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.

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: