Colombo, Media and Communications

Sir Arthur C Clarke: A life-long public intellectual

91st birth anniversary on 16 Dec 2008

“For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke, whose 91st birth anniversary falls on 16 December 2008, once opened an essay on science and society with this pun on Newton’s Third Law of motion. He was empathising with politicians and the public who get confused when scientific opinion becomes divided or polarised.

Arthur C Clarke
Sir Arthur Clarke – photo by Shahidul Alam

Clarke was a rare expert who always tried to reconcile rational analysis with the real world’s limits of the possible. His forte was not only in extrapolating about humanity’s technological future, which he did exceedingly well in his writing and television appearances, but also in exploring the nexus between science and society. With his death earlier this year, science lost an articulate and passionate promoter who both challenged scientists to play a greater role in public policy, and demanded that political leaders should take science seriously.

But he was never an uncritical cheer-leader for science, and that will be part of his enduring legacy. In a widely read essay on science and politics published in the leading journal Science on 5 June 1998, he cautioned: “For more than a century science and its occasionally ugly sister technology have been the chief driving forces shaping our world. They decide the kinds of futures that are possible. Human wisdom must decide which are desirable.”

Clarke, who was better known as a writer of plausible science fiction, often used his stories to caution against undesirable futures. For example, he imagined advanced supercomputers over-riding human commands — as HAL 9000 did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, creating an enduring icon among generations of computer scientists. He also warned how life on earth might be wiped out as a result of nuclear warfare, asteroid impacts or accelerated climate change. He pointed out that humans now had the power to choose wisely and could make the difference of life or death for their planet.

 

Ardent optimist
Despite these cautionary tales, Clarke remained an ardent optimist all his life, if only because, as he often said, “it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy”. In both his science fiction and factual writing, he envisioned scenarios where science and technology help solve real world problems, ranging from poverty and hunger to illiteracy and human tribalism. But his gaze was fixed on the longer term goals of humanity evolving into a space-faring species, and eventually making contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Underlying this vivid imagination was a solid grounding in physics and mathematics, and a firm understanding of social and cultural dynamics of science in today’s world. These attributes helped Clarke to become an effective, credible communicator of popular science, especially on space travel, communication technologies and futuristic scenarios. His writing, television appearances and public talks inspired generations of space explorers, software engineers and technopreneurs. By proposing the geo-synchronous communications satellite in 1945, he also triggered the globalisation of information.

The policy impact of Clarke’s factual writing has yet to be fully assessed. For example, it was only decades later that he found out how the US space pioneer Wernher von Braun had used his 1952 book, The Exploration of Space, to convince President John Kennedy that Americans could land on the Moon. No wonder Clarke was appalled by a sizeable number of modern Americans believing that the Moon landings were an elaborate hoax conjured by the US space agency NASA and Hollywood movie studios. In the 1990s, he famously wrote to the then NASA administrator, demanding his writer fee for having allegedly scripted the ‘Moon hoax’.

More seriously, Clarke spent a significant part of his career investigating an array of superstitious beliefs and pseudo-scientific practices, from creationism and scientology to astrology and fire-walking. In these endeavours, he sometimes partnered with the likes of scientists Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and magician James Randi.

For some years, Clarke made a living as a professional sceptical enquirer on television. Beginning with Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), he hosted three TV series where he probed — and sometimes exposed — numerous mysteries, superstitions and the paranormal.

Even when he didn’t elicit full explanations for some phenomena, Clarke invariably showed the value of keeping an open mind and asking the right questions. And instead of ignoring or dismissing popular obsessions, he tried engaging their proponents in rational discussions. That was characteristic of Clarke, a genial moderator who always sought to build ‘bridges’ — whether between scientists and the public, or across the ‘Two Cultures‘ divide between the arts and the sciences identified by the British scientist and author C P Snow.

 

Public science
Clarke himself straddled the two spheres of arts and science with equal dexterity and authority. His advocacy for popular science communication — and its by-product, the public understanding of science — spanned his entire career of nearly 70 years.

