Warp speed and other diversions

July 2, 2009

BUSTER CRABBE as Flash Gordon

BUSTER CRABBE as Flash Gordon

I once saw a cartoon panel taped to the wall outside a psych professor’s office at Kean University. A man of middle age was slumped in an easy chair in what seemed to be a state of depression. His wife stood over him, hands on her hips, and addressed him more or less as follows: “What I can’t understand is why you would read a book called ‘Oblivion and the Abyss’ in the first place!”

Well, I just got around to reading “Physics of the Impossible” by Michio Kaku, who is a theoretical physicist. In this book, which came out last year, Kaku discusses the possibility that various achievements that human beings have imagined and even tinkered with will become practical realities. We’re talking here about such things as teleportation, telepathy, time travel, invisibility, and visitations from “outer space,” concepts that have been the fodder of science fiction from Jules Verne to Flash Gordon to Star Trek.

I don’t know why I was disappointed; I think I already knew the overall thrust of what Kaku would say. Certain of these concepts – invisibility and teleportation, for example – are not contrary to the known laws of physics and may be achievable within a forseeable amount of time, where what is forseeable might be measured in hundreds of years. (I’m oversimplifying this.) Others, such as travel to other galaxies, are not contrary to the known laws of physics but are beyond the capabilities of a civilization of our rudimentary level of advancement. Still others — perpetual motion and travel into the past, for example — are contrary to the known laws of physics and impossible, period.



Intellectually, I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed nonetheless. I would rather have continued nursing the fantasy, born while I watched Flash Gordon and Doctor Zarkov matching wits with Ming the Merciless, that some day, somehow, I would board a space-going vessel and leave the gravitational pull of this planet, at least for a long weekend.

But Kaku has taken the wind out of my sails, if I may be allowed the metaphor, and I look with a twinge of melancholy at the images of Saturn and her moons being transmitted by the Cassini craft — and particularly the one in which Alpha Centauri gleams in the perpetual night sky far beyond the great planet’s rings (http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm).

MING THE MERCILESS Charles Middleton

MING THE MERCILESS Charles Middleton

A friend of mine told me a couple of years ago that her employer had reserved a place for her on a voyage into space as soon as such a thing became available to consumers. That would have been all right as far as it went, but the trip envisioned would have been a little more than 300 miles each way. My ambition far exceeded that, and Kaku has made it clear that I was deluding myself.

Well, it was a relatively short time ago that some of the ideas that Kaku fools around with — such as an electron that can be in two places at the same time — were not only unknown but unimagined. So rather than put my vacation to Alpha Centauri out of my mind, I’ll put it on hold. After all, I’m only 66 years old. In the meantime, I still have to see the Grand Canyon.




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