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Imagine and innovate to honour Sir Arthur C Clarke!

Arthur C Clarke
Sir Arthur C Clarke on Hikkaduwa beach, photo by Rohan de Silva

Sir Arthur Clarke’s first death anniversary falls on 19 March 2009

Sir Arthur’s 90th birthday reflections (effectively his public goodbye) is available online at:

During his illustrious career spanning over 60 years, Sir Arthur C Clarke received a large number of honours, awards and accolades from scientific, academic and literary bodies worldwide. At one time or another, he won all the top science fiction literary awards. He received honorary doctorates from universities in the east and west. In 1998, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him for his ‘services to literature’.

In his adopted homeland of Sri Lanka, where he lived 52 of his 90 years, he received both the highest presidential honour for science (Vidya Jyothi, 1986) and the highest civilian honour (Lankabhimanya, 2005). The current government marked his 90th birthday with a presidential ceremony graced by visiting astronauts and dignitaries from several space-faring nations.

At the time of his death on 19 March 2008, Sir Arthur also had an asteroid, dinosaur species and a geostationary communications satellite (as well as that entire orbit) named after him. Two nations (Sri Lanka and Palau) had put his image on postage stamps –- a rare honour for living persons.

How can we add to this already stellar list to cherish the memory of Sir Arthur? Would naming Sri Lanka’s first satellite (as recently announced) be a fitting tribute? Or should a monument be better rooted on the Lankan soil, where people can see and feel its presence everyday? Or, do we really need any physical monuments to remind us of his legacy?

As we mark Sir Arthur’s first death anniversary, it is a good time to reflect on such legacy issues. Having worked closely with Sir Arthur during the last 21 years of his life, I can offer some insights on his own thinking and preferences in this respect.

Arthur C Who?!

Despite his well known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices to be put up in his honour or memory. When a visiting journalist once asked him about monuments, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and just look around…”

He knew his place in history was well assured by his ideas and imagination expressed in his output of over 100 books, 1,000 essays and short stories, as well as numerous radio and television appearances. He achieved iconic status not just in literature, science and technology, but also in popular culture –- the latter largely thanks to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Remember as a writer

In December 2007, on the eve of his 90th birthday, I helped Sir Arthur to record a short video message on his life and times. (It turned out to be his public farewell.) He always placed a premium on brevity, and in this video, he allowed himself a minute for every decade he’d lived — a total of 9 minutes. In those 540 seconds, he both looked back at his extraordinary 90 orbits around the Sun, and also cast a wistful look at the future of his island home, planet Earth and the universe.

Sir Arthur listed three last wishes: a sign of life elsewhere in the universe; clean energy replacing oil and coal; and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. Although he didn’t live to see any of these come true, their realisation remains the ultimate ‘Clarke Challenge’. Some of the best minds on the planet are working on the first and second; the government of Sri Lanka believes it is on the verge of achieving the third.

It was in the last two minutes of the video that Sir Arthur touched on posterity. He said: “I’ve had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. Of all these, I want to be remembered most as a writer –- one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.”

To end his message, he quoted Rudyard Kipling:

“If I have given you delight

by aught that I have done.

Let me lie quiet in that night

which shall be yours anon;

And for the little, little span

the dead are borne in mind,

seek not to question other than,

the books I leave behind.”

In the weeks and months following Sir Arthur’s death, many have asked me what kind of monument was being planned in his memory. As far as the Arthur C Clarke Estate is concerned, there is none –- and that seems to surprise many.

Yet it is fully consistent with the man of ideas, imagination and dreams that Sir Arthur Clarke was. Monuments of brick and mortar — or even of steel and silicon — seem superfluous for a writer who stretched the minds of millions. Commemorative lectures or volumes cannot begin to capture the spirit and energy of the visionary who invented the communications satellite and inspired the World Wide Web.

Next Arthur Clarke?

Instead of dabbling in these banalities, Sri Lanka should go for the ‘grand prize’: nurturing among its youth the intellectual, cultural and creative attributes that made Arthur C Clarke what he was. In other words, we must identify and groom the budding Arthur Clarkes of the 21st century!

Some might argue that Sir Arthur was a unique product of his times, and they are right. But how did the farm lad from rural England grow into one of the greatest Britons of the 20th century, and become one of the top 10 most influential aerospace thinkers of all time?

Sir Arthur used to joke that one secret of his success was his careful choice of parents (another was never learning the rules of chess!). More seriously, what roles did family, education, peers, travel and social interactions play in producing the distinctively Clarkian combination of sharp wit, irreverence, playful humour and, above all, vivid yet realistic imagination?