He underscored his commitment to this in what turned out to be his last public address, delivered in mid February 2008 to the global launch of the International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE) at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. In an audio message recorded from his hospital bed in Colombo, he said:

“I’m very glad to hear that the IYPE is placing equal emphasis on creating new knowledge and its public outreach. Today, more than ever, we need the public understanding and engagement of science… (it) is essential for science to influence policy and improve lives.”

Pursuing this ideal in his adopted home Sri Lanka, Clarke won some battles and lost others. His advice on telecom development, energy conservation and higher education sometimes influenced public policies. Soon after the devastation caused by the 2004 December tsunami, Clarke offered valuable advice on improving early warning systems and rebuilding the coastal infrastructure in ways that could minimise future disaster impacts.

Cartoon
This cartoon, drawn by Sri Lanka’s leading cartoonist W R Wijesoma, appeared in The Observer newspaper in the late 1960s. It shows leading politicians of the day, all of who are no more, seeking Arthur Clarke’s prediction about their personal political futures.

But even half a century of Arthur C Clarke could not shake Sri Lankans off their deep obsession with astrology — the unscientific belief that human destinies are somehow shaped and controlled by celestial bodies millions of kilometres away. A life-long astronomy enthusiast, he repeatedly invited astrologers to rationally explain the basis of their calculations and predictions. This challenge was craftily avoided by astrologers who continue to exercise much influence over politics, public policy, business and everyday life in Sri Lanka.

Despite his broad-mindedness, Clarke couldn’t understand how so many highly educated Sri Lankans practised astrology with a faith bordering on the religious (another topic on which he held strong views). Ironically, even the government-run technical institute named after him used astrologically chosen ‘auspicious times’ for commissioning its new buildings. In later years, Clarke would only say, jokingly: “I don’t believe in astrology; but then, I’m a Sagittarius — and we’re very sceptical.”

And in April 2006, when astrologers, nationalists and Buddhist monks pressurised the government to revert Sri Lanka’s standard time to GMT+5:30 from the more sensible GMT+6, Clarke’s voice of reason was completely ignored. Sections of the government-run media even asked what business it was for ‘a science fiction writer’ to question public policy.

Perhaps it’s such ridicule that scares away most scientists and other professionals from speaking out on matters of public importance. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of professionals who joined the standard time debate. When I wrote a commentary on that sad episode for the international website SciDev.Net, my editors introduced it with these words: “Sri Lankan science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is desperately seeking a cheap cloning kit to mass-produce public intellectuals in his country.”

Clarke, long interested in human cloning, was amused to read this, but gave me some friendly advice:  “Be careful with what you wish for — it can come true!”

But he never gave up the good struggle for rational discussion and debate in public affairs. In doing so, he lived a vision that he had outlined over 45 years earlier. Accepting the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the popularisation of science in Delhi in 1962, he said: “Two of the greatest evils that afflict Asia, and keep millions in a state of physical, mental and spiritual poverty are fanaticism and superstition. Science, in its cultural as well as its technological sense, is the great enemy of both; it can provide the only weapons that will overcome them and lead whole nations to a better life.”

There’s some incongruity that we left Sir Arthur Clarke six feet underground at Colombo’s general cemetery on a sombre afternoon in March this year. The late Bernard Soysa, a leading leftist politician and one time Minister of Science and Technology (and a friend of Clarke), once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion or debate’.

 Clarke, a passionate public intellectual all his life, has surely earned his peace and quiet. But those who want his legacy to continue must remain relentless, never allowing a moment’s peace to the assorted bureaucracies, hierarchies and peddlers of pseudo-science who constantly undermine and invade the public sphere.
 

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke for over 20 years as a research assistant. He blogs on media, society and development at: http://movingimages.wordpress.com

  • Excellent way to commemorate a great man. Not just to look back at his life and achievements, but to point to what we, the living, can do by learning from his.

