It was a warm afternoon in July, and Hal Fearn was sitting in his camouflage jeep in the parking lot of a mostly empty IHOP in Southern California. Fearn, a physicist at California State University, Fullerton, bided his time by singing along to the a cappella covers pumping through his stereo. He hadn’t loitered long before he spotted a silver minivan easing into the lot. Behind the wheel was Jim Woodward, large gold-framed glasses and a surgical mask adorning his gaunt face.

Woodward, a physics professor emeritus at Fullerton, slid his van beside the jeep and rolled down his window to pass a box to Fearn. Inside was a collection of metallic devices with wires protruding from their exposed electromechanical guts. They looked like the type of gadgets an action movie villain might carry in his pocket to blow up a city, but their actual function is even more improbable. Woodward believes these devices—he calls them his “gizmos”—may set humans on the path to interstellar travel.

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