Probing and understanding these processes become more than an exercise in biographical reconstruction if we want to recreate conditions in which scientific creativity, technological innovation and informed imagination can thrive. As Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war draws to an end, nurturing creative talent among the country’s youth would be one of the best investments for a peaceful, prosperous future.

But can imagination and innovation take root unless we break free from the shackles of orthodoxy? For transformative change to happen, we will need to rethink certain aspects of our education, bureaucracy, social hierarchies and culture. Are we willing and able to attempt these?

For a start, no modern day Arthur Clarke is going to be inspired by Sri Lanka’s over-crowded and rigid curriculum or the antiquated educational system that places emphasis on rote learning and passing examinations. Throwing computers into the mix has not really modernised the mindset of those in charge. I was recently stunned to learn how the Education Ministry’s much-taunted SchoolNet web connectivity allows students to access only a handful of pre-approved websites! The babus who decided on this must fit the description in this rhyme Sir Arthur was fond of quoting, referring to a British educator of yesteryear: “I’m the master of this college; what I don’t know isn’t knowledge.”

Sir Arthur knew how closed economies and restrictive cultures stifled innovation — he once said the only memorable invention to emerge from Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe was the Rubik’s cube…

He also knew the limits and hazards of ivory tower universities and research institutes. Although he saw value in governments and industry funding research, he didn’t want bean-counters placed in charge of discovery or invention. As he said, “If there had been government research establishments in the Stone Age, we would have had absolutely superb flint tools. But no one would have invented steel.”

A liberal education system and independent academia would be more likely to produce open-minded citizens who actively discuss and debate issues in the public interest. Sir Arthur was a committed public intellectual who always supported evidence-based decision making and the free flow (and interplay) of ideas. Such rigours are essential for imagination and innovation to be rooted in the real world; if not, all we get is hollow fantasy.

Rigorous debate needs to be tempered by open-mindedness. That’s why Sir Arthur regularly stuck his neck out for far-fetched and even ‘crazy’ ideas. He was fond of quoting Mark Twain: “The man with a new idea is a crank –- until the idea succeeds”. Right to the end, he provided moral support to assorted Lankan inventors. He never probed their educational qualifications and instead weighed each idea on its own merit.

He watched with mounting dismay how the state technical institute named after him (the Arthur C Clarke Institute, where he played no role) slowly turned into a mediocre bureaucracy aloof of all ‘cranks’ and most members of the public. Those brushed off by the Institute often found a sympathetic ear and wise counsel in Sir Arthur who was more interested in the song than the singer. That’s another core value that can propel Sri Lanka to a better future.

Second time lucky?

If innovation and imagination are so intangible, how can governments and societies encourage their pursuit? Sir Arthur didn’t have a full answer for this, but he endorsed the approach favoured by his friend and presidential science advisor Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma: “Find the best young minds, give them all facilities, set them goals — and then leave them alone!”

Back in the mid 1980s, there was a glimmer of hope that Sri Lanka was adopting such an approach with the newly established Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS) and the Arthur Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies (ACCIMT). But alas, that was a flash in the pan: when new ways of creating knowledge and ideas threatened the old guard of scientists and bureaucrats, they mounted a joint assault to reclaim their lost ‘territory’.

A dejected Ponnamperuma returned to the United States, where he died in 1994. A generation of bright-eyed Lankans lost their chance to pursue world class research and innovation in their own land; most migrated to western countries. Sir Arthur, meanwhile, realised the limits of the possible and gradually withdrew from public positions citing reasons of age and health.

If we want to nurture imagination and innovation, we must first learn from the mistakes of the recent past. Obsolete institutions and ossified policies will need to be reformed. Worthy senior academics now past their prime should gracefully retire, or at a minimum, stay out of the way.

Pursuit of this ideal need not be the exclusive domain (or burden) of the state. In fact, private efforts can nurture innovation faster and better. Two current initiatives augur well for the future: LIRNEasia and Institute for Research and Development (IRD). Interestingly, both are headed by returning diaspora scientists who completely ignore the local hierarchies.

Let’s not kid ourselves: sparking imagination and innovation is much harder than launching a gleaming new satellite in Sir Arthur’s name. But the rewards would also be greater: if we get it right this time, Sri Lanka can finally take its rightful place in the 21st century.

What better tribute can we imagine for Sir Arthur Clarke?

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke for 21 years as a research assistant at the latter’s personal office (nothing to do with the Arthur Clarke Institute). He blogs on media, society and development at

  • Thank you very much for an interesting, informative and thought provoking article.

