In a sense, all science starts as science fiction -- in ideas that don't yet have the substance of fact. "What if?" is where both begin, and they move on through the culture in tandem in a mutually encouraging way.
In his bouncy new series “Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible,” premiering tonight on the Science Channel, self-described "theoretical physicist and science-fiction fan" Michio Kaku seeks to construct scientifically plausible if not currently practicable models for some of the cornerstones of speculative fiction, from making a light saber to traveling at warp speed to working out how to blow up the world. Taking off from his 2008 bestseller, "Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel," it's a show for those of us who can't necessarily do the math but can grasp the metaphors.
You might not understand, for instance, what it means to say (as Wikipedia does) that string field theory -- which Kaku co-formulated -- works "by finding a collection of vertices for joining and splitting strings, as well as string propagators, that give a Feynman diagram-like expansion for string scattering amplitudes." (I know what all those words mean individually but not in that order.)
But it isn't hard to picture the universe as made up of vibrations, because we all vibrate or have cellphones that do; or to picture parallel worlds, because we all dream; or to grasp the fundamentals of teleportation, because we have all seen "Star Trek"; or hyperspace, because we know about freeways; or wormholes, because we've played Chutes and Ladders.
Just so -- and in a sort of quantum way, one might say -- the show is at once fanciful and serious, with the science both fundamental to and incidental to the adventure.
Kaku seasons his narration with references to "Star Wars," "Stargate" and Philip Pullman's “His Dark Materials” and couches his investigations in pop-cultural terms so that the question of parallel worlds raises the possibility of Elvis being alive somewhere (and doing his laundry somewhere very much like here, helped by Kaku).
He travels to a body shop to observe a plasma cutter as he works out how to build a light saber -- lasers won't do it -- and a glass blower to model a bridge between this universe and another. Illustrative animations and various video gimmicks keep the issues clear, or clearer than they might be otherwise.
With his swept-back gray hair and sage mien, Kaku is a sort of dashing geek hero, a Carl Sagan for the Comic-Con generation, a handsome Yoda. A writer of both popular and technical science often called upon to comment when science becomes news, he is clearly the man for this (self-created) job, having also built his own particle accelerator -- an atom smasher -- for his high school science fair. (I think mine was "How Ice Becomes Steam," and I believe heat was involved.)
When he has worked out a model to his satisfaction, he presents it to a few "science-fiction fans," who tend remarkably to fit the stereotypes, to get their OK. As if he wouldn't -- a famous scientist with actual plans for a light saber. (I mean, talk about validation.) The physics are sound, according to the latest models, but the execution belongs to some future age when you can get the parts, not to mention the funding.