Category Archives: Book Reviews

Science and Fiction Meet in “Physics of the Impossible.”

 

Bestsellers by Michio Kaku

Bestsellers by Michio Kaku

Fans of fantasy and science fiction, hear ye: the day may come when we can actually sword-fight with light sabers; or say, “Beam me up, Scotty.”

Maybe not in our lifetime. But the stuff of fantasy and science fiction is currently in development in laboratories around the world. Dr. Michio Kaku tells us what are possible, and what are not, in his bestselling book Physics of the Impossible (2008).

In the book, Dr. Kaku tackles Harry Potter‘s invisibility cloak, Star Wars‘s Death Star, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Infinite Improbability Drive, Bruce Almighty‘s psychokinetic powers…you get the picture.

Bruce Almighty

Bruce Almighty

In fact, you will get the whole picture. From the beginning. Dr. Kaku rifles through the closet of history to enlighten us about the first mention of these powers and weapons.

For instance, we will  find out that concentrated beams (laser) as a weapon goes as far back as 214 B.C., when Archimedes is said to have focused the sun’s rays against enemy ships. Its first mention in science fiction was in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, and the first Hollywood film to feature a laser is the James Bond movie Goldfinger.

The laser machine in Goldfinger.

The laser machine in Goldfinger.

Trivia: Laser is an acronym for Light Amplification through Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

We will not get cross-eyed from complicated equations, because there aren’t any in this book. Well…the inevitable e = mc² is mentioned, but not because we need to solve anything. It is because Einstein and his elegant Theory of Relativity is the springboard of modern physics.

We will also learn about an inelegant theory that springs away from the Theory of Relativity, called the quantum theory. When Dr. Kaku discusses this, we are treated to his trademark wit, as he writes, “…so haphazard and supremely inelegant. Here was a theory only a mother could love.” Oh, how I laughed out loud at that line. In the subway. Reading a physics book, for goodness’s sakes.

And that, dear friends, is the Law of Attraction at work. Easy-to-understand language in a science book attracts readers. So does wit. And the stuff of fantasy and science fiction from your favorite movies and novels. Pretty attractive book, I might say.

Apple logo

Apple logo

But…and here comes the but…the book is just so dense with information that it needs to be read slowly, or more than once. It was only in my second reading that I noticed the factoid about Steve Jobs’s bitten Apple logo–that it is rumored to be a tribute to Alan Turing (who laid the groundwork of the computer revolution). Turing ate an apple laced with cyanide.

And because I am a Journalism major (no math subjects at all), with only high school physics as my foundation, I also continue to have difficulty understanding certain concepts such as the eleven-dimension string theory, which Dr. Kaku himself revolutionized. Prior to that, the highest dimension I have heard of is the Fifth Dimension–the singing group from the 70’s.

Dr. Michio Kaku

Dr. Michio Kaku

Still, I don’t have to understand curled-up dimensions to grasp much of what is contained in this book. From straight-up facts like the origin of the word “robot,” to somewhat complicated ideas like Schrodinger’s wave equation, Physics of the Impossible is a fun way to get smarter. (Or sound geeky).

Dr. Michio Kaku is only the third physics author I have read in my lifetime. The other two are Carl Sagan (Cosmos, Billions and Billions, etc.) and Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time). All three have a way of connecting with people using simple language and charming wit. Because of this, all three also have, or had, popular TV programs.

In fact, Physics of the Impossible gave birth to a TV series of the same name, broadcast over The Science Channel. But you may have seen Dr. Michio Kaku in numerous other documentaries dealing with futuristic subjects, or guesting in talk shows to promote his books.

His subsequent books, Physics of the Future (2011), and The Future of the Mind (2014), are also bestsellers.

If time travel does indeed become a reality in the future, and you happen to be from the future, reading this old article from 2014, please do drop by and visit me–and tell me all about force fields, and space warp, and anti-matter, and if we found the Higgs boson…

 

(This article is in response to a blog from Nerdophiles about showing off your geek space.)

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Ender’s Game: Journey of a Child-Hero

(Book review)

Mankind needs a hero.

We found out that we are not alone. We were invaded by an alien species of “buggers” seeking to colonize new planets. We were somehow able to repel the earlier invasions, but we must be prepared for the next one. We must train future military commanders for the next wave of war. The most promising of them all is six-year-old Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. He, along with other carefully-selected brilliant children, are drafted into military training.

