Sunday, 26 February 2012

Physics of the Future – Michio Kaku ***

‘Prediction is very difficult,’ said the great physicist Neils Bohr, ‘especially about the future.’ So physics professor and science populariser extraordinaire Michio Kaku is taking on a very risky task in trying to predict the way science will develop between now and 2100.
The approach he has taken is to talk to a vast swathe of scientists – the acknowledgements list is truly breathtaking – and as Kaku points out, unlike the work of many futurologists, this is an attempt to predict the future of science based on the knowledge of working scientists, not historians or science fiction writers or sociologists. Surely this is bound to succeed and make a great book? In practice, the result is mixed. Things don’t go well where you use potential developments in science to predict consumer products. What consumers buy is not based on how good the science is – and the sections of the book covering consumer products are the weakest. The trouble is scientists in universities are the last people to know what normal consumers want. One of Kaku’s sources is MIT’s Media Lab. But if you look back over Media Lab’s work over the last 20 to 30 years, practically none of it ever became commercial.
Things are much better in sections where the science drives the reality. So the parts of the book dealing with the generation of energy and space travel, for example, were by far the best and most enjoyable to read. They stopped sounding like a sales catalogue of the future and started really to excite. Of course even here there have to be provisos. These large scale efforts are mostly controlled by politics, not science. The reason we went to the Moon and the reason we haven’t returned (or tried for Mars) are all about politics, something that Kaku can’t really explore properly.
Unfortunately, what this book attempts to do is a very difficult task. Firstly, most future predictions books are virtually unreadable because they end up as a string of facts and rapidly become very dull. In his other books Kaku is a lively, approachable writer, but here he did suffer rather from factititis and sometimes it was difficult to keep interested. This book doesn’t compare with some of his other work in terms of readability.
But perhaps the biggest problem, as I’ve already suggested, is the assumption that because scientists understand science, they understand everything else too. The future isn’t just dependent on science. It is dependent on politics and economics and such like minor matters that scientists are traditionally very bad at. Time and again when scientists stray outside their field they get it wrong – think how physicists have been duped by fake mediums, for example. Kaku demonstrates this at full blast when he comments that we can expect to achieve a ‘what physicists call a Type I civilization’ within 100 years. Now leaving aside that quote (I don’t think many physicists talk about civilizations at all, and certainly don’t give them labels like this), this seems hugely naive.
Kaku’s Type I civilization is basically a planetary civilization – there are still nations, but they are much weaker and most things are done on a worldwide basis. Really? Does he really think the American people would be happy to speak Chinese? Can you imagine what an amalgamation of just China and the USA -both very inward looking countries – would be like, let alone the rest of the world? Do you think the French will happily abandon their individuality? That the Islamic nations would say ‘We’ll just forget all that religious stuff’ and fit in with everyone else? He holds up the European Union as evidence, but as this is currently in turmoil, it seems an unlikely exemplar. It really seems that to imagine a planetary civilization could happen in less than 100 years is pretty optimistic. And if he can get something as fundamental as this wrong, it’s hard to believe that the fine detail has any great weight either.
Overall, then, a great idea with some excellent thoughts about specific science and technology, but gets a little dull in places and like all futurology lacks credibility. However, compare it with a ‘classic’ of the genre, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and it’s much more readable, and much more plausible. In this field, there is no doubt this is a great book – it’s just not a topic than can ever be done awfully well.
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Review by Peter Spitz

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