Wilko Space Engine Puzzle

Wilko is a rather special extraterrestrial, who accompanied us during our numerous visits to a first elementary class, way back in 1984.

From the fervid imagination of these children, who are no longer children, our book was published by several publishing houses abroad, and in Italy by Einaudi, with the title “Benvenuto Wilko!” (Welcome Wilko)

When an author has finished writing a book, it often happens that the invented characters continue to live on of their own volition, and pop up in the author’s mind with their own initiative.  

Well here are two pieces which concern them, from an almost real and autobiographical story, entitled “Specchio”(Mirror), which has remained hidden in a secret drawer for a long time.  
The dawn of  Internet has made it easier to offer this story to a wider public.

Those who are curious from a purely scientific point of view, and do not appreciate literary waffle, can go directly to “The Explanation”.

The game proposed to the improbable reader is contained in this question: What is Wilko doing wrong? Why hasn’t his space engine been invented by some specialist in the field yet?

We will be delighted to publish in this area of our Website, the most interesting answers.

A cabin mirror

The cabin mirror, which I use to prepare myself for bed, vibrates due to the nearness of a propeller, and therefore reflects the image of a distorted face.
 At night, the motor continues to quiver; the creaks, the slow pitch on a calm sea, the whirring of the air conditioning, create a cocoon of sensations which I’ve got used to, and which lull me to sleep as I lie in my berth.

Closed eyes, empty mind; counting to nine breathing deeply, counting to nine yet again whilst holding my breath, and then counting to nine as I let my breath out slowly from my lungs. I count to nine again until I repeat the process.
Just as the book on pranayama breathing techniques told me to do; a book chosen that morning among those I had brought with me as holiday reading.

A moment before there was only the grey sensation of closed eyelids; a moment later clear images begin to take shape, like those in everyday life, without the haziness of dreams or memories.
 Little, covered in light blue fur and with long ears, dribbling fluidly as in a game of basket ball, the alien entered into a large room, which looked like a metal box, without any particular decoration.
I recognise him: it’s Wilko!
He looks at me and smiles, as actors often do when they turn to face the public.
Then he threw the ball against the far wall, catching it skilfully as it bounced back.  
He looks at me again, winks an eye, and wiggles his ears in an expressive fashion. Then the vision disappears.
But his last glance transmitted an almost telepathic communication, the essence of that which I had just seen: the alien, with his gestures, explained the secret of interstellar navigation.

Easy! All you need is to know how to do it!
I want to switch on the light and sketch a diagram so that I can remember the details, but in the berth underneath me I hear the regular breathing of Cristina fast asleep, and I don’t want to wake her up. Then tiredness overcomes my excitement and I fall asleep, afraid I’ll have forgotten everything the following day.

The next day, the bathroom which we share with the travellers in the next cabin, is invaded by revolting sewage which the plumbing system has kindly spewed out in its rebellion against years of neglect.
The day hasn’t started out on a particularly good note, and it certainly doesn’t stimulate meditation nor abstract thought.

Up on the bridge the air is bracing, and the seagulls continue to follow the boat, as they glide through the air waiting for the cooks to throw waste food into the sea.
Cristina and I watch them together, and we begin to feel in a better mood.
We see an apparently old couple near to us: two happy, peaceful, Nordic souls, who seem as if they are still in love and are curious to see where the boat is taking them. They are watching the seagulls just like us.
We’re still young, but we hope to become like them.

I remember perfectly what had happened the previous night.
I try with pencil and paper to reconstruct everything, whilst drinking an aniseed and ice in the covered bar on the upper deck: it looks perfect, regular with no contradictions. Difficult to try it out though, especially on an old ferry boat heading for Smirne.
It’s amusing to think about it, because it’s an idea as simple as the wheel or see-saw.
Once I had gained possession of the secret that could allow any organised country to build a space ship, what should I do with it?
Ships as big as transatlantic craft, to be built with submarine technology and ready to begin navigation within a few years. Not those fireworks which have been used up till now, as big as whales when they’re launched, with a cargo as little as a peanut when they arrive in orbit.
Egoistic thoughts fill my mind as I imagine the personal advantages such a discovery could bring me: headlines in the papers, fame, and lots more.  
I can see myself as a successful celebrity covering the pages of magazines. Even better, that which the extraterrestrial had communicated to me, could interest a whole range of people that I’d love to meet.
I talk to Cristina about it. She’s interested to hear that Wilko has returned in a dream, because she’d drawn him so many times following the children’s indications. The technological aspect doesn’t interest her. We’ve just begun living together and we still have to discover the world.

