Book Review: Physics of the Future

Michio Kaku is a physicist and science popularizer, taking a page each from the books of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and fellow string theorist, Brian Greene. He’s written several popular science books on the wacky and wonderful words of relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory. His last book, however, Physics of the Impossible, was a departure from branes and n-dimensional space. He used fictional technologies like teleportation, time travel, and Star Trek’s phasers as jumping off points for the known physics of today.

That book turned into a Science Channel program of the same name, and the approach was successful enough that he’s done something similar this time around. In Physics of the Future, however, there is a clear, unifying theme. Though he still offers somewhat of a grab bag of physics, drawing on all different areas based on what’s interesting right now, it’s all geared towards answering one question: what are the next hundred years going to look like?

Kaku looks at basically every technology or technological field that is a) integral to our lives, and b) likely to undergo serious changes in the next few generations. There’s a chapter on the future of computing, a separate one on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, medicine, energy, and space travel. Each chapter has an introduction, a vision of the near future (until 2030), mid-century (2030-2070), and the far future (2070-2100).

The last two chapters, the future of wealth and the future of humanity, are less about any specific technology than the specific changes to our economic, social, and legal systems as a result of these technological changes. The end of wealth, for example, is about our transition to a more and more information-based economy throughout the world, and how we will need a new economic system with the end of scarcity (though he points out certain things will remain scarce, primarily knowledge workers whose labour can’t be automated).

The text is very readable, any number of sections could be essentially lifted from the book and used as feature articles in Popular Science or Discover. For all I know, selected excerpts have indeed seen magazine stands. Kaku is careful not to get bogged down too much in the science behind these technologies. The book’s audience are technology geeks, futurists — most of us, in fact, of the digital age. It’s for the curious layperson, not just the educated layperson. No physics education required

Speaking as someone who has some education in physics, this is nevertheless refreshing. Kaku could have screwed things up by doing too much — trying to give a detailed grounding in the physics when the book is really about how the technology will affect our lives. Having spoken to three hundred scientists at the leading edge of their fields, I’ve no doubt he took enough notes for a dozen technical volumes. But he resists the temptation to ramble, considering societal consequences in broad strokes while avoiding technical trivia.

And that’s the beauty of this book. It’s deep in insights but not bogged down in details. The result is a fast read that you’ll continue thinking about long after you’ve finished the book. Time will tell which predictions hit the mark. But it gives all of us something to look forward to, whether we expect to experience Kaku’s epilogic “day in the life in 2100” or not.

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

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