"Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering." -Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the Golden Age science fiction writers who fired the imagination of would-be space explorers everywhere, died today in his home in Sri Lanka. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey was probably one of the most influential novels in the genre, along with the Stanley Kubrick movie made from it. His creation Hal was an early model (good and bad) for AI constructs, along with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. From his first novel, Prelude to Space, which foreshadowed the Apollo missions to the moon, to The Fountains of Paradise, in which he described the construction of a space elevator now in the planning stages, Clarke, an engineer, was a practical visionary whose predictions had a habit of coming true. In 1945, he sketched out in a published paper the utility of geosynchronous satellites for communications purposes almost ten years before the folks at Bell Labs launched the Telstar and Echo satellites. Though he was by no means the originator of the idea, he was certainly a popularizer and active proponent of it, as he was of technology in general, and space exploration in particular.
Though his characters could be two-dimensional, his science was generally impeccable and inspiring. No one in my childhood reading made space or the possibility of "slip[ping] the surly bonds of earth" seem so real to me, not even Star Trek. It was Clarke who taught me what geosynchronous orbit and LaGrange points are, proving that a spoonful of fiction helps the mathematics go down, at least to people like me. That inspiration wasn't confined to interesting kids in science fiction. “I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books,” Clarke once said. I can only imagine how many engineers and other space scientists he inspired.
Aside from his novels, Clarke was best known for his three laws of science and technology:
- "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."
While the first two are important for egging on inventions and new discoveries, it will be useful to remember the third law should we ever meet an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization face to face, since far too many of us are prone to worship what we don't understand, as Clarke also illustrated in his Rama books. Generally dismissive of religion, Clarke was still painfully aware of the necessity of some kind of guiding morality. "As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying," Clarke said in 1967. It's still a timely message.
Thanks for years and volumes of inspiration and great Saturday afternoons. RIP.
[Don't blame Jennifer for this. It's one of Lee Kottner's insidiuos posts, cross-posted from Spawn of Blogorrhea with Jennifer's consent.]