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Fiction Becomes Fact

When this correspondent was little, there was a poster at his parent’s house with an illustration of the famous ghost ship The Flying Dutchman overflown by a plane of Royal Dutch Airlines, capped by the headline “Fiction Becomes Fact.” The image came to mind recently when a group of scientists and investors came together to announce a plan to send very small spaceships to Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, by pushing them on their way at a quarter of the speed of light using lasers. That is just how the spaceship on Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “Aurora” is sped up. The ship in the novel is much larger, with thousands of people on board, and is also much smarter, because it is controlled by an endearing artificial-intelligence character, called simply “Ship.” Perhaps in keeping with the same science explored in the real-life project, it gets to just a tenth of the speed of light in its voyage to Tau Ceti. Both the scientific and fictional ships suffer from a very hard problem, though: how to decelerate from such high speeds. The ships in the scientific project will just keep going forever. We won’t reveal how Mr. Stanley Robinson solves the problem as it would be a terrible spoiler. There is a long tradition of science fiction stories turning fact, or at least partially real, from Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Louis C. Clarke, among many others. Perhaps the spark to imagine a story is not that far off from that of scientific discovery: “a little step for me, a huge leap for mankind.”

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