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Farewell, Arthur C. Clarke

If you received an e-mail from me several years ago, you might have seen it end with this quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.

This line, which I'd seen thrown around without attribution on the Internet years before, was a snarky way to mock the tech industry's habits of hype. But it was also a nod to one of my favorite science-fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke, and his aphorism that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Clarke died at age 90 yesterday after a prolific career that saw him not just imagine the future but correctly predict a decent chunk of it. If you watch satellite TV or tune into XM radio, give thanks to Clarke, who popularized the idea of using geosynchronous satellites as telecommunications relays.

Should you someday climb to Earth orbit on a space elevator, give Clarke credit for putting that idea in people's heads as well.

Clarke wrote more than 100 books, but 2001: A Space Odyssey--in both its print and film incarnations--stands above them in pop-cultural significance. With its calm, bloodlessly homicidal computer HAL 9000, it gave us some of sci-fi's most memorable moments. The simple phrase "I'm afraid I can't do that" has never been the same.

Clarke was sadly wrong about the advances we'd make in spaceflight by 2001; there is no Pan Am space shuttle with connecting service to the Moon. But his portrayal of how humans might react to the discovery of evidence of an alien intelligence's presence near Earth--a bureaucratic frenzy to cover up the news until it could be properly dealt with--seems dead-on.

NASA paid Clarke one of the highest compliments possible by naming Apollo 13's command module "Odyssey," then repeated the compliment decades later with the Mars Odyssey probe orbiting that planet now.

(Closer to home, it can't be a coincidence that the condo down the hill from Washingtonpost.com's offices, with a street address of 2001 Clarendon Blvd., is called the Odyssey.)

If you're unfamiliar with Clarke's life and work, I suggest the fine obituary written by my colleague Patricia Sullivan. See also the remembrances at Slashdot and Ars Technica.

And now, I may crack open my dog-eared paperback copy of 2001 yet again, just to remind myself of how many parts of Clarke's imagined future we need to get on with building.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 19, 2008; 11:19 AM ET
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Comments

Arthur C. Clarke was a great writer of short stories as well as novels, and he did not always see technological advancement as a cure-all for mankind's problems. HAL 9000 is the primary example. But another example is the excellent short story "Superiority" from the Expedition to Earth anthology. The story is told from the viewpoint of a captured military officer, whose planet lost a major war due to their over-reliance on superior technology that ultimately proved ineffective on the celestial battlefield. This story should be required reading for anyone involved in large-scale organizational planning and mobilization, military or civilian.

Posted by: Silver Spring, MD | March 19, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Arthur C. Clark will rightly be remembered for his many more profound and insitefull works, but one of my personnal all time favoites was "Tales From The White Heart". Never had the pleasure of meeting the man face to face, but such was the wonder of the Man that I felt a personal relationship with him. He not be forgotten.

Posted by: Michael Bower | March 19, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Very nice write-up, Rob.

Your line about 2001 Clarendon Blvd reminded me about the address of a Largo church I'd seen on TV a while back:

1701 Enterprise Rd.

Coincidence? Je crois que non.

Posted by: JC | March 19, 2008 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov

The last of the "Big Three" fathers of science fiction is gone. I have often wondered about him, in Sri Lanka.

The world has changed so much since I first read the works by these greats. Clarke's ties to real science are particularly striking.

These were the storytellers of my youth, and I hold onto them still. I would gladly pick up one of these books again and drown myself in the distinct imagination and intelligence which embrace endless possibilities with such detail.

I will always revere and respect what you have given me.

Posted by: Chris | March 19, 2008 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Judith | March 19, 2008 10:20 PM | Report abuse

I had the fortune of working with Sir Arthur from my High School days in Sri Lanka. He helped me found the Young Astronomers' Association. On my return to Sri Lanka in 1991 from University study in California, he arranged me to teach Nuclear Engineering at University of Moratuwa, which is associated with Arthur C. Clarke Center for Modern Technologies. Later in 1994, I installed a home theater system, that I designed, manufactured and calibrated to compensate for his impaired hearing, so that live news, conference calls, movie soundtracks were well balanced for his audible range. As a growing up kid, his TV series Mysterious World impacted me to think rationally and find answers to our questions within science. He wanted to test the system with Vangelis soundtrack from Carl Sagan's TV series The Cosmos. "Splendid, fantastic" were the words he expressed, enjoying Carl Sagan's journey through a black hole's wormhole.
Farewell and Good Bye, Sir Arthur! You contributions to the future of this planet will never be forgotten and hard to be matched. Imagine a world without communication satellite! The future of our world owes you an invaluable gratitude.

Posted by: Warna Hettiarachchi | March 20, 2008 12:37 AM | Report abuse

Michael Bower mentioned "Tales from the White Hart" (I believe it's "hart", as in dear, rather than "heart"). That collection contains Arthur C. Clarke's most unusual title - "The "Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch"

Posted by: Paul Hulbert | March 20, 2008 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Having corrected one typo, I introduced another - I meant to say: "hart, as in deer" - apologies. But it's an excellent read nevertheless.

Posted by: Paul Hulbert | March 20, 2008 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Here's a link to the You Tube video he made in honor of his 90th birthday:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLXQ7rNgWwg

Worth viewing.

Posted by: 22busy | March 24, 2008 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Arthur C. Clarke didn't just popularize the idea of geosynchronous satellites, it was his idea (as a matter of fact geosynchronous orbits are also known as "Clarke orbits"). He was unable to patent the idea, because, when he thought it up in the 1940's, there was no way to put a satellite in orbit--never mind creating a satellite. Had he been able to patent the idea, his writing would just have been a sideline for him.

Posted by: Frank S. | March 24, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Rob, for this wonderful tribute to a great human being.

Posted by: Teresa | March 24, 2008 4:26 PM | Report abuse

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