Non-Fiction Reviews


A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension

(1994/2016) Michio Kaku, Oxford University Press, £9.99, pbk, xviii + 359pp, ISBN 978-0-198-78503-0


Hyperspace, parallel universes, higher dimensions, wormholes (stargate portals) and time travel are all firmly established tropes of science fiction. Arguably good science fiction, especially hard SF (as distinct from good fantasy, science fantasy and other speculative fiction subgenres) is fiction firmly rooted in science with a few speculative 'what ifs' thrown in. As such, this book will be of great interest to those resolutely into hard SF and who find science itself fascinating.  Indeed, there is a clear and firm relationship between science and SF other than that one draws upon the other: the hypothesis (neat idea) and thought experimentation (story telling) of SF is paralleled by science's hypothesis and experimentation together with conclusions verifiable by independent experimental and/or observation replication.  Indeed, astrophysicist Carl Sagan has referred to the entwining 'dance' of science and science fiction, and the former President of the Royal Society and Britain's Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees has said, 'better good SF than bad science'.  Of course, this site's regulars will be well aware of the fascination of exploring the concatenation of, and boundary between, SF and science. And so theoretical physicist Michio Kaku book is undeniably relevant to this readership. Indeed, SF's real social value (other than escapist entertainment and in occasionally providing social comment) is that SF inspires an interest in science as, for example, surveys have revealed. Michio Kaku himself refers to this citing Nobel Prize winner Isidore Rabi who scolded physicists on the abysmal state of science education in the US saying that SF writers have done more to communicate the romance of science than all physicists combined!

Technically, the hyperspace theory on which Michio Kaku focuses is Kaluza-Klein theory with added superstring theory that can neatly be expressed mathematically in 10 dimensions. In essence – and do not let this concise summary put you off reading this engaging book – Kaku hones in on the likelihood (given our current knowledge) that we live in a 10 dimensional universe which itself may or may not be part of a multiverse or even parallel universes of which ours has a greater probability (within the overall universal wave function).

Michio Kaku says that this 10 dimensionality is not just something of exotic and abstract interest but of real value as it helps explain the way things are (reality). He likens considering our world as our ancestors might, as being flat and whose inhabitants have a basic understanding of the weather: that it is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, with prevailing winds etc.  All well and good, but if you could show our ancestors that instead of living on a 2-dimensional sheet, we were in fact living on a 3-D sphere in orbit about the Sun then suddenly why summers are hotter, and the prevailing winds are the way they are, all makes sense and are in fact an inevitable function of our living in 3-D space: viewing the universe in higher dimensions makes more sense and engenders simpler explanations.

Michio Kaku takes us on a journey from those early proponents of hyperspace such as the nineteenth century theologian Arthur Willink who proposed that God resides in a higher dimension, through Charles Hinton's notion that light could be considered as a vibration in the 4th dimension (in a 5-D universe of 4 spatial dimensions and one of time), to Theodr Kaluza's work unifying Einstein and Maxwell.

Along the way – which will delight this site's regulars – Michio Kaku notes the contribution of the arts (in all but name referring to Sagan's dance of science and SF). He notes that Kaluza's unifying Einstein and Maxwell was not a mathematical bolt from the blue as some science historians will have it, but built upon popular ideas circulating in the arts albeit in a quasi-scientific way.

Now, you may fear that this book will be too mathematical for you. Indeed, a quick flip through revealed matrix notation that (as a natural scientist not into higher mathematics beyond statistical analysis) looked a bit scary. Indeed by page 39, with the talk of Riemann metric tensors, I personally found that things were looking a little hairy.  However, I need not have worried. Michio Kaku primarily talks in analogies even if he directly relates it to advanced physics theories (way beyond my Nelkon and Parker A-level understanding) and maths (way beyond my undergraduate-level biostatistics).

