The cosmic godfather

October 10, 1997

About to turn 80, Arthur C. Clarke talks to Andrew Robinson about his life as the great communicator of science, his latest predictions, and life in Sri Lanka

The author-scientist Arthur C. Clarke's next book, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!, a selection of his essays from the 1930s until his 80th birthday, opens with a surprising but characteristic dedication: "To Vice Chancellor Professor C. Patuwathavithane, killed while serving his students, and to the children of Sri Lanka's lost generation, remembered only by those who loved them. 'Good or bad, guilty or innocent - they are all equal now.'"

Surprising, perhaps - because Sri Lanka, though Clarke's island base for over 40 years, does not impinge much on his prolific, bestselling fiction and nonfiction. Characteristic, definitely - revealing, as it does, through its dignified restraint, just how deeply the writer loves his adopted country, despite the political violence that has disfigured it in recent times.

Clarke has been chancellor of a university at Moratuwa, half an hour's drive down the coast from the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, since it converted from being a technical institute some 15 years ago. "I opened the newspaper and there was a headline: 'Clarke to head university'," he recalls with a pleased chuckle. "I thought, I don't know any other Clarkes in the country, and I read on and found it was me. President Jayawardene had just appointed me that evening. So when I met him next I said, 'Mr President, is this a life sentence, or can I get time off for good behaviour?'" He has stuck at the job throughout the political turbulence of the late 1980s and this decade (when he too was threatened and even considered leaving Sri Lanka): some of his convocation addresses will appear in the new book.

Opposite the university, bristling with satellite dishes, stands the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies. It was originally to be the Developing World Communications Centre - combining two of Clarke's long-term concerns, development and communication - in which he invested some tens of thousands of dollars awarded him as part of a Marconi International Fellowship in 1982. In 1984, the Sri Lankan government incorporated it under its new name, with Clarke as its "patron". Among its activities is the development of locally designed control systems for traffic lights in Colombo: part of the centre's goal to redirect Sri Lanka's craze for imported technology. The intention, says Clarke, is that the centre should increasingly contract for outside work, thus making it stand on its own feet financially. The danger, he knows, is that the place will become bureaucratised and politicised, like a typical government department.

It is generally accepted - by scientists as well as by politicians, media moguls and journalists - that Clarke is "the father of satellite communications", on the strength of his far-sighted article, "Extra-terrestrial relays", published in Wireless World in October 1945, which proposed the concept of space stations circling the earth at a distance of about 36,000 kilometres in geostationary orbits, so that they would remain fixed relative to the earth's surface and thus able to act as transmitters of radio waves. Clarke himself, deferring to the engineers who made the concept a reality, prefers to style himself "godfather" of satellite communications. "If I hadn't written that paper in October '45, ten people would have done it the next year, you see." He goes on to dismiss any grand claims - frequently aired by others - for the originality of his scientific ideas, which he calls "only propaganda on space". "I may have accelerated the conquest of space by 15 minutes or so," he says modestly.

Comparing himself with the scientists he really looks up to, many of whom have been his friends (and admirers) - men such as J. B. S. Haldane, Wernher von Braun and Luis Alvarez - Clarke is undoubtedly accurate in his self-assessment. But, unlike the vast majority of scientists, he has the power to convey the wonder of the universe to almost anyone. Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, speaks of Clarke as an "inspiration". Freeman Dyson, eminent physicist, happily confesses to having got an intriguing idea of how to search for life in the oceans around Jupiter "and many other good things" from reading Clarke. Jeremy Bernstein, physicist and science writer, writes of Clarke's "singular amalgam of scientific erudition, speculative imagination, and a profound feeling for the strange and only partly understood objects ... that populate the universe". And Stanley Kubrick, film director, Clarke's collaborator on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, once remarked: "Arthur's ability to impart poignancy to a dying ocean or an intelligent vapour is unique. He has the kind of mind of which the world can never have enough."

To get his work right scientifically is of key importance to Clarke. One of his memorable novels, The Fountains of Paradise, envisions an energy-efficient "space elevator" or "orbital tower" to replace rockets, with cables rising from the top of a famous peak in Sri Lanka, near the equator (as required by physics), and anchored in space by an orbital space station at around the same height as geostationary satellites. This fantastic proposal was not original to Clarke; it was first conceived in 1960 by a Russian engineer, Yuri Artsutanov (who called it a "heavenly funicular"), and was then independently reinvented at least four times by US scientists in the 1960s/70s. Alerted by his network of scientific friends, Clarke dramatised the idea from the technical literature and published his novel in 1979.

