Arthur C. Clarke

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Arthur C. Clarke pimping iMacs and funky shirts in his home office, 2005.
It's not rocket science, it's...
The Final Frontier
The abyss stares back

Arthur C. Clarke (16 December 1917–18 March 2008) was an English astronomer and prolific science-fiction author.

For non-science fiction fans, Clarke's most famous work is the film 2001: A Space Odyssey - he collaborated with famed director Stanley Kubrick while simultaneously writing the novel of the same name. The story itself is based in part on various short stories by Clarke, most notably "The Sentinel", which was written for a 1948 BBC competition. It wouldn't be published until 1951, as "Sentinel of Eternity".

During World War II (1939-1945) Clarke worked on the team that developed radar, and proposed the idea of communication satellites placed in geostationary orbits in his 1945 paper "Extraterrestrial relays",[1] long before any government would have taken the concept seriously enough to issue a patent on it. Clarke popularized the idea of "space elevators" (first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky) in his book Fountains of Paradise. As of 2015, space elevators are being seriously investigated as a method of reaching space from the surface of the Earth.[2]

Among Clarke's classic works is the 1953 novel Childhood's End, which describes the evolutionary transition of humanity from beings with physical bodies to beings of pure mind. This may have contributed and/or been an inspiration to the transhumanist movement.

Although born in England, Clarke lived most of his later years in Sri Lanka because of his love of scuba-diving. There he was an occasional guest lecturer at the American Community Center, a school run by the U.S.A.I.D. program.

He was buried with a "Secular Ceremony" on 22 March 2008.[3]

Clarke's Laws[edit]

  • First law: 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.
  • Second law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • Third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
  • Sixty Ninth law: Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software.[4]

Everyone is aware of Clarke's first three laws (and various other laws, from Asimov's to thermodynamics), but most people can usually only recall the third one, which has been applied to science fiction as well as some of reality itself — what would a medieval peasant make of an iPad, for instance? It's simple and catchy wording has been often parodied with variations such as "any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice".

Dr. Barry Gehm stated a corollary to Clarke's third law: Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.[5] Science fiction fandom offers two folk inversions: Any sufficiently analysed magic is indistinguishable from science,[6] and Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it.[7]

Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World[edit]

In 1980 he presented Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, a TV series covering paranormal tropes and events, from UFOs and sea serpents to historical puzzles such as the then-unexplained crystal skulls. His role in the series extended to bookending each show with some intelligent, and sometimes cautiously supportive, commentary. In the tie-in book, he gives J. Allen Hynek's three kinds of close encounter a knowing wink ("borrowing shamelessly") with his three kinds of mysteries:

  • Mysteries of the First Kind: "something that was once utterly baffling, but is now completely understood." The rainbow is his main example, but there are of course many others.
  • Mysteries of the Second Kind: the meat of the series and book, these are mysteries that are today unexplained, but potentially explainable at some future date. UFOs, mysterious creatures and such like. Of UFOs he says "where there are so many answers, there must be something wrong with the questions."
  • Mysteries of the Third Kind: phenomena so bizarre and inexplicable that a conventional explanation may never be found, and indeed "there is no general agreement that they even exist." Clarke gives spontaneous human combustion and poltergeists as examples. However, he also gives radioactivity as one; at first it was utterly unexpected and fitted nowhere in the accepted model of reality, until a few theorists realised what it was and turned classical physics on its head. He adds:
the fact that this [the understanding of radioactivity as a normal part of the universe] has not happened in the case of paranormal phenomena is one of the strongest arguments against their existence. After more than a hundred years of effort, the advocates of the paranormal have still been unable to convince the majority of their scientific peers that 'there is anything in it'. Indeed, the tide now seems to be turning against them with recent revelations of fraud and incredibly sloppy techniques in what once seemed to be well-established results.

Finally, he presents Mysteries of the Zeroth Kind: the only mystery being how anybody was stupid enough to believe them in the first place. The Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, and pyramid power belong here.

Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World was followed up through the 1980s with further series and books, but with diminishing returns.[8]


  • "I sometimes think that the universe is a machine designed for the perpetual astonishment of astronomers."
  • "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
  • "I don't believe in God but I'm very interested in her."
  • "It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value."
  • "How inappropriate to call this planet 'Earth' when it is quite clearly 'Ocean'."
  • "New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!"
  • "I don't believe in astrology; I'm a Sagittarius and we're skeptical."
  • "The greatest tragedy in mankind's entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion."
  • "Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering."
  • "Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the non-existence of Zeus or Thor — but they have few followers now."
  • "Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal."
  • "Science is the only religion of mankind."
  • "I would defend the liberty of consenting adult creationists to practice whatever intellectual perversions they like in the privacy of their own homes; but it is also necessary to protect the young and innocent."
  • "The time was fast approaching when Earth, like all mothers, must say farewell to her children."
  • "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."
  • "Religion is a by-product of fear. For much of human history it may have been a necessary evil, but why was it more evil than necessary? Isn't killing people in the name of god a pretty good definition of insanity?"
  • "If man can live in Manhattan, he can live anywhere."


  1. Clarke, A. C. EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL RELAYS: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage? in Wireless World, October 1945, pp. 305-308
  2.'s article re: Space Elevators, 17 August 2015 : "A Canadian space company was recently awarded a patent for a space elevator that would reach about 12 miles (20 kilometers) above the Earth's surface."
  3. "Sir Arthur was quoted as saying religion was "a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species", and he left written instructions that his funeral be completely secular."
  4. Clarke, Arthur C.; Hyams, Peter (1985). The Odyssey File. Granada. p. 123. ISBN 0-586-06605-5. 
  6. By words of Agatha Heterodyne
  7. According to Florence Ambrose
  8. Arthur C Clarke, Simon Welfare and John Fairley: Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World (Collins, 1980); pp. 8-10