Discovering the limits of the possible:
Sir Arthur C Clarke at 90
Sir Arthur C Clarke answers questions from BBC Focus Magazine
Sri Lanka’s best known resident guest Sir Arthur C Clarke celebrates
his 90th birthday on December 16, 2007.
The world’s best known writer of science fiction, Sir Arthur C Clarke
was the first to propose satellite communications in 1945. One of his
short stories inspired the World Wide Web, while another was later
expanded to make the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-wrote with
director Stanley Kubrick. He has lived in Sri Lanka since 1956.
Q: How does it feel to reach 90 ?
A: Well, I don’t feel a day older than 85. And to quote Bob Hope,
“You know you’re getting old when the candles cost more than the cake.”
But the saddest part is that most of my friends and contemporaries are
During your life you’ve seen some of the most rapid and radical
developments in technology that humanity has ever accomplished. Have
things unfolded as you anticipated? Has anything surprised you?
Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, I never thought I’d live to see so
Sir Arthur C Clarke
Pics: Shahidul Alam/Drik
It’s true that we ‘space cadets’ of the British Interplanetary
Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel, but we never
imagined that our dreams would become reality in our lifetime.
I still can’t believe that we’ve just marked the 50th anniversary of
the Space Age!
Q: Of everything you’ve done and written, what’s the one thing you’re
most proud of ?
A: I have over 100 books and more than 1,000 short pieces to choose
from. In terms of impact, I’d say it was ‘Extra-terrestrial Relays’
(Wireless World, Oct 1945) where I invented the communications
satellite, and for which I was paid the princely sum of ś15.
A close second is the short story ‘The Sentinel’, originally written
in 1948 for a BBC competition (it wasn’t placed!) and later expanded
into a certain home movie that I made with Stanley Kubrick...
Q:What are you working on at the moment ? Will there be any more
novels? Do you ever plan to retire?
A: My plans for retirement always flop so spectacularly that I don’t
even try now. Frederik Pohl is currently completing my latest novel, The
Last Theorem, which has taken a lot longer than I expected. That could
well be my last novel...but then, I’ve said that before!
Q: What’s your favourite book of all time?
A: Among my own: Childhood’s End (1953) and The Songs of Distant
Earth (1986). By others: Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon
Q: Does the state of the world today climate change, wars worry you?
Do you think humans will prevail? Did you foresee such a gloomy future
A: I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it
offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy. I’d like to think
that we’ve learnt something from the most barbaric century in history
that we’ve just lived through - the 20th. And climate change has
resulted from our addiction to oil and coal.
Developing clean energy sources in the coming years can prevent us
making the situation worse, but we’ll have to live with many adverse
consequences of our planetary meddling. But humanity will prevail.
Q: What is the greatest threat that we, as a race, are facing?
A: Organised religion polluting our minds as it pretends to delivery
morality and spiritual salvation. It’s spreading the most malevolent
mind virus of all. I hope our race can one day outgrow this primitive
notion, as I envisaged in 3001: The Final Odyssey.
Q: If you were world leader, what would you change?
A: States and governments mixing governance with religion. This is a
lethal cocktail that keeps billions in misery. Religion must be a very
private affair that should never be a spectator sport.
Q: Who would you banish to a parallel universe?
A: Lawyers and priests!
Q: Who would you clone ?
A: My well-known modesty doesn’t allow me to answer this myself...so
it should be my current collaborator Stephen Baxter! Then we could churn
out even more novels...
Q: If you weren’t giving this interview, what would you be doing?
A: Dreaming. I now have to survive on 16 hours of sleep a day, but
enjoy the vivid dreams I have. I may be wheel-chaired but my mind roams
everywhere. Met a lot of friendly dinosaurs last night...
Q: What’s your most treasured possession?
A: I’m trying to decide between a speck of Moondust smuggled out of
NASA (don’t ask by who!), a paper cup compressed by the enormous
pressure at the Titanic wreck, and a copy of my Fountains of Paradise
flown on the Space Shuttle...
Q: What gadget would you most like to see invented ?
