Books I Love: Hyperspace

When I was 19 or 20, I realized with some alarm that my knowledge and skill set was very specialized and very limited. I knew a lot about acting, filmmaking, and just about every other practical aspect of the entertainment industry, but I was beginning to feel like I didn't have anything to fall back on, if the acting thing didn't work out for me. I had always enjoyed reading and learning about things, so I started spending a lot of time in book stores and libraries, doing my very best to expand my world. Much of my reading stayed focused on the arts, though, as I read magnificent books like Goldman's Adventures in the Screentrade and countless collections from W.S. Burroughs and other beat-era writers.

As I entered my early twenties, I made a commitment to expand into something else, and I chose science. I had always loved science, and being on Star Trek made me science adjacent for all of my teens, but I quickly found out that most science books were way over my head, or written in a style that wasn't engaging enough to make it worth the effort. After a few frustrating months, someone (I think it was my brother) suggested that I read A Brief History of Time. I picked it up, read it in just a couple of days, and realized that my life could be divided into before I read it, and after I read it. On my next trip to the bookstore, I went straight to the science section, and looked for something – anything – to continue my education.

My eyes fell on a book with an interesting cover, and a provocative title: Hyperspace: A scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the 10th dimension. It was written by a guy called Michio Kaku. I pulled it off the shelf, and after just a few pages, I was hooked.

There's a story in Hyperspace, right at the beginning, that I'm going to paraphrase. It's the story that grabbed my attention, captured my imagination, and fundamentally altered the way I thought about the nature of existence. I already had "before and after" with A Brief History of Time, and when I got to the end of this story, I had "before and after I read about the fish scientists." The story goes something like this:

In San Francisco, there's this botanical garden, and near the entrance there is a pond that's filled with koi fish. Dr. Kaku describes standing there, looking at the fish one day, and wondering what it would be like if the fish had a society as complex and advanced as our own, but the whole thing was confined to the pond, and they had no idea that there was a whole other world just beyond the surface of the water. In the fish world, there were fish scientists, and if a human were to pluck one of them from the pond, show it our world, and return it to the pond, it would go back to the other fish scientists and say, "Guys! You're never going to believe this. I was just doing my thing, and suddenly, this mysterious force pulled me from our world and showed me another, where the creatures don't need gills to breathe, and walk on two legs!"

The other scientists would look at it, and ask it how it got to this new world, but it wouldn't be able to explain it. They'd want the scientist to recreate it, but it wouldn't be able to. The fish scientist would know, however, that the other world was there, and that there was something just as complex as life in the pond on the other side of some mysterious barrier that they couldn't seem to penetrate.

I'm sure I've mangled the story, but that's essentially what I remember from it. I thought, "Well, shit, if there could be a world like that in the pond, maybe we are in something else's pond!" I didn't know if it was possible, I didn't know if it was just science fiction, but I didn't care. It was this incredible possibility, and my world opened up again. I felt like I'd been granted membership in a secret society. I devoured the book, and I began to think about the nature of existence in ways that I'd never even considered before. When I finally read Flatland a few years later, I was blown away that Abbot had written essentially the same story a hundred years earlier, in 1884, and I was thrilled that I could actually understand it.

I got a chance to interview Dr. Kaku one of the times I hosted The Screen Savers. I nervously told him how much his work meant to me, and he said that Star Trek was similarly important to him. That was pretty cool.

next time: a fantastic voyage

45 thoughts on “Books I Love: Hyperspace”

  1. I had a similar experience with Michael Shermer’s _Why People Believe Weird Things_. This book made me believe that it was possible for humans to understand our world in a meaningful way without resorting to superstition.

  2. Inspiring entry Wil. I’ve had that experience when reading certain books as well, and will have to give Hyperspace a good read. Right now I am re-reading the Watchmen. 😉
    I can’t remember all of the books that did that for me, but many were SciFi or Fantasy. Gibson’s Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive were to, as was Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

  3. There are a few books out there based on this premise. I have thought about this concept on and off for years. My first thoughts of it could possibly be traced back to a simplistic and childish reference to “Horton Hears a Who”.

  4. Cool story. I haven’t had the opportunity to check out the book you mention (making note right now to go find it), but the idea is one I’ve always found appealing. For instance, what if dogs really are more intelligent than we give them credit for. What about cats? What if they recognize that they don’t have to communicate with us (much) to get fed, petted, and taken care of? For all we know, they could be laughing their ass off in their own private language while thousands of cat owners are subjugated daily. Oh wait….I’m a cat owner. Damn!

  5. Michio Kaku is awesome. I keep intending on reading his books, but just haven’t gotten around to it, and I like his SciQ series on the Science Channel. Mostly though, I want to see him guest star on an episode of Fringe, either as himself or as a contemporary of Dr. Bishop. That would make my geeky heart happy.

