One of my favorite things about science fiction is how many times over the years it has predicted real developments in science. If you doubt this, you have only to delve into this exciting tour of new research in the brain, which – while sounding like it belongs in the realm of fantasy, is all actually happening right now. And in fact, Kaku draws parallels between current capabilities in brain science and plot elements in works like The Matrix, Sliders, and Star Trek to illustrate exactly this point.
(Governments are not unaware of the potential of science fiction. In 2007, China hosted a SF/Fantasy Conference – the first in Chinese history – to encourage public creativity toward future scientific and technological development.) According to author Neil Gaiman, who was invited to the Conference,
And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?
It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.”
Kaku excels at elucidating new developments in brain research, and in conveying his own enthusiasm over these innovations. He also does a good job in explaining the importance of electromagnetism, which is critical in understanding the advances in brain research, since brain neurons communicate via electrical signals.
He provides a lot of fun history about how brain research was advanced by some pretty awful injuries and diseases that inadvertently gave doctors a look (literally) at brain functions.
The part I think I liked the most was Kaku’s descriptions of all the wonderful things that can now be done to help those who are paralyzed, whether because of injury, war, or disease. The field of “neuroprosthetics” is revolutionary and inspiring.
Kaku has come up with his own theory of the mind (what makes us us), but it was not convincing to me. He is certainly not the first to go on the “hunt for the homunculus” as it has been called, trying to figure out how the “self” comes about. New machines can tell us from whence different thoughts arise in the brain, and can even “read” thoughts to some extent by correlating brain activity with previous known associations in those areas. But Kaku, it seems to me, has come up with an overly simplistic theory (“The CEO”) and too easily dismisses other explanatory options, such as nonlinear models that look to self-organizing, emergent phenomena characteristic of chaotic systems.
Kaki’s paradigm for “levels of consciousness” also was not particularly satisfactory in my opinion, especially given all his qualifiers about its heuristic nature and all the “gray areas.”
Nevertheless, Kaku’s fascination with the brain and how it works is infectious. He aims to convey how fast science is moving now, and he does it so well he had me wishing I were born fifty years later so I would be alive (theoretically) fifty additional years to see the fruition of all the exciting developments to come.
Evaluation: If you want to know some of the many ways in which the world of science fiction is turning into the world of right now, this book is a fun and engrossing way to accomplish it. Who doesn’t find it interesting that we have a sense of ourselves, and that we can wonder about why it is that we can wonder?
Note: We listened to this book on audio. The narrator, Feodor Chin, did an excellent job.
Published unabridged on 13 compact discs (15 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2014