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Ninety first birth anniversary fell on December 16:

Sir Arthur C Clarke: A voice of reason for our times

‘For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.’

Sir Arthur C Clarke, whose 91st birth anniversary fell on December 16, 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.

Sir Arthur C Clarke

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 supercomputers over-riding the commands of humans - as HAL did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, creating an enduring icon among generations of computer scientists. He also warned how all life on earth might be terminated as a result of nuclear warfare, asteroid impacts or climate change. He added that humans now had the power to choose wisely and make a difference.

Ardent optimist

Despite these cautionary musings, Clarke remained an ardent optimist all his life, because, as he often reminded, “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 humans 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 techno-preneurs. By proposing the geo-synchronous communications satellite in 1945, he also triggered the globalisation of information.

The policy impact of Clarke’s factual writing is 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 late 1990s, he wrote to the NASA administrator, belatedly demanding his fee for having allegedly scripted the ‘Moon hoax’.

Clarke himself straddled the two spheres 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.

Public science

He underscored his commitment 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 him 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 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.

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 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, and astrology continues to exercise much influence over politics, public policy, business and everyday life.

Despite his broad-mindedness, Sir Arthur couldn’t understand how so many highly educated Sri Lankans practised astrology with a faith bordering on the religions. Ironically, even the government-run research institute named after Arthur C Clarke routinely uses astrologically chosen ‘auspicious times’ for commissioning its new buildings, indicating how entrenched the practice is.

In later years, he would only say, jokingly: “I don’t believe in astrology; but then, I’m a Sagittarius — and we’re very sceptical.”

But Clarke never gave up the good struggle for rational discussion and debate in public affairs, and remained an outspoken public intellectual 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.” There’s some incongruity that we left Sir Arthur 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 Sir Arthur), once called it ‘the only place in Colombo where there is no discussion and debate’.

Sir Arthur, a passionate public intellectual to the very end, 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.

Nalaka Gunawardene worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke for over 20 years as a research assistant and was his spokesperson for a decade. He blogs at: http://movingimages.wordpress.com


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