  6. Finally, someone else who has even heard of this awesome book! My mom bought this for me in much the same way your dad got you the hockey book (she knew I wanted to grow up to be Samantha Carter), and I read it through as fast as I could. And then immediately went and bought Flatland, and read that too. Even with my really terrible grasp of math, the concepts and the way Kaku presents them are so intuitive and almost picturesque that my right-brain can totally see it. Hooray for science!

  7. I received that very book as a Christmas present a few years back. I’m now inclined to read it. It’s another victory for science, thanks to Wil Wheaton.

  8. I had the privilege of taking a class with Dr. Kaku at City College in… let me see… 1993 or 94. The class was Physics of Science Fiction (all theory, no math – he said we didn’t have enough blackboard space for the math). We used Hyperspace as a textbook, and after listening to me rave about the class, members of my gaming group would come and sit in class just to listen. (The course covered a lot of things that are in his new book.) He told us the koi story in class, too. You got it pretty close. 😉
    He’s a great man.

  9. Thanks for the recommendation, Wil. I’ll have to put that on my reading list. If you are interested in some classics that will scare you with how close to reality they are coming, read:
    *Farhenheit 451
    *Brave New World – Aldous Huxley, excellent author, but obviously stoned when he wrote.
    And if you have never seen the movie Gattaca, watch it, too.

  10. Sounds like an interesting book. The fish scientist story actually reminds me of the TNG episode “Where Silence Has Lease”, in which humans are the fish and the Nagilum is the scientist.

  11. I’m so glad you gave the nod to Flatland, which IMHO should be required reading for all HS students. It works well in a literary, social-political, mathematical, and philosophical plane (pun intended) and I can invision a unified cross subject curriculum that feeds off it.
    Additionaly, for examinations on the idea of reality vs percieved reality PLEASE read Plato’s allegory of the cave.
    If Flatland being written 100 years before Hyperspace is interesting to you Plato’s take on similar ideas some 2000+ years earlier should prove worth your time. Wiki for the rough description; but I strongly encourage the actual text as the presentation as dialoge by Plato is eloquent in a way that only reading can describe.

  12. One summer when I was in my mid-20s, I went through all the classics they tell us to read in high school, figuring that I was finally mature enough to appreciate them. Both of those books were on my list, with All Quiet on the Western Front, 1984, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse Five, and a bunch of others I can’t recall at the moment.
    Nothing makes a cynical 23 year-old even more cynical like reading Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm all in a row.

  13. Wil,
    If you want to get deeper into actual physics lectures that are still “accessible” by mere mortals, I highly suggest Richard Feynman’s Lecture series:
    Feynman had a fantastic way of making it all make sense, even when discussing incredibly complex topics. I can also recommend his two semi-autobiographical books:

      Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!


      What Do You Care What Other People Think?

    . Not much science in these two, but both are a wonderful window into the mindset of the guy who (albeit posthumously) helped me get it when it came to my college physics courses.

  14. I *adore* everything Feynman ever did, and I can draw a very short line between reading Hyperspace and listening to Feynman’s lectures.

  15. You want cynical? Try having a literature teacher/professor in his last year before retirement. His plan on the last day was to wear a loin cloth, rent a helicopter, and piss on the school.
    With his influence, my friends and I are now forever deranged when it comes to science visionary (I resist the urge to call it science fiction) writing or any “great” literary piece. Probably why I chose the career path I did. Oh, and my friends and I used “Ford” as a 4-letter word for months. Now that’s messed up!
    If you are in the mood for a 1 hour read to confuse the mind, try Jonathan Livingston Siegel. With your library, you probably already have read it, but I need to mention it anyway. (I have to refer to classics. My latest reads have been mostly trade journals. SNORE)

  16. Feynman’s writing was brilliant. He is essential to my daughter passing her physics class. The author who most influenced me is still unknown, as is the story. It was about a man who was given a watch by the devil. The watch could freeze time forever but he could only use it once. He waited his entire life to find that perfect moment to stop time, but didn’t find it until after his death. While on the train to hell, the devil came to ask him why he hadn’t used the watch to stop time. There, on a train full of dead souls bound for hell, the devil at his side, the man clicked the button and stopped time, forever trapping them all on that train. I’d love to find that story again. It started my eternal search for that perfect moment.

  17. Darn it Mr. Wheaton, it appears I’ve chosen the same color scheme for my blog!
    On topic: As a child I often imagined worlds outside of my own perception, but unless there’s any possibility for interaction it’s just idle fantasy (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I have enough trouble just connecting with people and places in our own big blue. Money can help but ultimately time prevents genuine connection and discovery of all the world has to offer. Thanks for the post, adding you to my ever growing list of feeds.