  • 21st Century Fox

    Interesting take on a remarkable man. But what’s the big idea of trying to revive failed strategies of the 20th century on this new century? Despite all his greatness Sir Arthur Clarke was a man of the 20th century. We need new vision and new thinking to deal with realities of the 21st century. Harping back to the nostaligia of Cyril Ponnamperuma and Arthur C Clarke will not achieve that.

  • DKN

    Sir Arthur C. Clarke is and has been the only writer of fiction, whose philosophy transcends what has been written by most Western authors. He yanked many people into far-sighted thinkers, groomed young minds into well-made leaders, and bridged a gap between the East-West on a philosophical bridge. Though I am not Sri Lankan, it is my wish that his legacy be realized and be honed to form a band of youth that can lead the nation, shove aside all political differences and reach for their destiny. I’m 14 now and recieved an email from him when I was 12. I have considered this one of the greatest honors I have had in my early formative years.

  • One way to encourage and inspire young minds about the world of science that so entranced Arthur is for kids to rub shoulders with scientists. The Monash Science Centre was set up to do just that. It is simple, unbeauracratic and puts those with passion about their work together with young kids and the results are just what Arthur would like. He told me once that the way he got interested in science was looking at the dinosaur cards that his Father gave to him as they rode along in a cart in rural England. I got interested in looking at the many kinds of insects that lived on our farm. Ed Wilson is mad over ant and shows these to kids. So, why don’t we set up a Science Centre with the minimum of administration in Sri Lanka and do the same thing we have done at the Monash Science Centre over the last 15 years. I would love to help with this since I started the Monash Science Centre all those 15 years ago.

    My husband and I were so very pleased to name Serendipaceratops after Arthur and I think he was pretty pleased with it too. We miss his emails so much and I wish he could have lived to be 150.

    With warmth. Patricia and Thomas

  • Patricia,

    Many thanks for your wonderfully constructive comment – so much in the spirit of Sir Arthur!

    Your idea of a science centre to inspire youth is an excellent one, and heartily echo your approach of doing so ‘with the minimum of administration’ (If the British invented bureaucracy, we in South Asia have perfected it!).

    In fact, the idea of just such a science centre has been discussed for over 20 years in Sri Lanka. It was to be along the lines of the Exploratorium in San Francisco,, where the young (and young-at-heart) can learn about aspects of science by doing, and just as importantly, have fun while doing it! Fun is precisely what is so lacking in, and kept out of, our teaching and learning of science.

    As the single parent of a 12-year-old eager and energetic child, I can appreciate very well the value of inspiration during the formative years. Yet, despite governmental and private plans to set up a science centre in Sri Lanka, nothing ever materialised. Perhaps the reason is that most people involved in such efforts, well meaning as they are, have now forgotten what it was like to be children and have a sense of wonder, to be in awe of nature and the world…

    A good Lankan friend of Sir Arthur who has been trying hard to get a science centre off the ground is the inventor-aviator-tropical farmer Ray Wijewardene, I will now take up your idea, and kind offer, with him and see how we can take it forward, this time with nothing official about it. That, we know, is the only way to get results in a place like Sri Lanka: follow Nike’s motto and ‘Just do it’.

  • David Damario

    A thousand years from now…people will be quoting Sir Arthur’s books…long after all the current empires have turned to dust.. He was timeless….and forever. There will never be another (I wish I was wrong about that) and his words were always positive and pointing out the goodness of mankind. He saw the world as the glass half full…he was the very best of the best. Nalaka, Rohan, Hector and Family., Everyone associated with Sir Arthur were so fortunate to have known him.
    He is missed by all…but his words live on.
    David Damario

  • A leading Sri Lankan scientist wrote to me bilaterally (email) within hours of reading my essay. With his permission, I want to share his thoughts here, but he does not wish me to attribute his remarks. I understand and respect his preference as this is a country where the singer’s pedigree is probed much more than her song…

    Nalaka: you have beautifully captured the essence of Arthur C. Clarke’s life
    on our planet. And you are right: no graven image can do justice to the
    reach of his spirit. But the ‘grand prize’ you advocate is, I fear,
    unattainable. We need to accept that Arthur was a stranger in our land — as
    much as a few of us admired and loved him. The spirit of objective, liberal
    secularism he represented was as alien to the Sri Lankan people at the time
    he came to our shores half a century ago as it was when he left us last
    year. A society as steeped in bigotry as ours is is most unlikely to give
    rise (at least not locally) to men like Arthur. If it did, we would only
    shoot them down with all dispatch. To minds as small as ours, his
    homosexuality would have outweighed his genius. But I take your point: he
    should not be allowed to pass uncelebrated in the land in which he found
    domicile. Heaven knows that even in the past year he has been celebrated
    much more poignantly by an admiring world than by the inhabitants of his
    foster home. I can’t help thinking that if the religious zealots and
    purveyors of superstition in our country were to be confronted with Clarke’s
    Laws, they would stone his memory to death.