    I do believe that there is a crying need for public intellectuals, not only in Sri Lanka, but everywhere. But the lesson we can draw from Sir Arthur's life is that the ingredients are difficult to find in one individual.

    Just because you have an opinion; that does not make you a public intellectual. You need knowledge, preferably research, to back up the opinion. Just because you have all that, it does not mean that you can be an effective public intellectual. You must also be a good communicator, with a skill of sound bites and saying complex things simply and briefly.

    Even if all that is present, there is the question of credibility and acceptance. If Sir Arthur was not a world famous writer, would he have enjoyed the easy access to media that he did? As Nalaka hints in the article, there were times when the philistines hit back, even at Sir Arthur. A true public intellectual will take on the hard issues of the day (hopefully not all of them) and will open him/herself up to criticism and calumny. Not everyone has the stomach for this.

    I particularly like the opening quotation about the equal and opposite expert. There is the expectation that you have to be right all the time as a public intellectual, but how realistic is that. You need guts to stick your head out and say controversial things, without qualifications. And then, hopefully in a few cases, admit error.

    It's really up to each of us to examine our lives and see if we have some or most of the ingredients in us. If yes, then we should consider speaking out. Unless one makes that effort, one will never know whether it was possible.

    Another approach may be to brainstorm about who have the potential to be public intellectuals (not the usual suspects; but thinking beyond them). Then there may be merit in getting them together and creating opportunities for them to speak out. When I talk to the media, I find that they are desperate for people to quote and interview. In the US, think tanks do good business, making sure that the media have easy access to people who have ideas and who can turn a phrase.

    This approach sees the problem as systemic, and not dependent on men (and women) of goodwill stepping up to do the right thing. In the end, an individual has to take the decision, but there may be merit in thinking of a systemic approach to fostering public intellectuals.

  • Thanks, Nalaka, I really enjoyed reading your essay, and thanks to Groundviews, too, for being a great resource.

    Sir Arthur had a wicked sense of humour. Talking about claims that UFOs regularly visit this planet, he said: “They tell us absolutely nothing about intelligence elsewhere in the universe, but they do prove how rare it is on Earth.”

    He first approached my family in 1956, when he was diving addict hanging out on Unawatuna beach on the south coast of Ceylon. He wanted my father, a newspaperman, to print something he had written. My dad agreed. It was a good call.

    Our families became friends. His house in Colombo was famous for three reasons. It had a satellite dish on top, long before anyone knew what a large metal dinner plate on one’s roof could do. It had its own elevator—an unheard-of luxury in a private home. And there was his souvenir-filled study, which he called The Ego Chamber. “This is a bit of a spaceship, and here’s a chunk of the moon,” he would say, holding up items from his shelf.

    "Yeah, right,” we said, not knowing whether we dare believe him.

  • Arthur has never left my memory, and never will. I recall that when I first visited him in Sri Lanka, he was embarrrased that his satellite dish had been overturned in a storm, his wireless telephone was not functioning, and his computer screen was so dim he could hardly read it. I only managed to get his telephone charger plugged in under his desk, but the dish and the computer were beyond my powers to remedy. Some years later, he invited me back, ending his note with: "And my telephone's malfunctioning again. Please hurry."

    He was a man of great knowledge, with a fine sense of humor, and a deep and active interest in the future of our species. We all miss him…

  • DAVID DAMARIO

    There are very few people that knew Sir Arthur C. Clarke as well as Nalaka Gunawardene did over the last 20 years. I know that Nalaka (who I met in person in Sir Arthurs office this year.) always said that working with Sir Arthur was such a great honor in his life. Nalaka is the perfect individual to write a book on the life and times of Sir Arthur and his friendship with him. Lets all encourage him to do so.
    But after meeting Nalaka and sttiing down and talking to him….I think Sir Arthur was very fortunate to have such an intelligent …respectful…honest and sincere individaual. And I think Sir Arthur would be very proud of the way Nalaka handled everything over the last year in such a proffesional way. They both were very fortunate in life to be associated with eachother.

