Arthur C. Clarke was one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. He defined the genre, and revolutionized our ideas about what it will take to become a true space faring civilization. In the first of our two part series on Arthur C. Clarke, we examine the man’s life and his books.
- (1) “It’s completely impossible — don’t waste my time”;
- (2) “It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing”;
- (3) “I said it was a good idea all along.”
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest running online astronomy degree program. Visit Astronomy.Swin.Edu.Au for more information.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy cast episode 330: Arthur C. Clark. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing today, Fraser?
Fraser Cain: I’m doing great. I – for just one reminder. We have the most epic virtual star party last night. We had, for the first time, we had mercury. In the day time, we had Venus, in the day time. You could see this really thin crescent as it just completed conjunction. We had a Io pass behind Jupiter, so if you aren’t aware, every Sunday night we connect a bunch of telescopes into a live Google Plus hangout and we just broadcast whatever is happening in the night sky, and last night was planetary night with the moon, the sun, the – a bunch of planets. It was just terrific, so definitely, join us, if you want to sort of see what we do with the telescopes and stuff. That’s it. I’m just so excited.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And if you want to take more formal classes, one of the things I was working on yesterday, when I was not doing the virtual star parties, is Dr. Matthew Francis, the director of our Cosmo Academy program, was getting some of his new classes posted, so if you go to CosmoAcademy.org or CosmoQuest.org/classes, you’ll be able to see what all we have posted and what all’s coming up this semester that you can take and you can learn from.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Doctor Mathew Francis is a fantastic instructor. I’ve – he comes in regularly. He handles all the hardest topics in the weekly space hangout that we do, so it’s great. I mean he’s knowledge of dark matter, and inflation, and cosmology and stuff.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.
Fraser Cain: It’s great, so I think to learn directly from him and that would be amazing, so sign up. CosmoAcademy.org. Cool. Okay. Let’s get rolling.
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Fraser Cain: So Arthur C. Clark was one of the great science fiction writers of all time. He defined the genre and revolutionized our ideas about what it will take to become a true spacefaring civilization. In the first of our two part series on Arthur C. Clark, we examine the man’s life and his books. Man, I am so excited about this – this topic, Pamela, because Arthur C. Clark is absolutely one of my favorite authors. I – my father was a big Sci-Fi fan, and so, when I was a kid, those were some of the books that I had access to.
It was like Larry Niven, Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, and I would dig through his backlog of books and just start – I was just like, I’m just gonna read some of these books and couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed them. Heinlein. It just goes on and on, but Arthur C. Clark I think is one of my favorites, but at the same time, when I was a kid, I went and saw 2001, and it freaked me out. It gave me nightmares for a week, so –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh wow.
Fraser Cain: That was a bit of a – yeah. It was a bit of a letdown to go through that.
Dr. Pamela Gay: What part of it?
Fraser Cain: I don’t know. The space baby, the bad computer trying to kill the astronauts. I don’t know what it was, but it haunted me, and so, it actually threw me off Arthur C. Clark for awhile, because just every time I thought about that movie, it sort of freaked me out, and so, I actually picked up more Arthur C. Clark books back again when I was maybe in my late 20s. I read Childhood’s End was sort of the last one that I read, and it just, you know, brought it all back home for me. It’s just such a great book. It’s so forward thinking, so all hail Arthur C. Clark. What’s your Arthur C. Clark experience?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I, like everyone else, I loved the Space Odyssey movie and it was like the first time they got so many things right. The fact that your arms float when you’re asleep and you have to be in a five point harness to hold you to your chair. They had the idea of using magnetic shoes. I loved that they had the space tourism, but then, I have to admit, the parts of his writing that I enjoyed the most were very much the rules of any suitably advanced technology can be perceived as magic. The notion that if you’re dealing with a very senior scientist and they say something is impossible, no.
