R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke

Say the name Arthur C. Clarke and some people will connect him with the Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Most won’t.

But the unvarnished truth is that Arthur C. Clarke touches your life every single day in at least one way.

When Clarke was in the Royal Air Force (he was English, born in a town by the sea called Minehead) in early 1940 he worked as a radar operator and instructor. Several years later in 1945 he wrote an essay titled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays.”

An excerpted portion here:

“It will be observed that one orbit, with a radius of 42,000 km, has a period of exactly 24 hours. A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincided with that of the earth’s equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet. It would remain fixed in the sky of a whole hemisphere and unlike all other heavenly bodies would neither rise nor set. “

What this means to you and me is that Clarke had come up with the idea of a geosynchronous satellite. Three of these satellites, Clarke figured could cover the earth and provide communication for the entire world.

In 1963 the first one was launched and proved him right. So every time you watch any TV or use a phone it’s probably being bounced off a satellite 42,000Km (22,300 miles) above your head and it was all dreamed up by Arthur C. Clarke.

There is some discussion here and there that he cribbed the idea from earlier works but it’s pretty clear in his essay that he had the best grasp on it.

Clarke wrote over 80 books in his lifetime and published 500 essays on everything under the sun. He was a learned and prolific man and we shall not see his like anytime soon. One of his most famous quotes, and one I use often when I am trying to explain to a student how some technical thing functions is this: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

It’s actually number three of “Clarkes Laws.”

Number two is: “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.”

Number one is: “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 very probably wrong.”

Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for the last 53 years, one of the only spots in the world not covered by a geosynchronous satellite. He was an early adopter of E-mail but called the internet “The most deadly drug ever developed.”

The famous scene in “2001; A Space Odyssey” where Bowman shuts down the “Hal 9000” computer was inspired by Clarke after a visit to Bell Labs where he heard a speech synthesis module “singing” “DaisyBell”.

What better or more fitting way to say goodbye to Arthur C. Clarke, who died today at age 90. (19 March 2008)


Golly, if you want to go back to the post for 1/21/11: click here My bounce rate thanks you.

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About James Rising

A recovering radio addict wrestles with the written word.
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