  18. When I was a little kid, and I’d dream dreams with people in them, I’d wonder what happened to them when I woke up. Which led me to wondering if I was someone else’s dream and what would happen to me when they woke up.
    I was a weird little kid.

  19. Thanks for this book recommend. My dad’s been watching Dr. Kaku on Discovery Channel and he’s a big fan. I’m looking forward to reading this book and then loaning it to my Dad. (One of the best things about books – how, when you get a good one, you can run to your friend and pass it on.)
    Have you read “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson? It’s a look at cosmology from the beginning to now. It really helped me get a real understanding for space. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t just a trip to the chemists, but I never really visualized it until I read this book.

  20. Babylon 5 also did the fish idea thing. After saving Sinclair’s girlfriend from an encounter with something supernatural at Sigma 957, G’kar and her are in the Zoccolo (the marketplace) and pass by a flower vendor. The exchange goes something like this:
    Catherine: What the hell happened out there?
    G’Kar: *points to an insect on some earth flowers for sale* “What is this called?”
    Catherine: An ant.
    G’Kar: Ah, an ant. See, now I’ve picked this ant up on my hand. And now I put it back on the flower. Now if another ant asks the one I picked up what did he see, or what happened, how would he answer? We are all ants to someone, Ms. Sakai.
    I’m sure I didn’t get it quite right, but that was the gist of it.

  21. If you haven’t read James Blish’s classic story, “Surface Tension” you should. Except the koi really are people. Well, fish-people. And they aren’t plucked by a mysterious force but go exploring beyond the pond.

  22. I tend to see Dr. Michio Kaku as more of a showman than anything else. Lots of razzle-dazzle speculation. Might as well hang out in the religion and philosophy sections of the bookstore…or just read something else.
    I definitely relate to the feeling of having a limited skill set that doesn’t give much to fall back on. Wish I had realized that when I was 20.

  23. A curious little book you may find interesting is “Realspace:The fate of physical presence in the digital age, on and off the planet by Paul Levinson. I found it while looking for source material for my study of the space shuttle. I enjoyed it enough that I forced myself to use a quote from it in my paper, just because it was profound. He even has a blog on amazon…

  24. I also read Hyperspace in my early twenties, along with Short History of Time. Somewhere along the line I lost my copy of Hyperspace(I think i lent it, and it ended up on permanent borrow, i keep meaning to get a new copy).
    maybe you should start a Wil’s geek book club?

  25. I would *love* to do something like that, but the last thing I need is to give myself another thing to do that’s totally awesome, but doesn’t help me feed my family, you know? I don’t know if the time investment would ever pay off, sadly.

  26. I had a similar experience with A Brief History of Time. While wandering a book store in San Diego recently I ran across The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene and found it a fascinating and enjoyable read. It does for string theory what ABHoT did for quantum mechanics. I once again catch myself looking at the world around me and thinking how incredibly awesome and crazy it is.

  27. They made a TV show out of The Elegant Universe that’s awesomesauce on top of awesome, delivered in the awesomemobile.

  28. My father used to read A Brief History of Time and some Carl Sagan stuff to me when I was a little kid. That on top of watching TNG with him shaped who I am and my unwavering curiosity. I haven’t’ read Hyperspace but I’ve picked it up at the book store many, many times. I’ll have to buy it one of these days. Maybe when I start making money from my blogs, ha!
    Check out my blogs if you get a chance:

  29. Back in college, a roommate of mine worked at a B&N, and was able to bring home books to “borrow” from time to time. One day he came home with “Black Holes and Time Warps” by Kip Thorne. It is an interesting read if you like the history behind the science, as well as the science itself. I read the first couple chapters of it, got hooked, and bought it next payday. Another one to add to your ever growing list of books-that-I-would-read-if-I-had-the-time.

  30. I read Hyperspace in high school, and I remember that it was the first book to completely break my brain. For 2 or 3 days after reading about 1/2 of the book, I couldn’t get anything done because I was trying to wrap my head around these awesome ideas.

  31. I recently read Physics of the Impossible, a later book by Dr. Kaku and I think you would enjoy it as well if you have not already read it. IIRC, it discusses Star Trek in parts of the book. It was nice to see that you both had an influence4 on each other in some way.

  32. Wil,
    I’m aware that it is fictional and not a science book, but at the end of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger the protagonist and the antagonist have a startling conversation about issues very similar to the koi pond. If you haven’t read this book, do so, it’s awesome. But even if you don’t want to read the whole book, pick it up and read Chapter 5 section V. It’s pretty amazing!

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