The late Sir Arthur C. Clarke was loved by nerds and normals alike for his contributions to literature, film, and technology. Here’s a rundown of the five biggest reasons we’ll miss him.
1. Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World
Clarke kept extensive files on mysterious events, objects, and locations throughout the world. Starting in the early 1980’s, he mined these files to bring us Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, a thirteen-part TV series covering topics ranging from UFOs to crystal skulls. The show told fascinating stories and Clarke classified them according to his three categories of mystery (dubbed, simply enough, the first, second, and third kinds) depending on how well they’re currently understood.
While the show is very dated (and a few of the “mysteries” have since been definitively explained as hoaxes), it’s great fun, and Clarke’s sober introductions to each story are fascinating to watch. I remember watching the show after school when I was growing up, and it brings back memories — the series gave me a sense of wonder, and introduced me to notions of scientific skepticism which have served me well. Today you can watch bits of Mysterious World on YouTube. Here’s a clip from one episode, in which Clarke narrates a solar eclipse (a “mystery of the first kind” — one that was a mystery to our ancestors, but is understood now):
In 1985, Clarke returned with Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers featuring another thirteen episodes on strange topics, and again in 1994 with Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe, his final series on the weird.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Clarke teamed up with director Stanley Kubrick to write 2001: A Space Odyssey, a landmark film released in 1968. The film was originally based on a previous short story of Clarke’s, but the collaboration with Kubrick significantly expanded the narrative. During development, Clarke kept an amusing diary detailing his work with Kubrick. Here’s a selection:
July 9. Spent much of afternoon teaching Stanley how to use the slide rule — he’s fascinated.
July 11. Joined Stanley to discuss plot development, but spent almost all the time arguing about Cantor’s Theory of Transfinite Groups. Stanley tries to refute the “part equals the whole” paradox by arguing that a perfect square is not necessarily identical with the integer of the same value. I decide that he is a latent mathematical genius.
July 12. Now have everything — except the plot.
Read more of the diary for lots of great 2001 trivia. Warning: if you haven’t seen the film, the diary is full of spoilers! 2001 is also an excellent book (released shortly after the film, and with a bit more backstory about why certain things are happening), and sci-fi fans should also check out 2010, 2061, and 3001. (Although I’ll admit, the latter two volumes are a little corny around the edges.)
3. The Communications Satellite
Clarke is widely credited with dreaming up the idea of geostationary satellites — orbiting satellites that enable worldwide communications networks. He published his ideas in a 1945 article entitled Extra-Terrestrial Relays - Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?
Clarke didn’t patent the idea and thus didn’t profit from it, leading to a 1965 article entitled: “A Short Pre-History of Comsats; or How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time.” Other inventors came up with similar ideas around the same time, and there’s some disagreement as to whose idea it was first. Regardless, Clarke is already remembered as the originator of this particularly great idea.
4. Clarke’s Laws
Clarke’s interest in science, the future, and famous mysteries led him to formulate three laws on the nature of prediction. The third law has become famous, and is reprinted widely — it even appeared on my father’s office door when I was growing up. The three laws are listed below (with emphasis added to my favorite):
1. 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.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
5. His Sense of Humor
Throughout his endeavors, Clarke maintained his quiet, good-natured sense of humor. In 2006, WIRED magazine invited him to contribute to a series of Very Short Stories which were supposed to consist of only six words, after Hemingway’s famous example. Clarke, true to his lifelong practice of writing long, multi-volume fiction, insisted on writing ten words instead:
God said, ‘Cancel Program GENESIS.’ The universe ceased to exist.
Please share your memories of Arthur C. Clarke’s life and work in the comments.