  • Nice review, Thanks for sharing this to us…

  • british media popularized the geostationary orbit as a finding by arthur c clarke as opposed to giving due credit to herman potočnik, who introduced it first in one of his publications in 1929: Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums – der Raket[1], which translates to The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor[2]. the recent demise of arthur c clarke has brought about attention to a paper her wrote: Extra-Terrestrial Relays — Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?[3], which was published in 1945. presented bellow (see links) are extracts from herman’s book and also from arthur c clarke’s paper. furthermore, arthur c clarke in his paper had cited herman’s publication.


  • From page 164 of Arthur C. Clarke’s _How The World Was One_

    … I have sometiems been credited with the discovery of the stationary
    orbit itself, which of course is ridiculous. No one could have
    “discovered” this, since its existence was perfectly obvious from the
    time of Newton (if not Kepler!). I will be astonished if it has not
    often appeared in astronomical literature – perhaps when Asaph Hall
    discovered the satellites of Mars in 1877. The small outer moon, Deimos,
    is not far beyond the stationary orbit, and Phobos is well inside it.

    The Russian pioneer Tisiolkovsky took the concept for granted but did
    not develop it; radio, of course, was in its infancy when he was writing
    around the turn of the century. Not until 1928 did the somewhat shadowy
    Austrian captain H. Potocnik, writing under the name Hermann Noordung,
    develop the engineering aspects of the manned space station in great
    detail – and place it in the stationary orbit! He naturally assumed that
    there would be radio links between Earth and station.

  • I thank shehal for clarifying the position on the origin of comsats. A decade before writing ‘How the World was One’ (1992), Sir Arthur made the same point when accepting the Marconi fellowship and award of 1982. Two relevant excerpts from his speech:

    “I am not indulging in false modesty…when I say that my own contribution to satellite communications was largely a matter of luck. I happened to be in the right place, at the right time….Communications and astronautics were inextricably entangled in my mind, with results that now seem inevitable. If I had not proposed the idea of geostationary relays in my Wireless World letter of February 1945, and developed it in more detail the following October, half a dozen other people would have quickly done so. I suspect that my early disclosure may have advanced the cause of space communications by approximately fifteen minutes.

    “Or perhaps twenty. My efforts to promote and publicise the idea may have been much more important than conceiving it. In 1952, ‘The Exploration of Space’ introduced communications satellites to several hundred thousand people – including John Pierece…”

    The full acceptance speech is included in ‘Ascent to Orbit: A Scientific Autobiography’ by Arthur C Clarke (John Wiley & Sons, 1984).

    More about Marconi fellowship itself is found at:

  • 21st Century Fox

    Celebrating a global figure like Arthur C Clarke is fine and relevant. Let that happen, as long as people do it with their personal time and resources. But do we need to revive the memory of dubious scientists like Cyril Ponnamperuma in that process? CP was a Christian and therefore had no legitimate right or role in Sri Lanka’s scientific establishment which belongs only to Sinhala Buddhists. He spent most of his productive years working for Uncle Sam, and in his later years while he had a foothold in Sri Lanka, he tried to undermine true Sinhala Buddhist intellectuals by promoting non-Sinhala and/or non-Buddhist persons at IFS and Clarke Centre. We were saved by a few courageous individuals who saw this conspiracy and drove out CP before he could do much damage. Naive writers like Nalaka Gunawardene don’t know this real story and blindly sing praise of CP.

  • 21st Century Fox,

    Every writer exercises her discretion and choice in writing anything, as I did here. I cited both examples that started right and then went astray (IFS, ACCIMT) as well as current initiatives that give us something to celebrate (LIRNEasia, IRD). It’s a pity that you’ve allowed yourself to be so distracted by examples and missed the larger generic point I was making.

    If you don’t like the late Cyril Ponnamperuma (or Christians, or Amerians, or whatever) that’s a personal choice you are fully entitled to have. But to make sweeping statements about international conspiracies based purely on personal likes and dislikes is rather far-fetched, and not consistent with the teachings of the Buddha that I know. That’s not even imagination, more like paranoia. The Sinhala Buddhist cause, however you might define it, is not going to be served by this kind of insular pettiness.

