ARTHUR C. CLARKE
Dec 16th, 1917 to Mar 19th, 2008
by Bill Jordan
He never grew up, and never stopped growing
British born, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 90, was the kind of person most of us aspire to be and led the kind of rich life most of us would aspire to lead. He was laid to rest in Sri Lanka, attended by his many friends and adopted family. The entire island observed a minute of silence as friends paid their respects. The event was not broadcast, had no officiant, and was completely secular according to Arthur Clarke’s will. A plaque on his grave will read: “Here lies Arthur C. Clarke. He never grew up, and never stopped growing.”
Most well known for his science-fiction novels, Arthur Clarke was as much a man of science as fiction. He is considered one of the fathers of modern science fiction alongside Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. He wrote more than 30 novels and 13 short-story collections. Many of his works are considered the finest in any genre.
His visionary masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey
But he was as well known for forty non-fiction scientific books. More than a decade before Sputnik briefly touched space, he had meticulously and scientifically detailed the optimal orbit for geosynchronous communications satellites. He is credited by patent offices with ‘prior art’ for this achievement and recognized for his accomplishments that helped us achieve our modern age of instant communication. The geosynchronous orbit is referred to as the Clarke orbit. He also had a Russian-European satellite and an asteroid named after him. He accurately described space stations, moon landings using a mother-ship and recovery vehicle, cell-phones, self-aware computers and more. Even where he was standing on the scientific shoulders of others, he communicated the complexities so that lay-people could believe such things were simple and elegant. In most cases, Arthur Clarke’s fiction merely speculated on near-future advances that opened new avenues of adventure, to nearby planets, to the ocean floor, to the stars.
His visionary masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey encapsulated the dream of the American and Russian Space programs to reach space and become a part of its wonder. At the beginning of that work, primitives were moved by the sight of the monolith, gateway to understanding that lies within us all. At the end, a man confronts the wonder of himself and the riddle of time. In similar fashion, his writing filled generations with the desire to look beyond our present horizons and wonder what awaits us on distant worlds. Evident in all his works were two simple themes, that the wonders of nature are ours to share, not exploit and men are greatest when they work together for brighter tomorrows and a journey of exploration will be filled with wonder and surprise.
“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
2001 also provided a cautionary message in the form of HAL. The brilliant, self-aware computer could not cope with contradictory goals. “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” HAL chillingly uttered as he locked Dave Bowman in space to die.
Consultant for the Apollo program
After he achieved renown with 2001, he went on to be a spokesperson and consultant for the Apollo program and persuaded NASA to name the crew module of the ill-fated Apollo 13 the Odyssey. Later the Mars exploration was also named Odyssey. For his assistance, NASA also gave him a moon rock. On one trip to the US, an immigration official threatened not to let him enter until he explained the ending of 2001. Though he protested for years that writing a sequel to 2001, offering such answers, would be contrary to the inspirational message of the movie, he did write several sequels, finding a way to answer some questions, while asking more.
He hosted two television shows Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers which explored evidence of things which science had not fully explained, again reminding us that there is as much unknown in the Universe as known.
Clarke’s Three Laws of Prediction
As a guide, he coined Clarke’s Three Laws of Prediction:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
He won Nebula, Hugo, British Sci-Fi Association, Locus, John W. Campbell, and Jupiter awards for his science fiction works. He won the Marconi Fellowship and Charles A. Lindbergh award for pioneering communication satellite technology.
Showed us the door
His many accomplishments are really too much to relate briefly. Any of a dozen would be enough to fill an ordinary tribute. He was a radar officer in World War II, moved to Sri Lanka after discovering it on a research trip to Australia, was paralyzed in 1963 but recovered after six weeks, was an enthusiastic scuba diver, later lost much of his mobility again when he was diagnosed with Post-Polio syndrome and knighted in 1998. But his accomplishments were more than the sum of their parts. Because of his stature in so many areas, he began to accumulate the kind of accolades reserved for historical figures who transcend their age: Visionary, Futurist, Science prophet, Poet laureate of mathematics. These terms don’t seem bombastic at all when used to describe someone who breathed the rarified air of both science and art, and merged them together so seamlessly it is difficult to separate them. His works of fiction, his science television, his non-fiction works, all asked the big questions, reminded us that often it is not the destination, but the odyssey that is important. He may not have answered the great mysteries of the Universe. But he showed us the door.