When it reappeared as part of the novel 3001: The Final Odyssey earlier this year, and was described as a "cylindrical tower" in a Sunday Times review, an Indian scientist at the Nehru Planetarium who read the review claimed in print that the structure was impossible to build, that the height limit for a tower was only 10 km rather than the 36,000 km of the novel, which the scientist described as not science fiction but an "outlandish fantasy" - to believe otherwise, he said, was "like believing that matter can travel faster than light". Another scientist supported the first and soon, to quote an Internet magazine, "the media was abuzz with the fall of a giant like Clarke".

Contacted by the magazine (by phone), a stung Clarke pointed out that his critics had completely misunderstood the structure of the space elevator and had also overlooked the strength of new carbon fibres. "Suffice to say that the two recent Nobel winners (in chemistry), Richard Smalley and Harold Kroto, have both complimented me for my accurate prediction of the material - C60 - that will make the tower possible - and which has three times the tensile strength necessary" His email was followed by one from a US Airforce aerospace engineer, an expert on the space elevator, who commented that the proposed structure was not a building, "not a tower in compression; it is a cable in tension. Such a cable can be hung to any length without buckling ... A tapered hanging cable from geostationary orbit to the earth could be built... with carbon nanotubes, based on the theoretical strength of buckminsterfullerene, with a taper ratio of only the order of ten."

Though the space elevator is scientifically feasible, it is unlikely to be built for a century or two, at least. Clarke's current preoccupation, which he is willing to fund a major British institution to research, is of much more immediate importance. "I would like to settle what is probably the greatest scandal in the history of science," he says, "what I believe may be a technology revolution comparable to the discovery of fire. I refer of course to so-called 'Cold Fusion' - an unfortunate name because many of the devices concerned have nothing to do with fusion and are certainly not cold."

Clarke has been following developments in many countries since 1989, when the original claim of "cold fusion" - that atomic nuclei can be fused at room temperature instead of at the temperature inside the sun or in a hydrogen bomb - caused an unprecedented global scientific furore, before being discredited. The scientific orthodoxy remains hot fusion research, consuming billions of dollars without much sign of useful progress.

Clarke maintains: "Although many of the claims made for 'cold fusion' are certainly delusions, or even frauds, what remains is enough to convince any unbiased observer that some new sources of energy are being tapped. The mechanism may be 'sonofusion' induced by microcavitation in liquids, or even the inconceivably vast energy of quantum fluctuations, which is known to exist and has been detected in numerous experiments - or it may be something completely new."

He likes to quote the remark of Richard Feynman, the Nobel laureate, that the zero point energy from quantum fluctuations in a volume of space no larger than a coffee mug is "enough to boil all the oceans of the world". But his enthusiasm, publicised by the BBC and national newspapers, has attracted some distinguished critics, such as the Nobel prize-winner Philip Anderson, who wrote last year in The THES that "cold fusion is a good paradigm for what really happens when we have 'socially constructed' science".

While scientific errors are rare in Clarke's writing, he has many times been wrong about technological progress. "Often", he says disarmingly in the preface to his book of essays, "it has been more interesting to see where (and why) I went wrong, than where I happened to be right...." He comments: "One tends to be over-optimistic in the short run and under-optimistic in the long run, because we can only extrapolate linearly and progress is always an exponential curve. Sooner or later the exponential curve crosses the linear extrapolation." Maybe the best-known example is the moon landing, which, in the 1940s, he never really expected to see in his lifetime - but then who could possibly have predicted the space race between the superpowers in the 1960s?

It is significant that Clarke, of all people, first learnt of the criticism of 3001, not via the Internet, but by good old-fashioned telephone. In 2001, he described with prescient excitement the journey of Dr Heywood Floyd, key scientist and troubleshooter, on his way by space shuttle to the moon, routinely scanning the latest reports in earth's electronic newspapers on his "foolscap-sized newspad". "Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines... Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen, and he could read it with comfort." But, having neatly prefigured the electronic media of the late 1990s, in the next paragraph he wrote: "The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorb the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites."

That was written in 1968. As of now, he claims, "I have not looked at the net, not even my own websites" - there are several devoted to his work - "because you get bogged down in a mess of information. It's something I can live without. Any spare time I have now is for working on the essays." Then, a moment later, he says, brightening at the thought: "When Surveyor starts doing things on Mars, I'll certainly be clocking into the JPL site" (he has many friends at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California). "The Internet's too slow here. If I got faster access, I'm sure I'd use it much more. It's becoming far more than I ever imagined. It could very well mean the end of the nation state, and the development of, what's the word, tribes, who only owe minimal allegiance to their country of birth."

