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SIR ARTHUR CHARLES CLARKE 1917â2008 Elected in 1986 âFor conception of geosynchronous communications satellites, and for other contributions to the use and understanding of space.â BY HANS MARK SIR ARTHUR CHARLES CLARKE died on March 19, 2008, at this home near Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the age of 90. He was elected a foreign associate of NAE in 1986. Sir Arthur, the ï¬rst of four children, was born in Minehead in southern England on December 16, 1917. His father was a farmer and his mother a post ofï¬ce telegrapher. Early on, he developed an interest in science and technology, especially astronomy, and while still in grammar school, he built a telescope to âmap the Moon.â At age 13, young Arthur discovered science ï¬ction and became a voracious reader of stories of space exploration and life on other planets in the very popular âpulpâ magazines. Thus the interests that would shape his life took hold in his mind when he was still very young. Arthur attended a private school in Taunton on a scholarship from 1927 to 1936. Upon graduation, he secured a position as an auditor in the Department of the Exchequer. In 1941, he joined the Royal Air Force. As a technical ofï¬cer, he was a member of the very successful British-American team working on the early ground-controlled approach (GCA) radar system being developed by people at MIT. Arthur was demobilized 35 Final Tribute Vol 13.indd 35 3/23/10 3:42:06 PM
36 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES with the rank of ï¬ight lieutenant in 1945. He then enrolled at Kingâs College of the University of London, and in 1948, he received a Bachelor of Science degree with ï¬rst-class honors in physics and mathematics. I ï¬rst ran across the name of Arthur Clarke in 1947 when I was a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. My early interests were also oriented toward space exploration, and I had acquired a book by the German author Willy Ley entitled Rockets and Space Travel: The Future of Flight Beyond the Stratosphere (Viking Press, 1947). A passage on page 296 cites a ârecent and most interesting suggestion advanced by Arthur C. Clarke of the British Interplanetary Society.â More than 60 years ago, I underlined this passage and the sentence that followed: âIn an article published in âWireless Worldâ in the October 1945 issue he advocated a system of three space stations revolving in the same orbit (and forming a triangle with the Earth at its center) for worldwide radio and television coverage.â This was an audacious idea, and I remember wondering if I would be alive when Clarkeâs proposal was implemented. But it happened long before I expected. In another article published in 1947, Clarke predicted that nuclear-powered rockets would be developed âwithin 20 years.â (Unfortunately, I cannot ï¬nd the reference, but later, when I met him, he conï¬rmed that he had said this.) So Arthur was not infallible as a technological prophet. In 1948, Arthur Clarke made the decision to become a professional writer, and he published his ï¬rst science ï¬ction novel, Against the Fall of Night, in 1953. In 1956, he moved to Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time), where he resided, near Colombo, for the remainder of his life, although he continued to travel widely and spent extended periods of time abroad. In 1963, he published his only non-science ï¬ction novel, Glide Path, which is based on his work on radar during World War II. This was the beginning of his great productive period. Arthurâs collaboration with Stanley Kubrick began in 1964 and led to the memorable ï¬lm, 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. The movie was an example of Arthurâs unique talent. Final Tribute Vol 13.indd 36 3/23/10 3:42:06 PM
SIR ARTHUR CHARLES CLARKE 37 He had a ï¬rst-class technical intelligence, and all of his books were somehow plausible; he also had a superb imagination. The high quality and popularity of his books were based on a combination of these elements. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the imaginative idea was that a computer, HAL, would try to take over the spaceship. The story was a cliffhanger until HAL was ï¬nally bested. My personal favorite among Arthurâs writings is Rendezvous with Rama (Harcourt Brace Jovanocvich, 1973). In this book, Arthurâs imagination takes the lead. After an asteroid collides with the Earth causing catastrophic damage, a group of people decide to leave. They build a huge spaceship to accomplish their objective. The gripping story also involves imagining something completely new at the timeâa group of humans leaving the Earth forever. Arthurâs book describes the consequences. During the years I spent in Washington (1977â1984), I met Arthur Clarke several times. He would visit NASA Headquarters, and we would arrange discussion sessions, which were always unique experiences for those of us who attended. Following those sessions, we would take Arthur out to dinner. During one such party, I remember discussing Clarkeâs law: âAny sufï¬ciently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.â Someone added that it must also violate the âprinciple of least astonishment,â which we decided was a good general principle related to magic! We also added some other laws, which were adopted by consensus. My favorite was: âIf an old, distinguished scientist or engineer tells you something cannot be done, he is probably wrong.â Arthur had a good sense of humor, and he always enjoyed these visits. Arthur Clarkeâs achievements were widely recognized, and he received many honors. The most important was nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, probably based on his long- standing advocacy of international collaboration in space exploration as âan alternative to armed conï¬ict.â In 1998, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to literature. Arthurâs achievements were also honored in the Final Tribute Vol 13.indd 37 3/23/10 3:42:06 PM
38 MEMORIAL TRIBUTES United States, where he was elected a foreign associate of the National Academy of Engineering in 1986 and awarded NASAâs Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1995. For all of his fame and notoriety, Arthur Clarke was a private person who loved his life in Sri Lanka. He was an expert ping- pong player, and he loved scuba diving. He married Marilyn Mayï¬eld in 1953, but the marriage was dissolved in 1964. Arthur never had any children. Arthur Clarke was one of the most inï¬uential people in the last half of the twentieth century. His legacy is the books he wrote and the ideas they contain. I consider it a great privilege to have known him. I miss him and mourn his passing. Final Tribute Vol 13.indd 38 3/23/10 3:42:06 PM
Final Tribute Vol 13.indd 39 3/23/10 3:42:06 PM