Published March 19, 2008
Science-fiction writer, inventor and futurist Arthur C. Clarke has died, leaving fans bereft at the loss of his brilliance and creativity.
Clarke died early Wednesday after suffering from breathing problems, the Associated Press reported. He was 90 years old. He suffered from post-polio syndrome and was confined to a wheelchair toward the end of his life.
Clarke wrote more than 100 sci-fi books, including "2001: A Space Odyssey."
He is credited with coming up with the idea for the communications satellite and predicting space travel before rockets were even test fired.
Clarke was born to a family of farmers in Minehead, a town in Somerset, England.
He fed an early interest in science fiction with Amazing Stories, the world's first science-fiction magazine; it fell out of publication in 2005.
In the 1930s, he joined the British Interplanetary Society, which he chaired for two terms, and was active in SF fandom, where his self-promotional efforts earned him the nickname "Ego."
During World War 2, he trained users of the Ground Operated Approach Radar, the military ancestor to today's air-traffic-control systems, then completed a college degree (with honors) in physics and mathematics at King's College, London.
The road of gold
Since 1956, Clarke resided in Sri Lanka as the island nation's sole honorary citizen, engaging in underwater exploration and participating in the management of a diving tour company, Underwater Safaris.
However, he was most familiar to global audiences as a futurist and advocate of technology and interplanetary exploration.
With Walter Cronkite, who would become a lifelong friend, he co-anchored CBS television coverage of the launches of Apollo 11, 12 and 15.
Continuing his career in television, Clarke hosted such investigative programs as "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World", "World of Strange Powers" and "Mysterious Universe."
Among his many honors, Clarke was one of only 17 writers ever named a Science Fiction Grand Master.
In addition, he received the UNESCO Kalinga Award for advancing interest in science, as well as nominations for both an Academy Award nomination, for "2001" (shared with Stanley Kubrick), and a Nobel Peace Prize, for laying the conceptual groundwork for the creation of orbital communications satellites.
He served as a fellow at alma mater King's College.
He received both the Order of the British Empire (promoted to Commander of the British Empire in 1998) and the Vidya Jyothi, the highest honor bestowed by the Sri Lankan government.
He was most likely the only person to both appear on two Sri Lankan stamps — commemorating the 50th anniversary of telecommunications in that country — and to have an asteroid named in his honor.
On a more personal level, luminaries including astronomer Carl Sagan, renowned cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, German-American rocket pioneers Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun, publisher Rupert Murdoch and fellow science-fiction great Isaac Asimov called Clarke friend.
Service to science
With such an impressive resume, it would be easy to forget that Clarke's greatest significance was as one of the 20th century's great popularizers of scientific thought, especially through the medium of science fiction.
Combining a genuine optimism for humanity's future with visionary insight and an almost equally uncanny ability to explain difficult points of science, Clarke's body of genre work was likely one of the most significant in the 20th century.
As a futurist, he enjoyed such a level of success that he attributed the failure of humanity to build lunar colonies or send piloted missions to Jupiter to shortcomings on our part, not his.
Happily, many of his other significant predictions came true, although the prophecy may have worked at least partially to fulfill itself.
In "Rendezvous With Rama" (1973), he created "Project Spaceguard," an organization dedicated to tracking asteroids likely to intersect with the Earth. When the real world caught up with him in 1996, its founders named the asteroid-detection program "Spaceguard" in homage.
Meanwhile, his science advocacy continued through such organizations as the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, which promotes the ideas and concerns of his life and work (especially space exploration, future studies and ocean conservation), the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies at the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, given annually to outstanding British science-fiction novels.
The Three Laws
Writer and critic George Zebrowski, a good friend of Clarke and a recognized expert on his work, once stated that Clarke's Three Laws are central to appreciating the man's work.
Not only are these aphorisms fundamental elements of Clarke's literary legacy, but some would argue that they comprise a valuable contribution to 20th-Century popular thought.
1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. Corollary: When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2) The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to venture beyond them into the impossible.
3) Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The Third Law is widely quoted and appears in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
The global village
Clarke so relentlessly promoted the exploration of space, while celebrating cultural and geographic differences here on Earth, that he was called "our solar system's first regionalist."
Thanks to his deep love for his adopted Sri Lanka and its people, Clarke became a true citizen of the global village he helped to create.
The international popularity of his work transcended political boundaries, allowing him to bridge the chasm between the U.S. space program, the Russians and his native United Kingdom throughout the Cold War era.
How many men of the 20th century could count both Alexei Leonov and Walter Cronkite as friends?
Clarke's outspoken criticism of individual countries' tendency to nationalize the exploration of space showed that he still felt that the leap to other worlds was far too important — if not too vast — an undertaking to be constrained by concepts so transient as "nation-states."
He often seemed disappointed with us, but his fiction showed that he never wavered in his belief that the future would be a time of wonders, and that humanity, given time and common sense, would inevitably transcend the limits of gravity.
In 2007, Clarke celebrated his 90th birthday.
"Sometimes I am asked how I would like to be remembered," Clarke said at the celebration. "I have had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer and space promoter. Of all these I would like to be remembered as a writer."
He listed three wishes on his birthday: for the world to embrace cleaner energy resources, for a lasting peace in his adopted home, Sri Lanka, and for evidence of extraterrestrial beings.
"I have always believed that we are not alone in this universe," Clarke said.
Humans are waiting until extraterrestrial beings "call us or give us a sign," he said. "We have no way of guessing when this might happen. I hope sooner rather than later."
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