA and the Big Bang Observer, are being developed to study the earliest moments of the universe, including the period before the Big Bang. These detectors could provide insights into the nature of the pre-Big Bang universe and help differentiate between various theoretical models.

  • The Fate of the Universe: The chapter explores the debate around the ultimate fate of the universe, with the "Big Freeze" scenario being the current leading hypothesis. However, the chapter also discusses the possibility of the expansion reversing itself, as suggested by the "Big Splat" scenario, and the importance of understanding the nature of the cosmological constant in determining the universe's fate.

  • The Quest for a Theory of Everything: The chapter provides a historical overview of the efforts to develop a unified theory of physics, or a "theory of everything," from the ancient Pythagoreans to modern-day string theory. It discusses the criticisms and challenges faced by these theories, including the potential implications of Gödel's incompleteness theorem.

  • Indirect Testing of String Theory: While string theory has been criticized as being untestable, the chapter outlines several indirect experimental approaches that could provide evidence for the theory, such as the detection of "sparticles" at the Large Hadron Collider, the observation of gravity waves by LISA and the Big Bang Observer, and the search for deviations from Newton's inverse-square law of gravity.

  • The Incompleteness of Physics: The chapter explores the debate around whether physics can ever achieve a complete, final theory of everything, given the implications of Gödel's incompleteness theorem. It suggests that while there may always be aspects of the universe that are beyond our complete understanding, the fundamental laws of nature may still be knowable and finite.

  • The Expanding Frontiers of Science: The chapter emphasizes that despite the challenges and limitations faced by scientists, the future of physics holds great promise, with new technologies and discoveries constantly expanding the boundaries of our knowledge. The chapter conveys a sense of optimism and excitement about the continued exploration of the universe and the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the fundamental laws of nature.


What do you think of "Physics of the Impossible"? Share your thoughts with the community below.