It’s probably very, very probable, but if that same very senior scientist says something’s very probable, then, they’re probably right, and I just love the idea that you can’t trust a young scientist to tell you what’s possible, but you can trust an older scientist to say what’s possible, but not what’s impossible.
Fraser Cain: Right. That nobody can tell you what’s impossible, because in many cases, what these people think are impossible are, you know, just a few paradigm shifts down the road and things become possible again.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And they’re most often wrong.
Fraser Cain: And they’re often wrong. Yeah. Well, I mean don’t you say that sometimes? You know science is just a matter of waiting for people to die?
Dr. Pamela Gay: The correct people to die.
Fraser Cain: [Inaudible] [00:06:13] progresses. Right.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: The right people to die. Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So one of the things that I particularly loved is one of the things that came out of his Clark’s law of revolutionary idea is the stages that an idea goes through, and this is something that’s supposed to apply science, politics, art, all those different things. When an idea is first put forward, a big idea is first put forward, it’s completely impossible. Don’t waste my time is the way people react to brand new ideas. Then, it becomes it’s possible, but it’s not worth doing, and when you look back at the early quotes about the internet, laptop computers, programs that use more than 48 kilobytes of memory.
That’s what you hear, but then, in the end, everything’s suddenly becomes I said it was a good idea all along, and I love that Arthur C. Clark was, at this point, I find somewhere in between Heinlein and Asimov, and the three of them were considered the three great science fiction writers of their time, where Isaac Asimov was much more technologically, much more embedded in the science. Heinlein was very much into making you consider society, and society moving to space.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Totally. Yeah. He really thought about the sociology type parts of it.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And Clark was balanced in between the two of them, and I just love the mix that came in from having these three men collaborating, sniping at one another, and basically, pushing each other’s writing forward through the years.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Yeah. No. I think you really hit the nail on the head, which is that Arthur C. Clark could imagine a technology like – and we’ll talk about this more in the next show, but he could imagine technology, and then, see how – what implications that technology would have on society and back and forth, and I think that, in many cases, Heinlein would come up with [inaudible] [00:08:17]. It was like what if everybody lived forever, and then, but like how – but how would everybody live forever? Who knows? Who cares? But Arthur C. Clark, he’d be like, what if this technology progressed on the path that it’s clearly moving towards?
What are the implications of the technology and for human society, and he was able to really kind of get the – you know time, after time, after time, and again, that’s what we’re gonna talk about with the next show is just how right he was and how well he was able to predict these things, so let’s talk about the man. Arthur C. Clark. Where’s he come from? Who is he? Who is this guy?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, he’s a Brit. The whole Sir Arthur C. Clark is because he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth the second. He grew up at an interesting time in England. He was born prior to World War II fully coming out and launching into the roaring 20s, so he was born in 1917, lived through World War II, worked on radar technology during World War II, and this is at the same time that we have Alan Turing working on the Enigma machine, and so, at the time that he was in England, he was in a very conservative society, at many levels, and it’s interesting to note that in 1956, he moved to Sri Lanka, which wasn’t exactly a happening place, at that point in time.
It was still called Ceylon and he went there – one of the sets of reasons he went there is because he was an avid scuba diver, and England is not noted for its scuba diving opportunities. When he went to Ceylon, Sri Lanka, he was able to take up his scuba diving. He’s actually one of the co-discoverers of major underground set of – not underground. Underwater set of ruins, but he was also a homosexual, and it wasn’t safe for him, necessarily, to be a homosexual in England, and he left England two years after Alan Turing’s suicide, so it’s just very interesting to wonder what would have happened had he lived in a more culturally open society in England and had stayed there his entire life and hadn’t been exposed to the amazingly diverse culture and had been, essentially, a stranger in a strange land when he moved to Ceylon.