Thinking over the whole thing I begin to have nagging doubts. Could someone use this idea to produce arms? I begin to doubt the advantages assured by technical progress.

Had I best keep it to myself?
Is it a duty to say nothing?
I haven’t said anything yet..

Life has a special quality when we believe that we know something incredibly important, and yet at the same time potentially dangerous for everyone.
Especially if you are absolutely convinced you know a perfect truth, and you add reasonable doubt. Even if I decided to spread the word, could someone really apply the idea? Who would take such a story seriously?

Silence has been like keeping a lottery ticket bought by chance at the station as the train is leaving, without wanting to read the numbers in the paper, so that I don’t have to swap a horizon of limitless possibilities with cold reality.
Since then I’ve lived with this unusual secret of uncertain values; sometimes I’ve almost forgotten it, other times I’ve felt it near like a physical object, especially during the summer when a starry sky can take me back to that starlit night on the boat’s bridge. Every time I looked at those distant stars, which could so easily be within reach, I wondered if telling everyone what only I knew, was the right thing to do.

Written twenty years later

Autobiographical note on scientific research and space travel.

After hard and long thinking, I’ve changed my idea with respect to space travel, and I’ve decided to provide all the instructions I received without particular merit.  
I made my decision after reading information about the orbit of asteroids and their potentially dangerous intersection with planet earth.

I realised that it’s not an easy subject to explain or accept.
When I tried to explain the alien’s message to my best friend, he told me in his adorable brutally frank manner, that he didn’t give much weight to amateur scientific discoveries. This didn’t put me off, as I have a long family tradition in the field of heretic research; or rather that which is not widely known despite it’s importance and complexity.

Family Background

As a boy during All Saints, I was taken every year to honour the memory of NicolÚ, an uncle three times removed, called by the family the “Famous Inventor” par excellence.
His tomb, among one of the smallest in the cemetery, was decorated with a female figure sculpted with Canovian aspirations, and embellished with a peplos similar to a wet sheet draped on her nude body, posed as if she was about to take flight with a laurel wreath in her hands.
The “Famous Inventor” smiled benevolently and modestly from a bas-relief, displaying a profile reproduced by the unpredictability of genetic resources in the features of some descendants who I saw on a regular basis, in an exciting relationship between corroded stone and the living flesh of people I knew.
The epigraph, confirming his geniality, was written by himself; obviously he was convinced that he knew his best qualities better than anyone else.
Qualities which were often recalled in the family, in an attempt to keep alive, at least within our oral tradition, the memory of this man, but over the years these memories have faded. All I can say is that the anemometer was his best invention, but I can’t say if it measured winds and air currents, or the flow of the body’s vital spirits.
I do have however, a clear memory of a suspicion that he did not rest in eternal peace with his dear wife, who had an authoritarian character and was not particularly interested in appreciating his discoveries, but together with the buxom Saracen housekeeper, with whom he’s spent the last years of his life in a continuous orgy of interesting discoveries and senile sensuality.
Returning home via a road that took us through the oldest part of the city, my parents always tried to show me the tower of an old house from which the “Famous Inventor” studied the stars, but they never managed, maybe because they couldn’t remember the exact location,   or maybe because the building had been demolished.
A passion for Science and the courage to dare where no man has gone before, have popped up in our family on other occasions.
A dear second uncle, who I called Uncle Pipa, because he was always surrounded by a cloud of aromatic pipe smoke, made important discoveries in the field of radio transmission. People who are in the know have assured me that he was preceded by Marconi only by a stroke of luck.  
But his discovery that I admire the most, concerns the column of gnats that form and swirl around humid areas without any particular reason, especially when it rains. Uncle Pipa, intrigued by their swirling, began to follow them in the garden, under the shade of the plane trees, and along the banks of the torrent, without worrying what others might think to see a man running and then slowing down, chasing something that from a distance was invisible.
In the end he managed to come up with a positive result, before passing on to other research: the stupid gnats, impervious to all attempts at communication, fled in a disorganised fashion if he drew near to them energetically blowing a whistle tuned to DO of the bass clef.