  • TDS

    It’s nice to see Nalaka Gunawardena calling for the nurture of intellectual and creative abilities of Sri Lanka’s youth. Unfortunately, when I was a youngster in school, he was far from ‘nurturing’ – he had already achieved some level of local recognition as a science writer but did not want to see anyone else succeed in that vocation. He was positively discouraging, and placed a number of roadblocks in my path.

    To 21st Century Fox: please stop denigrating the memory of Prof. Cyril Ponnamperuma. I can personally attest that he encouraged all youngsters that had the privilege of meeting him regardless of ethnicity or religion. What’s the basis for calling him a ‘dubious scientist’? His scientific contributions and impact are recognized by his peers the world over, if not by narrow-minded individuals like you. Many of us were inspired by him both as a scientist and as a human being.

  • David Damario

    There is something very wrong to me re TDS comment about Nalaka. I have known Nalaka for a few years….please look at what TDS said below.

    I have met thousands of people in my life…some positive some negative. Arthur C Clarke would not have hired Nalaka 20 plus years ago if he was negative. Arthur was always positive and Nalaka was and is the same. Nalaka is an intelligent…humble…kind, gentle, positive human being. It was a joy to meet him and know him….TDS must have the wrong Nalaka Gunawardena….

    It’s nice to see Nalaka Gunawardena calling for the nurture of intellectual and creative abilities of Sri Lanka’s youth. Unfortunately, when I was a youngster in school, he was far from ‘nurturing’ – he had already achieved some level of local recognition as a science writer but did not want to see anyone else succeed in that vocation. He was positively discouraging, and placed a number of roadblocks in my path.

  • don Francisco

    When i was in Sri Lanka I had the good fortune of spending a little time working with Arthur Clarke. He inspired me from the days I first read about the Clarke orbit.

    When I first visited him I saw that the geographic center of ideas was no longer in Europe or the United States. One could live anywhere and have ideas and promote ideas and make the world pay attention to those ideas.

    My first visit saw me sitting in the chair once occupied by Yuri Gagarin and Buckminster Fuller. People came to see him to try out their ideas and get his reaction and his build on their ideas.

    Another time he called me because I was supposedly the great computer expert in Sri Lanka. Shaking in my boots that he would find out I was nowhere near the expert in computing that I touted myself as, I went to his house.

    At the time he was working on the movie script for 2010. He had named two files with the same name and wanted to delete one of them and not delete both. Thank God that I knew how to fix that minor problem.

    We talked a lot about the future. He told me that his wish for Sri Lanka was that it skip the 20th century. They managed to achieve that in Telecommunications. They completely abandiodned putiing in land lines and did not create an environment where you would be paying maintenance for the next 100 years as does those advanced technological societies in Europe and the USA.

    He also told me that the best medicine in the world would come from the “South”. (He looked the world as being divided between North and South rather than East and West). His argument was similar to the telecommunications jungle that the North got itself in.

    Medicne is controled and structured by the regulatory bodies represented by the American Medical Association and similar British and Eurpean clubs.

    Sri Lanka doesn’t have that burden to carry and they can devise no less quality medical specialties than the North with different and more direct forms of education because they are not shakled by the bindings of the North.

    I will not soon forget my visits to Sri Lanka, Columbo, Kandy, Hickadoa , Galle and many other world famous spots but most of all I’ll remember my visits to Bond Place.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    I walked into International House, the campus accommodation for students at UC Berkeley for the first time, and felt very proud to see the late Prof. Cyril Ponnamperuma’s plaque gracing the reception. I remember telling my colleagues that I too am from Sri Lanka.

    Arthur C. Clarke and Pof. Ponnamperuma are treasures of the scientific world and they are Lanka’s prize possessions.

    I cannot understand the bile seeping out of some commentators towards Porf. Ponnamperuma and Nalaka. This kind of attitude has always been an impediment in our country’s progress.


  • The Buddhist

    All will be fine if Dr Arthur Clark can be confirmed as havied died a Buddhist. We are not sure if he ever declared his religion in public, even though he sometimes said nice things about Buddhism.

    It is different with Prof Cyril Ponnamperuma who was born a Christian and died a Christian. Such people have no place in the history or future of Sri Lanka.

    From the time we won the war in May 2009 Sri Lanka is only for Sinhalese Buddhists. Others are guests who must serve the majority’s interests and needs.

  • yapa

    Dear The Buddhist;

    You are a non Buddhist.


  • he is the honor of all human kinds.

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