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 Mrs. 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.”

Scientists Map the Atlas of Words in Our Brain


A team of neuroscientists at University of California, Berkeley, has mapped where the words are stored in our brain. Words activate, or “light up” in an MRI scan, different parts of the brain according to meaning, says the study published in Nature. More than one part can get activated simultaneously, with words that have more than one meaning. The word “top,” for example, lit up regions associated with clothing, but also those linked to scales and measurements. In other words, the outer layer of the brain that processes words is divided in tiny regions that handle concepts, rather than specific terms: weight, color, shape, quantity, etc. The study’s sample is small but the results are consistent. Two popular myths have been debunked: it is not only the left hemisphere of the brain that handles language; its entirety does. And the brain does not have localized regions that handle specific tasks. It is an integrated network that interprets life, and articulates our responses to it.

Life for Apple After the iPhone


The day so many feared has come: for the first time in 13 years, Apple reported a drop in revenue, of 13 percent, a coincidental (or not) decline of one percent for each year of unstoppable rise. Income declined to $50.6 billion. This was due to slowing iPhone sales. As we have said in these columns before, it is only a matter of perspective. On the back of a relatively narrow family of products—the iPhone, the iPad, the Mac, and throw in the iWatch, if you want—Apple has become the company with the highest net worth in the world, easily surpassing the $700 billion in capitalization, while activist investor Carl Icahn has estimated its value at twice that much. Half of the smart phones sold in the U.S. are iPhones. At most, what happened are the drawbacks of success. Expect a surge in September, when an iPhone 7 may be announced.