And this is without mentioning the numerous extraordinary artistic, philosophical and mechanical inventions of my father Antonio.

Nocturnal chats

With such a family background, it’s natural that when Wilko, the extraterrestrial, entered my nocturnal meditations and transmitted the idea of making a space craft, I was immediately interested, and wanted to better understand the concept.

Let’s pick up the story where we left it: as our journey at sea continued, and the coast of Turkey drew near, the nocturnal meetings with the long-eared stranger took on a different aspect to that previously mentioned.
It wasn’t an unpredictable and spontaneous appearance, but a sort of memory reconstruction, in which I tried to force myself to remember the details in the moments preceding sleep.  
It’s a very difficult technique to pilot with a light hand: if you try too hard inventions of a voluntary nature spring forth, if you let yourself go too much, you simply fall asleep.
Anyway I’ve put together the results, even if they’re not wholly satisfactory, attempting to stick within the limits of that which I’ve truly understood, without taking too much responsibility.
I must say, I’m quite curious to see if someone can find a reason why it shouldn’t work, given that up till now I haven’t come across one. I must put it across seriously as if it is the pure truth.
I would like to point out, especially to specialists, that they must understand and keep in mind that my daily work doesn’t involve writing treatises on physics, but creating books and picture animation for children.

The Explanation

When I asked what he thought of rocket motors, he was very explicit:
- Weight! Mass weighs a great deal when you want to move it a long way from a planet. Why throw it away when you can use it again?
One night his image said to me:
- Funny! The funny equations which you’re thinking of should be interpreted in a relative way. But watch out! Only a stupid being such as a Botropek would carry out experiments involving the acceleration of infinite mass prototypes near to their house! There are already enough black holes!
As he said this he blinked both of his eyes, as if wanting to underline a real danger.
- Useful nevertheless! It can be useful to send a small quick craft in to space, to push asteroids and comets out of the way if they get too close!

- Play ball! – exclaimed the extraterrestrial during our last meeting.  – The best thing to push a spaceship into orbit is to play ball. Throw the ball against a wall in the opposite direction to that which you want to go, and take flight when bouncing back!
- Why?
- Vectorial! – he replied. – With a simple vectorial calculation you understand that the force transferred through the stands of the spaceship is equal to the ball’s mass, with respect to the velocity with which it is launched. Then you need to subtract the force lost to the wall at the moment of rebound, but when it takes flight again it still goes quickly. Grab this usable difference, and you’ve got the force you need to travel! You need good magnetic shoes to keep your feet on the floor!
- But doesn’t a rocket work better?
- Yes! Yes, it works better because you don’t lose the rebound force. But I’ve still got my ball if I want to carry on playing. It’s much better than throwing it into space! You know it’s little! A spaceship is always too little! It’s easier to take plenty of energy with you than a lot of mass!
- What do you do when you get tired?
- Well – he replied as if he was surprised by my naive question, ‑ I switch on a machine that plays ball instead of me!
- In this way can you go fast?
- Very fast! – he concluded smiling – Because the more you play the more you accelerate. That’s why you shouldn’t overdo it!
- It seems too simple! Are you sure it’ll work?
- A model! If you don’t believe it make a model!
- What sort of model?
- A mirror! You place, at the centre of a closed box, a small source of intense luminosity that sends it’s rays against a wall. One made out of mirrors, and all the others painted black: This is the model of the ball-rebound engine. Lots of small pieces of light travel fast, and on the mirror bounce back like resplendent elastic small balls; on the black walls however, completely trapped, they fade, losing their light force. It supplies energy and obtains an imbalance of thrust. All you need is a mirror, one like you humans use to spy on your own appearance!

 And with these enigmatic words, showing that he had a deep knowledge of my very soul, the long-eared extraterrestrial said his farewells.
From that moment on he’s never returned, despite the fact I continue to wait for him with open arms, should he ever decide to visit me again.
But maybe a reader out there, or their mother, father, aunt or grandfather, can decipher what he intended to say. Then they could build, based on his advice, big and fast spaceships capable of travelling through the immense universe to splendid distant planets.

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