  • Lakshman Gunasekara

    Thanks!
    Arhtur Clarke was introduced to me by my mother (who nurtured my intellect) and he was one of my childhood heroes. I actually attended a children's astronomy camp at St. Peter's Coll in the early 1970s where he trained us and I used his own powerful telescope to look at the moon!

  • Ethirveerasingam

    Thank you Nalaka. I never met him but have read his novels and his story. I used to see him in early sixties when he visits the British Council library in Colpetty. I wish the scientists, without any contribution from those who believe in astrology , would honour him with a memorial Science and artists conference on his brithdays. He is a man of two cultures – the sciernce and arts.

  • I had a great deal to do with Sir Arthur in the 1980s, serving on the interministerial committee that drafted the proposal to establish the Arthur C. Clarke Centre and getting together Joe Pelton of INTELSAT and others, under the auspices of the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC, to establish the Arthur Clarke Foundation of the US. So I saw a great deal of Sir Arthur in those years, at first hand. I was always amazed at the number of American celebrities and VIPs who would seek meetings with Sir Arthur, from his close friend Fred Durant III and his charming wife Pip to the celebrated Claire Luce Booth, when he visited the United States. But he also had time for young visionaries, such as Todd Hawley, who was active in promoting the concept of an International Space University. I recall the sparkling night at the then new INTELSAT headquarters at Van Ness, Washington DC, where Sir Arthur (in Colombo) lit the birthday candles on a cake at INTELSAT HQ via satellite. His signal circumnavigated the world before triggering off a mechanism that lit the candles. The story reminds us that Sir Arthur is one of the those seers who have changed the world dramatically. Here is an exercise: Remove the geostationary communication satellite from the firmament. Now think of how telecommunication would have developed in the absence of communication satellites. Thank you, Sir Arthur!

  • Ethirveerasingam:

    Thanks for suggesting a memorial event, which I hope members of our scientific community — such as National Academy of Sciences and Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science — would consider.

    I hold a different view on setting up any physical structures in Sir Arthur's memory. Sri Lanka already has a perfectly dreadful example of how not to do it in the Arthur C Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies (ACCIMT, http://www.accimt.ac.lk)established by an Act of Parliament in 1984 and coming under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

    Sir Arthur provided advice, guidance and even material support during the formative years of ACCIMT. He also mobilised his far-flung network of international contacts in scientific, technological and engineering circles. As a result, ACCIMT has had access to a vast global reservoir of goodwill, partnerships, potential external funding and exchanges as no other comparable state research institute did before or since.

    Tragically, the Institute has reaped very little benefit from all this for the better part of a quarter of a century. While ACCIMT showed some promise and potential in first few years during the mid to late 1980s, it has failed to establish itself as a credible, productive research institute. It has an abysmal track record when it comes to research publications in internationally refereed journals, or patents for innovation or other measurable indicators of scientific productivity. In short, the Clarke Institute simply cannot justify nearly 25 years of substantial investment of Sri Lankan tax payer and international donor funds. It is today a white elephant draining scarce public funds, and a disgrace to the distinguished man in whose honour it was named.

    Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices or structures in his memory.
    In the weeks and months after his funeral, many have asked me what kind of monument is being planned in Sir Arthur's memory. Ours is a land where people – and governments – love to put up ostentatious and perfectly useless structures to honour the departed. I simply keep quoting Sir Arthur's own reply, when a journalist once asked him that very question: "Go to any well-stocked library, and look around…"

  • Dear Nalaka,

    Great article about a great man. Thank you so much for helping to keep his memory alive!

    I still remember what he told me about religion, laughing: "religion is the most malevolent of all mind viruses. I am afraid to be struck by lightning one day while saying this."

    He was indeed a perpetual optimist, and he said to me: "Don't panic." His views were true then, now and in the future. I wrote here some more comments for posterity: http://lifeboat.com/ex/arthur.c.clarke

    Futuristically yours,

    La vie est belle!

    Jose Cordeiro (http://www.cordeiro.org)