Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers
One day, would it be possible to walk through walls? To build starships that can travel faster than the speed of light? To read other people’s minds? To become invisible? To move objects with the power of our minds? To transport our bodies instantly through outer space? Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by these questions. Like many physicists, when I was growing up, I was mesmerized by the possibility of time travel, ray guns, force fields, parallel universes, and the like. Magic, fantasy, science fiction were all a gigantic playground for my imagination. They began my lifelong love affair with the impossible.
I remember watching the old Flash Gordon reruns on TV. Every Saturday, I was glued to the TV set, marveling at the adventures of Flash, Dr. Zarkov, and Dale Arden and their dazzling array of futuristic technology: the rocket ships, invisibility shields, ray guns, and cities in the sky. I never missed a week. The program opened up an entirely new world for me. I was thrilled by the thought of one day rocketing to an alien planet and exploring its strange terrain. Being pulled into the orbit of these fantastic inventions I knew that my own destiny was somehow wrapped up with the marvels of the science that the show promised.
As it turns out, I was not alone. Many highly accomplished scientists originally became interested in science through exposure to science fiction. The great astronomer Edwin Hubble was fascinated by the works of Jules Verne. As a result of reading Verne’s work, Hubble abandoned a promising career in law, and, disobeying his father’s wishes, set off on a career in science. He eventually became the greatest astronomer of the twentieth century. Carl Sagan, noted astronomer and bestselling author, found his imagination set afire by reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars novels. Like John Carter, he dreamed of one day exploring the sands of Mars.
I was just a child the day when Albert Einstein died, but I remember people talking about his life, and death, in hushed tones. The next day I saw in the newspapers a picture of his desk, with the unfinished manuscript of his greatest, unfinished work. I asked myself, What could be so important that the greatest scientist of our time could not finish it? The article claimed that Einstein had an impossible dream, a problem so difficult that it was not possible for a mortal to finish it. It took me years to find out what that manuscript was about: a grand, unifying “theory of everything.” His dream—which consumed the last three decades of his life helped me to focus my own imagination. I wanted, in some small way, to be part of the effort to complete Einstein’s work, to unify the laws of physics into a single theory. As I grew older I began to realize that although Flash Gordon was the hero and always got the girl, it was the scientist who actually made the TV series work. Without Dr. Zarkov, there would be no rocket ship, no trips to Mongo, no saving Earth. Heroics aside, without science there is no science fiction.
I came to realize that these tales were simply impossible in terms of the science involved, just flights of the imagination. Growing up meant putting away such fantasy. In real life, I was told, one had to abandon the impossible and embrace the practical.
However, I concluded that if I was to continue my fascination with the impossible, the key was through the realm of physics. Without a solid background in advanced physics, I would be forever speculating about futuristic technologies without understanding whether or not they were possible. I realized I needed to immerse myself in advanced mathematics and learn theoretical physics. So that is what I did.
In high school for my science fair project I assembled an atom smasher in my mom’s garage. I went to the Westinghouse company and gathered 400 pounds of scrap transformer steel. Over Christmas I wound 22 miles of copper wire on the high school football field. Eventually I built a 2.3-millionelectron- volt betatron particle accelerator, which consumed 6 kilowatts of power (the entire output of my house) and generated a magnetic field of 20,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field. The goal was to generate a beam of gamma rays powerful enough to create antimatter.
My science fair project took me to the National Science Fair and eventually fulfilled my dream, winning a scholarship to Harvard, where I could finally pursue my goal of becoming a theoretical physicist and follow in the footsteps of my role model, Albert Einstein.
Today I receive e-mails from science fiction writers and screenwriters asking me to help them sharpen their own tales by exploring the limits of the laws of physics.
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