Does he welcome this possible future? Surely not, if one judges from a THES piece he wrote about one of his heroes, author-philosopher Olaf Stapledon: "Today's couch potatoes, surfing the channels with their remote controls, may be the precursors of (Stapledon's) still more sedentary 'Great Brains', encased in their concrete igloos yet free to roam the world via their mobile sense organs.'' He tells me: "It's the fractal future. Although everybody is ultimately connected to everybody else, the branches of the fractal universe are so many orders of magnitude away from each other, that really nobody knows anyone else. We will have no common universe of discourse. You and I can talk together because we know when I mention poets and so on who they are. But in another generation this sort of conversation may be impossible because everyone will have an enormously wide but shallow background of experience that overlaps only a few per cent. As time goes on, all the great classics - who will even know what they are? Who will even know who Shakespeare is in 1,000 years' time? It's a terrible tragedy, isn't it? I don't know the answer.'' He summarises his ambivalent feelings: "I'm in favour of communication developments - everybody will be in touch with the whole universe. But are we just going to be swamped in a sea of noise? Or will it be all right on the night?"

Then he asserts: "I like the idea of cultural diversity - that's one reason I find it fascinating to be here in Sri Lanka. I'd hate to see us all wearing grey-flannel suits or" - he pauses briefly and grins - "grey-flannel sarongs." Had Clarke remained in his native Britain instead of relocating to Ceylon in the 1950s, it is a certainty that he would never have donned his customary sarong, and a fair bet that he would have been swamped by his British and American fame and fans. But what initially lured him to Serendip was the warm climate and his childhood love, the sea, with the endless thrill of under-water diving and exploration. (He quickly set up a small company, now called Underwater Safaris, and in the early 1960s, with his partner Mike Wilson, discovered and salvaged treasure from a sunken Mughal galleon.) Only later did he discover eastern mystery, the island's extraordinarily rich cultural and religious traditions, that have infiltrated some of his books. He says frankly: "I suppose I didn't even know this was a Buddhist country, when I first came here."

Not long ago, a friend took what is probably Clarke's most famous story, "The Nine Billion Names of God" - an ironic tale of two computer engineers hired by Tibetan monks to generate the nine billion names of God, in which the monks prove to be the wiser party-and gave it to the Dalai Lama, who found it "particularly amusing". "I would be interested to meet him," says Clarke, "but I don't suppose we'd have much in common.'' A few years earlier, Clarke lectured at the Pontifical Academy of Science in Rome and presented a copy of his collected scientific articles, Ascent to Orbit, to Pope John Paul II.

Despite an absolute, not to say militant rejection of organised religion (and, almost equally, of pseudoscience, such as spoon bending, UFOs and alien abductions), Clarke's writings are marked by a persistent search for God - among the stars, rather than within the human mind. His tone varies from the deadly serious to the bantering. (In 3001, he has a doctor note that the dangerous practice of male circumcision was only finally abandoned when "some unknown genius coined a slogan: 'God designed us: circumcision is blasphemy'".) A Clarke scholar, Eric Rabkin, writes that "he really does seem to want to believe there's something higher and that it cares for us''. The comment is cited by Clarke's authorised biographer, Neil McAleer, who glosses it: "Such a quest for faith appears throughout much of Arthur Clarke's fiction, and this continuing search, which takes many forms in his work, is one of the foremost reasons that his novels have permanent value."

"Quest for faith": the biographee is uncomfortable when I remind him of the phrase. "Well, I have a curiosity," he says, "but there's certainly no question of a burning desire to have all the answers and be saved, which some people have. I've only a philosophical interest in all these things. Reincarnation, which everyone here believes in, is a fascinating idea, but I'm not sure it's an attractive one. I'd like to feel that when you've had your time, that's it: the carbon's used for some other biped, or multiped, as the case may be.'' A few minutes later, he adds, with puckish quirkiness, "My problem with reincarnation is that I don't see any mechanism that would make it work. What are the input-output devices, what's the storage medium?" Perhaps he encapsulated his underlying attitude best in an essay written in 1989, entitled "Credo". He said: "Men have debated the problems of existence for thousands of years - and that is precisely why I am sceptical about most of the answers. One of the great lessons of modern science is that millennia are only moments. It is not likely that ultimate questions will be settled in such a short time, or that we will really know much about the universe while we are crawling around in the playpen of the solar system.'' If, a millennium from now, when 3001 rolls in, Arthur C. Clarke is still remembered, it will most likely be for the force of his conviction that the future of humanity would be cosmic.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES.

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