Arthur C Clarke: science's critical cheerleader
With the death of Arthur C. Clarke, science and rational thought have lost one of their leading promoters.
"For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert", the author Sir Arthur C Clarke once wrote. The words were a play on Newton's Third Law of motion, and Clarke, who died on19 March 2008 aged 90, was empathising with politicians and members of the public who become confused when scientific opinion is divided or polarised.
Clarke's forte was not only extrapolating about humanity's technological abilities, but also exploring the nexus between science and society. With his death, science has lost an articulate and passionate promoter who challenged scientists to play a greater role in public policy and demanded that political leaders should take science seriously.
Best known as a writer of plausible science fiction, Clarke's recurrent themes included humans evolving into a space-faring species and making contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence.
But he was never an uncritical cheerleader for science, and that will be part of his enduring legacy. In an essay in Science, 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."
In line with this belief, Clarke often used his stories to caution against undesirable futures. For example, he imagined supercomputers taking control (HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and the termination of life on earth by nuclear warfare, asteroid impacts or climate change.
Underlying his 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 become an effective, credible communicator of popular science, especially on space travel, communication technologies and futuristic scenarios.
Clarke's writing, television appearances and public talks inspired generations of space explorers, software engineers and techno-preneurs. In particular, he triggered the globalisation of information by proposing the geosynchronous communications satellite in 1945 — satellites that circle the earth at the same speed as the earth itself is turning, and therefore appear to stay in a fixed position.
Creationism and scientology
The full policy impact of Clarke's writing has yet to be fully assessed. For example, it was only decades after the 1952 publication of his book, The Exploration of Space, that he found out how the United States space pioneer Wernher von Braun had used it to convince President Kennedy to go to the Moon.
Given his coverage of Apollo missions on US network television, it is little wonder Clarke was appalled by the belief of a sizeable number of modern Americans that the Moon landings were an elaborate hoax perpetrated by NASA and Hollywood.
Indeed, Clarke readily took on a formidable array of anti-science beliefs and superstitious practices, from creationism and scientology to astrology and fire-walking. In these endeavours he joined other campaigners against pseudoscience, including scientists Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and the magician James Randi.
For a while, Clarke even made a modest living as a professional sceptical enquirer. Beginning with Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World (1980), he hosted three television series that probed – and sometimes exposed – numerous mysteries, superstitions and the paranormal.
Even when Clarke didn't find full explanations, he invariably demonstrated 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 discussion. 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.
Clarke himself straddled the two spheres with dexterity and authority. His advocacy of popular science communication — and its by-product, the public understanding of science — spanned his entire career of nearly 70 years.
He underscored this commitment in what turned out to be his last public address, delivered in mid-February to the global launch of the International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE) at UNESCO headquarters in Paris: "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."
Obsession with astrology
Pursuing this strategy in his adopted home, Sri Lanka, where he lived since 1956, Clarke won some battles and lost others.
On the positive side, his advice on the development of telecommunications, energy conservation and coastal resource management sometimes impacted public policies.
But even half a century of Arthur C. Clarke has not been able to shake Sri Lankans' obsession with astrology. A life-long stargazer, he repeatedly asked astrologers to explain the basis of their work rationally. This challenge was craftily avoided, and astrology continues to exercise much influence over politics, public policy, business and everyday life.
Even the government-run research institute named after Clarke uses astrologically chosen 'auspicious times' for commissioning new buildings. And in April 2006, when astrologers, nationalists and Buddhist monks persuaded the government to change Sri Lanka's standard time to GMT+5:30 from GMT+6, Clarke's voice of reason was completely ignored.
Yet he never gave up the struggle for rational discussion and debate in public affairs, and remained outspoken to the end. 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."
Arthur C. Clarke mentored Sri Lankan journalist Nalaka Gunawardene and they worked together for 20 years. Gunawardene, who is a trustee of SciDev.Net, blogs at http://movingimages.wordpress.com/