SPACE, as Douglas Adams pointed out in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, is big. Really big. It is so big, in fact, that even science fiction struggles to make sense of it. Most sci-fi waves away the problem of the colossal distances between stars by appealing to magic, in the form of some kind of faster-than-light hyperdrive, hoping readers will forgive the nonsense in favour of enjoying a good story.
But there are scientists, engineers and science-fiction writers out there who like a challenge. On October 22nd a small but dedicated audience gathered at the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in London to hear some of them discuss the latest ideas about how interstellar travel might be made to work in the real world. The symposium was a follow-up to a larger shindig held earlier this year in San Diego.
Starship research is enjoying something of a boom. “A few years ago, there was only one organisation in the world working on interstellar travel,” Jim Benford, a microwave physicist and former fusion researcher, told the conference. “Now there are five.” The following day many of the speakers at the event would visit the British Interplanetary Society (BIS, the venerable organisation of which Dr Benford spoke) to discuss design details for a starship named Icarus. 1