Arthur C Clarke dies at 90
Mar 19, 2008 7 comments
Arthur C Clarke, the veteran science fiction writer, has died in Sri Lanka aged 90. Aside from the total of nigh-on 100 books to his name, Clarke will be remembered for his foresight for scientific endeavour, including the idea of positioning satellites 35,800 km above the equator to achieve a “geostationary” orbit suitable for radio communications.
Clarke was born the son of a farmer and post-office worker on 16 December 1917 in the seaside town of Minehead in south-west England. His interest in science started young with a fondness for stories by Jules Verne and H G Wells, and the popular US science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories of Super-Science.
In 1941, during World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) where he would stay as a specialist in radar for five years. It was while in service that he wrote the paper, published in the UK journal Wireless World, that put forward the possibility of geostationary satellites for relaying radio communications between ground-based stations, an ability that would not be realized for nearly two decades. This wasn’t the only prophecy of his that turned out to be true — around the same time he predicted that man would reach the moon by the turn of the millennium. However, his hunch in 1999 that the first years of the millennium would also bring commercially available cold fusion may now seem optimistic.
After leaving the RAF, Clarke went to King’s College, London, receiving a first-class honours degree in physics and mathematics in 1948. During his studies he wrote what was to be his first published science fiction novel, Prelude to Space. In 1949, he spent a brief period as an assistant editor for the journal Physics Abstracts.
For the next half century Clarke wrote some of the world’s most famous science fiction works, including 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 and Rendezvous with Rama in 1972. The former novel, which started life 17 years earlier as a short story entitled The Sentinel, he wrote while collaborating with the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick in making the film of the same name. In fact, it was the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey — famous for its portrayal of the “HAL 9000” computer that develops a deadly, humanlike power complex — that cemented Clarke’s science fiction fame.
In 1956, in the wake of a failed marriage, Clarke moved to Colombo in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. Back at the seaside, though now some 7000 km from his first home, he could pursue his newfound hobby of diving, for him the closest experience to being in the weightlessness of outer space. However, in 1962 he suffered a bout of polio, and in 1984 he developed post-polio syndrome which would eventually confine him to a wheelchair.
Knighted in 1998, and with book sales thought to top $25m, Clarke has won the acclaim of non-scientists and scientists alike, including the likes of fellow mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. To fans, he will likely be immortalized in his Three Laws, penned in 1962 for Profiles of the Future:
- “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.”
About the author
Jon Cartwright is a reporter for physicsworld.com