Michio Kaku, Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible, and My Early Readings in Physics

Another good show on the Science Channel is Dr. Michio Kaku‘s Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible. In each episode, Dr. Kaku investigates a single science fiction idea (e.g., the technological singularity, Transformers robotic beings, or building your own solar system) and speculates about how humanity could achieve those plans. In the episode that is on right now, about solar system construction, he does calculations to show that you cannot built a Dyson sphere, a superstructure that encapsulates a star to harness all of its energy, with only the materials found in our solar system. On the surface (a pun?), I had not considered this as a limitation to the construction of such a structure. However, he then considers the possibility of using graphene, an allotrope or special molecular bonding structure of carbon that has a super strong honeycomb structure. Additionally, graphene’s strength allows it to be very thin, thus requiring less material. Therefore, graphene could be used to construct a Dyson swarm or sphere given that the planets in a solar system are carbon rich.

During the show, he interviews science fiction fans for ideas, and then, he works through these ideas with scientists at universitiesHis explanations are fascinating and insightful. I like the way that fans are engaged through brainstorming and opinions as Dr. Kaku arrives at his solution to the episode’s problem. This is one aspect of science fiction that goes beyond the stories themselves as prophetic visions. Fandom is the meta-level discourse that, in part, explores the what-if or is-this-possible aspects of science fiction. It is this meta-level discussion that Dr. Kaku’s show engages.

I have long been a fan of Dr. Kaku. In my senior year of high school, after reading Albert Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theories, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy among others, I read his book Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension. This was when I was a physics-geek rather than a lit-geek. I had finished two interviews for MIT, and I had won my high school’s Physics prize in my Junior year. I was energized not only by the amazing science that Kaku described in his popularization, but I was also intrigued by his life leading up to becoming a theoretical physicist. While I was in my teens learning how to work on cars with my 1965 Ford Mustang and optimizing memory usage on my and my friend’s computers, Dr. Kaku in his teens had built his own particle accelerator in his family’s garage complete with electromagnetic confinement rings and vacuum pumps! I suppose the life of the scientist is almost as interesting to me as the science. Also, the writing was important for Kaku and other popularizers from Einstein to the present. I appreciated the way in which they and Kaku could present an engaging narrative that also told me about the advances taking place and the imaginative conjectures proposed in the physical sciences. Perhaps I should have recognized then that I might not have been pursuing the best career path when I tried out for the MIT and Georgia Tech physics programs.

At least now, I feel more comfortable with what I am doing as a English literature PhD candidate. In the way that I approach literature, I look at the relationships between science, technology, and culture, because I believe that our exploration of and engineering of the world is absolutely necessary to our understanding of ourselves. Our science shapes our understanding of the world, and our technology shapes our engagement and mediation of the world. Even the most mundane narrative, past or present, is indelibly marked by the traces of our science and technology. It is exciting to approach the humanities in this broadly interdisciplinary approach, because it reveals more ways to read and understand humanity than a limited or narrowly defined humanities approach. However, I am not advocating the erasure of those approaches, but I am saying that interdisciplinary approaches energize and expand our comprehension and appreciation of humanity and our work.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.