Friday, April 4, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke, a lifetime odyssey

"The Meteorological Stations ... had to be a fair distance out so they could see as much of the earth as possible. There were two of them, six thousand miles up, circling the world every six and a half hours ... over the equator (along with) the Polar Met Station which ... had an orbit over the poles. Together the three stations could get a practically continuous picture of the weather over the whole planet." Sounds like a tech feature from the late 20th century? It's not. In fact, that paragraph is taken directly from the late Arthur C. Clarke's 1952 novel, "Islands in the Sky." No, the year is not a typo. Clarke indeed envisioned weather satellites more than 50 years ago. As most readers know, the legendary Clarke died on March 19 at his home on Sri Lanka where he had lived more than 50 years. He was 90. Best known for his phenomal science fiction classics, including the book and 1968 special effects breakout film, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (movie a collaboratation with Stanley Kubrick), Clarke also was a brilliant physicist and mathematician. But read any of his science fiction and you'll wonder if his mind somehow could actually peer into the future. Much of the technology -- space stations, communications and weather satellites, video conferencing, daily use of computers and so much more -- pops out of his sci-fi. Not only did he forecast such technology, he got the basics of operation right on target. But his were not just predictions. According to, "Clarke's work led to the global satellite systems in use today." Indeed, he constructed myriad bridges between art and technology, fiction and reality. In "3001 The Final Odyssey," he envisioned a space elevator that took people and objects from Earth's surface out to a space station. Today the space elevator concept is rolling around in the minds of space engineers and according to everything I have read, while we do not have the technology now, we eventually will. Tethers linked at one end to a satellite orbiting Earth and the other end at some facility on the planet's surface would probably be the link to developing the elevator itself. NASA has been experimenting with much shorter tethers, so far with minimal luck but enough to keep the research going -- at least as long as our non science-minded Congress funds the research. During the Apollo years, Clarke was a visible presence on television, often right next to the legendary newsman, Walter Cronkite. Google Clarke and the number of listings you'll have at your fingertips -- more than 800,000. One of the last pioneering giants in science fiction -- a list that also includes the late Phillip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov -- Clarke has now left the legacy to perhaps the final Titan, Ray Bradbury. This posting could extend for miles, but rather than reading more of this entry (there is no more), I hope those intrigued by Clarke will pick up his books (including amazing short stories, my favorite "The 9 Billion Names of God") and check him out on the Internet. Arthur C. Clarke's legacy to humanity was more goes beyond books. He left anyone courageous enough to use it, an imagination to invent the impossible.

1 comment:

Paul Eisenberg said...

One of my favorite recent memories of Clarke was him conducting an interview a few months ago wearing a T-shirt that read: "I invented the communications sattelite and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
Also, here's a link to "The Nine Billion Names of God." I re-read it (for free!) the day he died, as sort of a tribute. As long as people continue to read his work, he'll remain alive.


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Tinley Park, Illinois
As a longtime newspaperwoman who left the business to freelance, I want to keep in touch with the world. This is my place to reach out with words.