Fraser Cain: Wow. That’s crazy. I didn’t realize that that was the sort of the reason that he left the country. He was, I guess, so he was seeing the terrible things that were happening to Turing and wanted to avoid –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, it wasn’t just him. It was the entire culture. One of the things that I found when I was reading up about Arthur C. Clark is he was never openly gay, in the sense that we’re used to in modern society. He spoke of his lifelong friend. When confronted directly if he’d had bisexual experiences, he’d say, “Yes, but who hasn’t?” But he never was in complete public denial of who he was, and at the time in what is now Sri Lanka, society was much more permissible, and so, he was allowed to live a much more open life by immigrating to a completely new part of the world that was opening up for, well, in his case, colonialism, but it was a complete change.
Fraser Cain: He rocked it. I mean he did a pretty great job of –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh yeah.
Fraser Cain: Not only continuing to write from Sri Lanka and thrive there, but almost making it a reasonable base of operations for his worldwide influence in science fiction. It was perfectly normal to patch in Arthur C. Clark from his – you know from his Sri Lankan home to comment on this and that, so –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly and he ran a scuba diving institute, and so, it did make sense for him to be there, and as I said, I think it’s just so cool that this father of modern science fiction and of so many technological ideas, also like helped discover an underwater city, ruins that had fallen in, and it was actually somewhat sad, because in the 2004 tsunami, his scuba diving institute was destroyed. It’s since been rebuilt, but it was a side of him I wasn’t fully aware of until researching this show, and it just shows you that you can have someone who is very much alive on many different facets and making remarkable contributions in everything he did.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, so he moved – when did he move to Sri Lanka? Like in the 50s, right? Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: 1956.
Fraser Cain: So literally, like shortly after the war. Like you know left the UK and I would – who would blame him? I mean you saw what happened to Turing, who was recently – what was the term they used? He was pardoned. Yeah, which –
Dr. Pamela Gay: He was pardoned.
Fraser Cain: Just kind of obnoxious.
Dr. Pamela Gay: But yeah.
Fraser Cain: As opposed to completely acquitted and they apologized for ever saying anything was wrong, but anyway, but yeah, so I think he decided he was gonna go be the person he needed to be and move to a place where he could do that, and I think that’s great. Then, what sort of – where’d he go to school? What was he career? You know?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, he – as I said, he was, during World War II, he worked on radars. He was in the British military, and it was after that, that he went to Kings College London and got a degree in mathematics, so he’s someone that had the practical experience as an engineer. He went from the practical experience as an engineer to the more formal education of – kind of the more formal universities in mathematically rigorous science. From there, he went on to – he largely focused on writing and communicating science.
He’s one of the holders of one of the truly great science communication awards, and this comes from his communication of science as a television host, through having a scuba diving institute, from writing science fiction novels, from writing science papers. He was contributing in so many different ways for the entirety of his life.
Fraser Cain: Right, and so, when did he start the sort of the Sci-Fi? When did that start to happen?
Dr. Pamela Gay: That started pretty much right after World War II. He wrote some things for [inaudible] [00:15:15] before World War II. You find some early things in the 1930s, the 1940s, and it’s now astounding science fiction, which interestingly enough, is actually available lots of it through Gutenberg, the Gutenberg Project.
Fraser Cain: Oh is it in the public domain now?
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s in the public domain and that’s really awesome.
Fraser Cain: Oh. That’s fantastic. Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: You can go back, access it. It’s all free. It’s all on the internet. He actually had correspondence with C.S. Lewis in the 1940s and 50s, and it said that the two of them met in an Oxford pub that was not the Oxford pub where C.S. Lewis is said to have spent so many hours with [inaudible] and I just find that amusing that C.S. Lewis [inaudible] pub is one pub, and the C.S. Lewis Arthur –
Fraser Cain: Separate pubs for –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Separate pubs.
Fraser Cain: For the different kinds of – yeah. Yeah. Conversations you’re gonna need to have with influential writers.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. Right. Exactly. It was in 48 that he started to write for science competitions. He had the sentinel, which was sending to the BBC, and it was the start of him starting to figure out things like the writing of 2001, of Space Odyssey, the Childhood’s End series. All of these things started after his experience in the world war, when he started to really focus on writing science fiction and seeing that his writing was worth trying to get published.
