50 years after everybody quits laughing

Together with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away yesterday (18 March), is considered one of the fabled triumvirate of Science Fiction writers who changed the way we view their genre, and modern science. Strangely, I feel, Clarke will forever be known mostly for the 1968 movie adaptation of “The Sentinel“, a short story he wrote 20 years earlier. “2001: A Space Odyssey“, directed by Stanley Kubrick (with script by Kubrick and the author), became an iconoclastic message-bearer for generations to come.

I feel that his best book, by far, is not ‘2001’ but “Rendezvous with Rama” (1972), the story of a massive cylindrical intergalactic spacecraft (named ‘Rama’ by human scientists of the 22nd century) — I read it for the first time 30 years ago and can still feel my skin crawl when I imagine the scene where the humans astronauts who study Rama, get an answer to their question “What is Rama for?”. No spoilers, go read it!!

A lot has been said about Clarke’s prophetic stance towards science and scientific discovery. In his perennial, 1945, article, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays, Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” Clarke said “It will be possible in a few more years to build radio controlled rockets which can be steered into such orbits beyond the limits of the atmosphere and left to broadcast scientific information back to the earth. A little later, manned rockets will be able to make similar flights with sufficient excess power to break the orbit and return to earth.” The 1945 peanuts gallery cackled in glee – but, of course, we now know that Clarke’s description of Satellite radio was spot-on. Clarke himself felt that ‘prophecy’ is not necessarily unscientific. In his collection of essays, “Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible” he formulated the three laws of prediction:

The first law:
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 second law:
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

The third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Addressing the US Congress in 1975, Clarke paid tribute to other visionaries who paved the road for his own work, as well as for major human achievements: “I’m sure we would not have had men on the Moon if it had not been for Wells and Verne and the people who write about this and made people think about it. I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books.”

During a speech he once gave, someone in the audience asked Arthur C. Clarke when the space elevator he created in his book “The Fountains of Paradise” would become a reality. Clarke answered, “Probably about 50 years after everybody quits laughing,”

Clarke turned 90 a few months ago. He made three wishes on his birthday, asking for peace in his adoptive homeland of Sri Lanka, cleaner energy, and contact with extraterrestrials. He ended his celebratory speech with, yet again, prophetic, personal, words: “Sometimes I am asked how I would like to be remembered,” Clarke said. “I have had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer and space promoter. Of all these I would like to be remembered as a writer.”

There goes Sir Arthur, writer, underwater explorer and space promoter, but mostly writer, laughing on his way out to eternal orbit.

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