This is a very unique set-up for a military science fiction novel — to start training six-year-olds  for war. Unlike the Jedi order, which is a philosophical warrior school in a space opera, this Battle School is strictly military. But it is revealed eventually why they choose to start them so young. Mazer Rackham, hero of the Second Invasion, admits that “…it had to be a child, Ender. I was too old and cautious. Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart.”

From the start, it is apparent that Ender is the focus of this training. They throw everything at him, including the kitchen sink. “Just when I think I can handle things, they stick in another knife,” observes Ender. At this point, I feel the same way, too. The exercise sequences seem to go on and on, with too much detail, without advancing the plot. But this is the only extraneous element I find in the book. The rest of the details are important  not only to the latter part of the story, but also to the sequels. Especially the computer game that Ender is playing. So if you haven’t read Ender’s Game yet, don’t gloss over those parts.

Also, while reading the book, you have to remember that Ender is THE genius among geniuses. This helps in the suspension of disbelief, because Ender acts, reacts and analyzes in such a mature manner for one so young. Very impressive, actually. More intelligent than most adults, in fact. Of course, this is balanced by some honest-to-goodness child-like emotions and reasoning. But for the most part, his abilities border on the incredulous — though I withhold judgment because I am no child genius. I am not in a position to verify the accuracy of this fictional character’s talents. I find myself thinking, “Really? A child can figure that out?”

After being used and abused, pushed and pulled, manipulated and deceived, eleven-year-old Ender Wiggin passes every test and delivers on every expectation. Good job! And this is where every story usually ends: a huge hometown welcome, a parade, hurray, the end.

But not in this novel. At this point, Ender learns the whole truth: how far the deception goes, and what they ultimately tricked him into doing. He is enraged. Hurt. Disillusioned. And this is what makes Ender’s story different from other heroes’ journeys. The still-young hero does a complete one-hundred-eighty-degree turn. “It did not occur to them that this twelve-year-old boy might be as gifted at peace as he was at war.”

The pendulum swings, and a second major story emerges. The first, Ender training and warring against the buggers. The second, Ender understanding and advocating for the buggers. From Ender the follower to Ender the leader. From Ender being ignorant to being aware. From killer to savior. From pawn to king.

Even the tenor of the book changes. From battle sequences to philosophical discourses. From physical to intellectual.

Though this second major story is only about twenty percent of the book, it is a critical set-up to Ender’s new career. His latent insight into the buggers inspires him to write a book about them from their point of view, “telling all that they had meant to do, and all that they had done. Here are our failures, and here is our greatness.”

This kind of truth-telling gives birth to a new religion, where a believer would stand beside the grave of a loved one and “say what the dead one would have said, but with full candor, hiding no faults and pretending no virtues.” Such a eulogist — Ender’s new “career” — is also the title of the book’s sequel: Speaker for the Dead.

My only concern in this part — and a minor one at that — is that there seems to be no process in Ender’s acceptance of his new role as defender and protector of his erstwhile enemy. The transformation was too abrupt. Maybe if there were less of the protracted battle exercises in the earlier part, there would be more time for the transition here. Otherwise, this is an exceptionally good book with a healthy science fiction element, a protagonist you would care about , and a story with depth and realism.

What makes the story uniquely profound is that there are no archetypal villains in this book. No Megatron of the Decepticons who are hell-bent on world domination. The characters react to their upbringing, or to the exigencies of the situation. The bully Bonzo is upholding his pride, which Ender inadvertently wounds.  The Battle School head, Colonel Graff, is making sure he develops the kind of commander that mankind needs to win the war, even if it means putting Ender in danger.  Even the invading alien buggers turn out to have reasonable motivations for their actions.

There are no clear delineations between good and bad. Though it is not honorable to manipulate people, the end-result is the safety of the human race. Does the end justify the means? The book presents the kinds of moral dilemma that we encounter in real life. And, just like in real life, sometimes there are no obvious right and wrong answers.

Battle scenes with strange aliens, check. Unique plot, check. Sympathetic protagonist, check. Intelligent issues that will leave you thinking, oh yes, check. Perhaps, all these elements are what make Ender’s Game the number one science fiction novel in so many lists.

(p.s. Please, don’t judge a book by its movie.)

Rating: Four hearts out of five ♥♥♥♥

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