Fraser Cain: Right. Okay and that was like the time. I actually want to do a lot more sort of research. I actually want to do – like with all the videos we’re doing, I’d love to do a bit more of almost bordering on a documentary, like looking at that early science fiction. You know the golden age of science fiction.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right.
Fraser Cain: [Inaudible] [00:17:09], but just all of this amazing outpouring of science fiction, and he was right at the middle of it, and pushing the boundaries of it.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And part of where he started was actually his first big break was the 1951, the Exploration of Space, which looked at what’s it going to take to explore space? The name really says it all. You can’t really go beyond that, but it was from writing that that he and Robert Heinlein started exchanging letters. It was from writing that that he started all of the dialogues that get the wheels turning. Arthur C. Clark first met Isaac Asimov in 1953. Those two had a lifelong sparring match over which of them was the superior writer, which I think helped both of their careers, where the running joke was Asimov was the better science writer and Clark was the better science fiction writer.
That was the Clark Asimov treaty, and so, these dialogues pushed things forward, and one of the interesting things that came up is it’s rumored that there was actually a bet that depending on who you read, it was either Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. Heinlein, Clark, and L. Ron Hubbard. Heinlein, Asimov, and Hubbard. Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, Frank Herbert, and a bunch of other people and L. Ron Hubbard over whether or not they could create a bonafide religion out of their science fiction writing, and it’s said –
Fraser Cain: Interesting.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. It’s said different people put forward different lists. One group even said it went so far as it was Frank Herbert and many others that were involved in this, and different books are put forward as different authors pitches to start a religion, so you have a stranger in a strange land coming from Heinlein. You have dune coming from Herbert, and then, Clark is said to have been engaged in that, as well, and I will let you go and guess which book might have been his pitch for that particular –
Fraser Cain: You could just imagine the one who was like sitting there really quickly taking notes, right? With Hubbard, with scientology, so you can see that –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Dianetics.
Fraser Cain: That a religion did come out of that. Yeah. Well, there you go, and now, we know it’s true. Okay, so –
Dr. Pamela Gay: We don’t know it’s true. There’s many different –
Fraser Cain: No, no, no, no. The origin story of the universe and [inaudible] [00:19:53], so let’s talk about sort of – you know moving on. I mean then, he really became very productive and wrote a ton of amazing books that we’ve been talking about. 2001, and Childhood’s End, and Rendezvous with Rama. So many books, right? It’s so prolific.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes. Yes. It’s kind of amazing to look back where his books continue to come out, even after he died, and I remember my dad being all excited, because there was 3001 The Final Space Odyssey coming out in 1997, and the Time Odyssey through the 2000s. He had non-fiction that started in the 50s and continued all the way, again, into the late 90s. He talked about the global village concept. So many of us have heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, he changed the paradigm. He was part of the group that changed the paradigm, looking at the global community instead.
He was someone who kept working all the way up until he passed away. He had actually just finished the manuscripts for his last short story, the week before he passed away of respiratory disease. It’s somewhat sad, because he died of what is now a largely preventable disease, polio. He had it as a child. It cleared up, as polio, luckily, often does, but he had polio syndrome, which caused weakness, and some of that weakness was in his respiratory system. He died in his late 90s. He lived a long and productive life.
Fraser Cain: Yeah and recently. I mean it was –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes.
Fraser Cain: It was just a couple of years ago.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It was 2008, I believe.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I guess it’s five years ago. Yeah. No. It’s one of those things where I was like, well, Arthur C. Clark’s still alive? What? Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s kind of awesome, because one of my younger colleagues in astronomy, Thaliana, with the last name none of us dare try and pronounce, who’s from Sri Lanka and was extremely active in the 2009 international year of astronomy was someone who, when he was even younger, was someone who knew Arthur C. Clark and would be there when they had dignitaries visiting and needed to have the local guide, and just the fact that I have Sri Lankan colleagues that knew Arthur C. Clark is really kind of awesome.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Now, after sort of I guess in the 80s, did you ever see Mysterious – Arthur C. Clark’s Mysterious Universe?