A: A time-viewer with which we can see what happened in the past and
might happen in the future, but without us risking the journey
ourselves. The Light of Other Days (2001) is based on this idea.
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the universe, at any time period,
when and where would it be and why?
A: I would like to be present at the first contact with
extra-terrestrials - assuming that they’re not as unpleasant as H sap.
Q: In 2003 you claimed that there’s vegetation on the surface of
Mars. Do you still think that’s the case?
A: After studying dozens of images returned by recent Mars surveyor
missions, I found some surface features that looked very like Banyan
trees. Something is actually moving and changing with the seasons that
suggests, at least, vegetation.
Of course this needs verification, which I hope will happen soon.
If true, this would help human settlements on the Red Planet one day.
Q: Do you still support cold fusion?
A: It isn’t quite cold and it’s probably not fusion, but something is
going on. For a decade or more, I’ve kept an open mind about these new
energy experiments, even though we have yet to see commercial scale
results. I eagerly await the final verdict on this affair - the jury is
I would be disappointed if ‘cold fusion’ turns out to be a mere
But that seems unlikely: anything so novel would indicate a major
breakthrough. Of course, if these anomalous excess energy results can be
scaled up, that could terminate the era of fossil fuels, end worries
about climate change, and alter the geopolitical structure of our planet
out of recognition.
Q: Are there any other ideas considered wayward of the mainstream
that you support, and why?
A: I’ve been promoting the Space Elevator for over 30 years,
beginning at a time when people could not suppress their laughter.
But nobody is laughing now, and it is almost ‘mainstream’. I would
still keep an open mind on time travel and multiple probabilities
universes - where everything that can happen does happen.
Q: What do you think is the single most important advance that humans
will make before the 21st century is out?
A: If I had three wishes, I would ask for these:
1. A method to generate limitless quantities of clean energy.
2. Affordable and reliable means of space transport.
3. Eliminating the design faults in the human body
Q: Would you ever consider having yourself cryogenically frozen? And
if so, when would you ask to be revived?
A: I have no wish to be frozen, or to have myself preserved in any
other way. My garden in Colombo holds the graves of several beloved
pets, and one day - though not I hope for a long time - my own ashes
will be deposited alongside them.
Who do you think are the rising star writers and scientists of the
There are so many talented writers and a new breed of public
scientists today that it would be unfair to single out any.
They have many more ways of reaching out and engaging their audiences
today than we did back in the first half of the 20th century.
Q: What is your message to the young thinkers, scientists and writers
of the world today?
A: Remember Clarke’s Three Laws:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something
is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something
is impossible, he is probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to
venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from
The original interview appears in the December 2007 issue of the UK’s
Focus magazine, on sale now. For further information, visit
www.bbcfocusmagazine.com. Focus is the BBC’s multi award-winning popular
science and technology monthly, published by BBC Magazines Bristol, UK.
Sixty two years ago Arthur C. Clarke of the British Interplanetary
Society sent a letter to the editor titled Peacetime Uses for V2 which
was published in the 1945 February issue of the Wireless World magazine
suggesting the use of Geostationary Satellites for the instant global
“I would like to close by mentioning a possibility of the more remote
future—perhaps half a century ahead.
An ``artificial satellite’’ at the correct distance from the earth
would make one revolution every 24 hours; i.e., it would remain
stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of
nearly half the earth’s surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees
apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage
to the entire planet.”
Today, the Clarke Orbit has over 330 satellites. Sir Arthur C.
Clarke, a science-fiction author, inventor, and futurist, simply a great
mind celebrates his 90th birth anniversary on 16th of December, 2007.
In 1959, he founded the Ceylon Astronomical Association (now known as
Sri Lanka Astronomical Association). As the current General Secretary of
the Association, I’m honoured to run an association founded by him. And
as a big fan of his writings and admirer of his work, I have put up a
blog where every one could wish him for his 90th birth day.
If you are a friend, colleague, fan or simply an earthling who
admires work of Sir Arthur Clarke, please write your greetings and
wishes on the blog,
Let us wish together a healthy and a long life for Sir Arthur.
Thilina Heenatigala, Sri Lanka Astronomical Association