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Arthur C. Clarke Dabbles in Science Nonfiction and Speculates About Space Travel

Monday, August 20, 2012 - 01:00 PM

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Licensed for use only on NEH-funded Annotations blog. Arthur C. Clarke, circa late 1960s (© AP/Corbis/Corbis Images)

"Around the close of this century." That is when distinguished author, scientist, and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, in this 1954 appearance at a Books and Authors Luncheon, predicts man will break free of Earth and fly to the moon. 

Although off by several decades, Clarke nevertheless provides a fascinating snapshot of people's attitudes towards space travel at a time when rockets had just begun to escape Earth's atmosphere. Clarke points out that the achievement of manned flight by the Wright brothers was initially greeted with such skepticism and incredulity that there was no speculation about where it might eventually take us. But "the V-2 rocket and the Atomic Bomb have prepared man for the conquest of space as [he] was never prepared for the conquest of air."

He then proceeds to map out the steps required to reach the goal of leaving this planet. Step 1, an unmanned orbiting satellite, should be possible by 1965; Step 2, an orbiting manned satellite, by 1975; and finally a breaking free of that orbit and exploring both the moon, Mars, and Venus, by the year 2000. Clarke hedges his predictions by adding that an accelerated program with unlimited funds could move the last date up to 1980.

But what effect will space travel have on mankind, he asks. He compares this time to that of Columbus. "Now the great cycle is beginning again…the human race is preparing to leave its ancient nursery and to go out into the great strange world. As every child must do, Man is about to leave his Mother Earth. I wonder what he'll grow up into, during the centuries that lie ahead?" 

Arthur C. Clarke was born in England in 1917. Trained as a scientist, he spent much of his wartime service working as a radar specialist. This led to his publishing, in 1945, the paper "Wireless World," which, as Gerald Jonas described in The New York Times, posited that:

 …“space stations” parked in a circular orbit roughly 22,240 miles above the equator would exactly match the Earth’s rotation period of 24 hours. In such an orbit, a satellite would remain above the same spot on the ground, providing a “stationary” target for transmitted signals, which could then be retransmitted to wide swaths of territory below. This so-called geostationary orbit has been officially designated the Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union. Decades later, Mr. Clarke called his “Wireless World” paper “the most important thing I ever wrote.”

This work led to global systems which are still in use today.

At the same time, Clarke was producing ground-breaking science fiction novels, notably Childhood's End (1953), which the critic Gary K. Wolfe calls:

…one of the undisputed classics of modern science fiction. In it, alien "Overlords" who prove beneficent despite their demonlike appearance help create a technological utopia on earth, only to reveal that their true mission is to prepare humanity for an evolutionary leap far beyond what the aliens themselves can achieve with technology alone. With its twin themes of technology and transcendence, Childhood's End became a benchmark of Clarke's paradoxical dual identity as rationalist and mystic. For sheer visionary power, the novel's stunning conclusion is unmatched even by Clarke's own later scenarios of transformation.

As the above-cited lecture indicates, Clarke was quickly recognized as an expert on "the future," what it would hold, how it would seem. Many of his subsequent novels combine both scientific and spiritual speculation, fusing the two in an attempt to understand where the human race was heading. In 1964, he began one of his most famous works by, as described in the website nndb.com:

…collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on the development of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Although loosely based on Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" (1951), the project required Clarke to generate an entire novel, all while Kubrick was simultaneously working on the film (which proved to be an odd but productive interchange). In 1968 the novel was published, and in that same year Clarke and Kubrick shared an Oscar nomination for the film.

Clarke is also famous for his witty formulation, Clarke's Three Laws, which apply to science, science fiction, and society. They are: 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. 

This willingness to look beyond the mere possible, to admit "magic" to the equation, is what made Clarke's work in both science and science fiction so influential. Reviewing his literary achievement, the critic Edward Rothstein noted:

For anyone who read Mr. Clarke in the 1960s and ’70s, when space exploration and scientific research had an extraordinary sheen, his science fiction made that enterprise even more thrilling by taking the longest and broadest view, in which the achievements of a few decades fit into a vision of epic proportions reaching millenniums into the future. It is no wonder that two generations of scientists were affected by his work.

Arthur C. Clarke died at his home in Sri Lanka in 2008. He was 90 years old.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

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