Dr. Pamela Gay: You know I had a looser childhood in so many ways. I never saw Cosmos until I was in grad school. I never saw the Mysterious Universe. What did I see? I saw Leonard [Inaudible] weird pseudoscience show. I missed all the actual science shows.
Fraser Cain: Well, as a Canadian, we got a lot of stuff from the BBC, so we had a lot of Dr. Who. We had a lot of shows and science shows. I mean I’m a huge fan of Connections and the Day the Universe Changed. All the stuff from James Burk, and a lot of those kinds of presenters, a lot of the stuff was played on Canadian television, as well, so I did get to see a lot of that stuff.
Dr. Pamela Gay: What was it like being influenced by this, when you were, I guess, high school at the time?
Fraser Cain: Yes. No. I was still elementary school.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Middle school?
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Yeah. I was still you know grade five, grade six, when I was watching some of this stuff, and it was amazing. I couldn’t believe that somebody was putting the things that I loved most on television and I could get a chance to see them, and same thing with Cosmos. Right? It’s just I couldn’t believe that there was a whole hour dedicated to this, so that’s – I mean you know that, I think, is something that drives both of us with what we do with Astronomy Cast and the other stuff we do, just a segue, is just to try and let people know that you can get access to this information that you love so much, that we love it, too, and we’re happy to –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Right. Share.
Fraser Cain: Pour, share, and pour as much knowledge as we can, and give you as much access, more than you can handle. I mean I can’t believe how much wonderful material there is now available for the kids, who are in middle school, teenagers who have an interest in this space, so anyway.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And Arthur C. Clark was someone who spent his entire life trying to find ways to communicate science to people through a variety of different mediums. There’s work on television, there was his actual science and exploration work, in his case, under the sea, which again, I find so awesome, and then, he also took his thoughts about space exploration one step further, and there’s a program called the International Space University that I was lucky enough to get to teach for a few summers ago.
They offer master’s in space science, but one of their more important programs is they have a summer long professional certificate program in, basically, space exploration. You go, you learn about running missions. You learn about communicating science. You learn all sorts of different things, and this is a program that you see the movers and shakers in today’s commercial space program consistently attended in that program, the International Space University is something that Clark was the first chancellor of, from 89 to 2004, and that is just awesome that he worked to communicate, not just to the public, but he also worked to professionalize space exploration.
Fraser Cain: Yeah and he was rewarded. He was knighted.
Dr. Pamela Gay: He was knighted in 1998 by Queen Elizabeth the second. He was knighted not as a Brit, but as someone from the colony of Sri Lanka.
Fraser Cain: See, that’s gonna be my way through. As a Canadian, I can get that knighthood, so –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly.
Fraser Cain: Yeah.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Exactly.
Fraser Cain: Sorry, Pamela.
Dr. Pamela Gay: You know I wouldn’t want to wear the shining armor anyways.
Fraser Cain: No. I’ve already bought mine. It’s already ready to go. No. Yeah. Okay, so I think we should probably wrap this up. We already mentioned the way he passed away, and I guess we did mention the 2004 tsunami and sort of terrible devastation that he was effected, so I think next week we’re gonna talk in a lot more detail about some of the concepts that he brought up, and I think that’s gonna blow people’s minds on the amazing ideas that we now are just – live with all the time and think about and how much of those had really come from him.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And the fact that people don’t realize they came from him I think says the most about the man he was.
Fraser Cain: So we’re gonna set the record straight. Awesome. Alright. Well, thanks, Pamela. We’ll see you next week.
Dr. Pamela Gay: My pleasure. Thank you, Fraser.
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Duration: 29 minutes