Then there are the SFnal references peppered along the way. There are quite a few including: Back to the Future, Heinlein's 'All You Zombies' and 'And He Built A Crooked House', The Time Machine (of course), Nelson Bond's 'The Monster From Nowhere', Peggy Sue Got Married, Sagan's Contact, Alice in Wonderland, John Wyndham's 'Random Quest', and 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others.  In short, Michio Kaku's book speaks to SF fans.

The journey we are taken on is a fascinating one, and Michio Kaku – Henry Semat Professor at City College New York – is well qualified to navigate his readers through this mathematical landscape and treads a clear path.  Indeed, the only time he is less than sure-footed is when he leaves maths and physics venturing into the natural sciences: for example, invoking cosmological cycles behind major mass extinctions (alternatively see Hallam instead) and the gulf stream as the causal factor of ice ages (alternatively, dare I say it, see myself), quoting fellow physicist Paul Davies who himself has been known to stray from his area of expertise to blunder biology.  This is all rather a shame and does not at all serve Michio Kaku well.  That this does not at all seriously undermine the book is that these sojourns beyond physics and maths are brief, largely being confined to a few pages, and also that you need to be a natural scientist to pick up on the holes in Kaku's understanding of the Earth system: so don't let this put you off.

Of course, readers who are into both science and SF will want answers to a few specific questions, and here Michio Kaku does provide some.  One of these is likely to be whether or not wormhole gates – that may enable travellers safely traverse interstellar distances in an instant – are possible?  Here it seems as if some interpretations of Kaluza-Klein theory do allow this with just two drawbacks.  The first is the most serious in that it appears that the equations that allow this necessitate the use of some kind of exotic form of matter at the stargates' entrances.  Second, the existence and employment of negative energy is required. Both these seem to be major stumbling blocks and the exotic form of matter one certainly is as none has yet been detected (though who knows what with current investigations into so-called dark matter).  The other, negative energy, may be less problematic in that (if I understood Michio Kraku's book correctly) for negative energy to exist, what is known as the Casimir effect (theorised back in 1948) has been shown to exist in attractive form since the 1950s and (I see from my own electronic library) detected in repulsive form in 2009 (Munday et al, 2009, Nature vol. 457, p170-3.) though this last is not mentioned.  This in turn brings me on to the publisher Oxford University Press missing a trick, if not being perhaps a little misleading in the smallprint…

Michio Kaku's Hyperspace was first published back in 1994. This 2016 edition is part of a new series of Oxford Landmark Science reprints and the copyright page describes this edition as being 'revised'.  Alas, at least in terms of updating, this does not seem to be the case: there are no references to works published after the first edition was released in 1994 and so no mention of Munday's detection of repulsive Casimir.  More glaringly, given the discussion of sub-atomic particles and the Higgs boson, is Michio Kaku's omission of the detection of a Higgs energy particle at CERN.  Yet, given the extensive media attention of such developments, many readers will notice these omissions.  This failure to properly revise the text updating it would have taken a minimal amount of effort, possibly necessitating only expanding the book by a few pages or at least a short update appendix.  I do hope that other titles in the new Oxford Landmark Science reprints are updated as failing to do so will be doing readers a disservice and lessen this, otherwise extremely worthy, series' utility.

Meanwhile, Michio Kaku has given us a far more than a thought-provoking, engaging read: it is a captivating tour of near-current thinking as to 'Theories of Everything'.  Though at first glance it may look just a little intimidating, once readers are just a few pages in they will find that the text simply flows and their interest engaged.  Hard SF writers will also find this book useful.  Readers of writers whose SF on physical science front can be as hard as granite (for example, writers such as Hannu Rajaniemi) will find that this book illuminates their stories.  And at the end of it all, Michio Kaku gets his readers to think about the nature of reality.  Any work that engages sense-of-wonder (sensawunda) has got to be commended. It may be one of the very few books that gives you a feel for the research frontier between maths and physics.  A gift not to be ignored.

Jonathan Cowie

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