Atom Wave: Physics of the Impossible

Atom Wave

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Physics of the Impossible

The impossible is overrated. The magical machines of science fiction, from force fields, phasers, and teleporters aren’t as imaginary as advertised. In the fascinating new book by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, the theoretical unknown is explored.

Physics of the Impossible

It turns out that the physical laws governing this world are very forgiving. You might never conjure up a perpetual motion machine, but you can still build the next best things. While physics is widely considered by many to be incomplete, plenty is known already about the world down to the subatomic level and up to the great galaxy clusters.

In Star Trek, one of Mr. Picard’s favorite pastimes is vaporizing any starship that gets in his way. Why not, I would! The typical weapon of choice in the Federation is the Phaser; that as of yet has never been fully explained. All that is known is that they use superconducting crystals. Stepping away from the fictional, lasers and masers are the only known directed energy weapons known to physics today. Still, in order to destroy any large object today; you will still need something much meaner. Lasing materials are limited in power by their medium, typically a solid or a liquid. Eliminate that and you can achieve much higher energies. The most powerful known today is still a nuclear explosion. During the Reagan years, Edward Teller advocated the development of an x-ray laser pumped by an exploding hydrogen bomb.

With the photon torpedoes in the sky, the captain must have by now ordered shields. Now as some of you know, in Star Trek shields are portrayed as force fields of a kind. They already exist, sort of. In 1995, Brookhaven physicist Ady Herschcovitch invented the plasma window. It won’t stop an incoming missile yet, but it can trap atmosphere. It works by trapping plasma within a grid of electric and magnetic fields.

Finally, with the Enterprise adrift and on fire: the captain and crew must abandon ship. Why did he think that he could take on the Borg fleet? No teleporter exists today that can transport a human, much less a molecule. There is hope. Physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute and the Max Plank Institute have teleported cesium atoms by quantum entanglement, but by just one yard.

This is just the beginning of the impossible. Much more awaits science in the decades and centuries to come, assuming that humans last that long.


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