Wernher von Braun and Science Fiction

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It is not easy to define science fiction. Rod Serling, the author of the TV series Twilight Zone gave my preferred one: Fantasy is the impossible made probable, science fiction is the improbable made possible. How to differentiate between good science fiction and bad science fiction? Some readers may try an answer but, again, it is not easy. Perhaps the only method to judge is the same we apply to famous or infamous men. Wait until they are dead, then you will be able to draw a line and decide: good, bad, lucky, unlucky. I have my own simple way to measure how impressive is a science fiction book I am reading. It is a very simple and personal one. I count the times I go back to the page after the frontispiece, to check the year when it was first printed…If I don’t go back at all, then it was bad science fiction.

Ettemberg college, Germany, in the year 1925. A thirteen year old boy is going to get a book he has been waiting for a long time. A strange boy by all counts, because he spends his nights looking at the Moon with a telescope, a present from his parents for his birthday. The postman finally arrives and the boy with trembling hands unpack it. The title of this book was The Rocket into interplanetary Space. That book will change the course of his life. The author of this today obscure and forgotten work was Hermann Oberth, a gymnasium teacher from Transylvania who actually intended to write a scientific treatise, but ended up writing pure science fiction.
Today we may classify that book under the subcategory of Hard Science Fiction since a lot of attention is given to what he thought to be quantitative science. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were great specialists of such genre and even Oberth got several things right by intuition more than by math or physic. He argued that machines could be constructed in way that they will soar into space at a speed of thousand of kilometres per hour, a speed mandatory for escaping Earth’s gravity’s pull; then the author’s added that human beings could live inside them and finally that the construction of such devices, in a matter of few decades, could turn out to be a good business.

Even Jules Verne had written about it, but in spite of all the calculations provided by the Frenchman, few people took him seriously. The name of that enthusiastic boy waiting for the arrival of the postman was Wernher von Braun and convinced him to set his life goal on reaching the Moon.

And the ‘Moon’s gravity pool’ proved to be very strong indeed on him, as he did stop at nothing to get there. He accepted to wear an SS uniform and the building for Adolf Hitler the V2 rockets using slave labor. The V2 proved to be the first devices capable of escaping the Earth atmosphere, but with a load of explosive at the top. Then Von Braun, lying about his past, after the war was enrolled by the United States Space Agency and was able to built the Apollo rockets that reached the Moon. Immediately after achieving that goal, a part of his murky past emerged and in spite of his fame he would have been stripped of his american citizenship and expelled. His passing away with cancer in 1977 proved timely and the case was closed.

What set good science fiction apart from the rest is the fact that the author, starting from some real and scientific theorems, can build something logic which may then one day become science. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 as a pastime, but today some of the people walking close to us in the streets have parts of their bodies which belong to someone else. A similar concept was used by the prolific writer H.G. Well for his mesmerizing book The Island of Doctor Moreau printed in 1896 where we find creatures half animal and half human created by the hand of a surgeon with few scruples, like von Braun.

People of all ages have been fascinated by stories involving the future, space travel, other dimensions, and thus we may safety say that science fiction was borne well before science. It was the french poet Beaudelaire who noted how superstition is a large container of many things, including truth. Similarly we may say that science fiction had been the cradle of some real science and, as a matter of fact, the most advanced branches of science today seems to revert back to fiction. Just think about the Big Bang theory, the Higgs particles, the Dark Matter, Strings, Anti-Matter and so on. But this complexity cannot be limited to sub atomic physic, it could be extended to several other branches of scientific thought. Like astronomy, for example.

Some time ago I stumbled into an astronomic study which could be transformed right away into a science fiction book, just by adding a bit of dialogues and human colors. The title is Astronomical Engineering: a strategy for modifying planetary orbits by D.G Korycansky, Gregory Laughlin, Fred C. Adams, all the three authors are American scientists. This scientific study try to tackle an inescapable tragedy waiting our solar system: the Sun and therefore the Earth are not eternal. The most advanced studies tell us that in about 1.1 billion years our star, the Sun, will be about 11% brightest than it is now, thus severely compromising our life and our ecosystem – provided that something similar to us will be still around on our planet which is highly doubtful – and in about 3.5 billion years it will be 40% more luminous. This will spell the absolute doom of life and the Earth will turn into a sort of planet Mars. Furthermore and unfortunately all stars, just before dyeing, expand their size burning all what is within their range.

The only solution to prolong the Earth survival, the three scientists claimed, would be to move the Earth’s orbit and move it a bit back. Easily said than done, right? But the three scientist have came up with a solution, which at our poor stage of knowledge is…pure fiction, but on a theoretical level is viable being always better than no solution at all. Which is then their idea and how could we move our planet?

Simple, we need to get up to the Kuiper Belt, at the edge of the solar system and pick an asteroid large enough to move the Earth by directing its passage close to us. Many of those giant rocks are more than 100 kilometers in diameter. The effort to move one of those rocky monsters should not be impossible for our far away descendants: these asteroids run fast as comets around the sun and a small change in their trajectory, when they are at their aphelion will cause our chosen rock to dart toward us. Perhaps a tick of a few kilograms in the proper position, that we’ll have to calculate, will be sufficient to organise a miss. If we need to slow it down or speed it up we may use Jupiter or other heavy planets as flings or brakes. The complex calculations involving such a complex operation is out of the power of our computers so far, but if we consider that they double in power on the average every 16 months, well then, in a couple of billion of years, our computers will pose absolutely no problem. To minimize the effects on the tides that such comet will have to be carefully arranged, even if the authors of such scientific study cannot decide whether the Moon and Mars will be spared. Let’s just hope that something resembling a tiny part of us will be still around to perform carefully the manoeuvre. This study is just a good example of Hard Science Fiction, but it is not what I like most. My preferred genre is Time Travel and the Apocalyptic, in fact I wrote a novel on this subject, Black Hole is the title. It deals with a group of heretic scientists from Hong Kong trying to stop the LHC at the CERN of Geneva, but since they fail also our planet ceases to exists. But don’t worry Time Travel saves the main characters.

One of the books that impressed me the most was written by a Frenchman, a contemporary of Jules Verne, but of whom very little is known. His name was Eugene Huzar and in 1855 published a book titled La fin du Monde par la Science, which could be translated as The End of the world caused by science.
In a few words, Huzar argues that the constant increase in scientific knowledge will increase the magnitude of our dangers, not reduce them. That the absolute liberty given to scientists will create absolute dangers. He had even an intuition about atomic fission which in his words will create the greatest dangers: a small particle having hidden infinite power, the atom, which hides the infinite power of the Universe. He had also several other brilliant intuitions about the internet, about generalized peace, fast exchange of news and informations and then, when we’ll have reached a unified language, the general process will gather an unstoppable speed getting out of our hands. Then he mentions travel: more and more people traveling and, in his own words, travel is seeing, seeing creates want for more. He points out to his readers: “Look at 1810 how backward we were but now…”

So, by looking backward to the year of his youth, Huzard  was able to extrapolate the future. What he sees it is clearly our doom in the shape of a great snake biting his tail, even if he tries to stay out of mysticism. The LHC Accelerator at Geneve is a great snake, in fact.

Well, let’s hope that this kind of science fiction is only a warning, instead of a representation of true things to come.

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