Special Report

Sir Arthur C. Clarke in 3001: Don’t Panic!

by Lifeboat Foundation Advisory Board member José Luis Cordeiro.

José Luis Cordeiro with Sir Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka

Like many people, from the very young to the very old, I was fascinated by the ideas and writings of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. He was a very prolific writer, with close to 100 books and over 1,000 articles. He was also involved in many ways with the film industry, from his landmark 2001: Space Odyssey with director Stanley Kubrick in 1968 to numerous documentaries about space and the future. He was also an inventor and a futurist — who met presidents, popes, and entrepreneurs alike.
He would sometimes remind people that he invented the communications satellite in 1945 and that one of his short stories inspired the creation of the World Wide Web. Indeed, he popularized ideas about the geostationary orbit, now called Clarke orbit, in a paper written in 1945, when he was only 28 years old. Sir Arthur C. Clarke received just 15 pounds for his article and no royalties, but he helped to start the satellite industry. He presaged the space station, videophones, laptops, and email. He also wrote about space elevators, space guards, space travel, brain back-ups, cryonic preservation, cloning, and gave us one of the most enduring creations of his career: the HAL 9000 computer (an artificial intelligence totally unrelated to IBM computers).
Sir Arthur C. Clarke was a real genius and recognized as such worldwide, even if he published some science articles in Playboy in order to mock arrogant scientists. Besides Clarke orbit, he has a dinosaur (Serendipaceratops arthurcclarkei) and an asteroid (4923 Clarke) named after him, and the Command Module of the Apollo 13 was named “Odyssey” after his novels. He was also nominated in 1969 for the Oscar and in 1994 for the Nobel Peace Prize. He received an Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1989, and was knighted in 2000, but his health did not allow him to travel to London to receive the honor personally from the Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.
On December 16th, 2007, he had “completed 90 orbits around the Sun”, as he would say in his famous Egograms, and a special video was prepared by his personal assistant Nalaka Gunawardene in Colombo. His 9-minute thoughtful and witty 90th Birthday Reflections became an instant success on the Internet, and he said that had “no regrets and no more personal ambitions”, but he asked for three wishes:
  1. To see evidence of extra-terrestrial life, since he always believed that we are not alone in the universe: “ET call us!”
  2. To adopt cleaner energy sources for the future of civilization, here and beyond Earth.
  3. To reach lasting peace in his adopted Sri Lanka, and the world.
He also explained that “I want to be remembered most as a writer — one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke liked the number three, and he is certainly famous for his Three Laws of the Future. Originally he started with just one law in his 1962 book Profiles of the Future, the second law was just an observation called law by others, and he settled for three laws in a new edition of the book in 1972:
  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 very 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 magic.
He often joked that Newton had three laws, and that three were also enough for him. Additionally, his friend and colleague Isaac Asimov, with whom he sometimes competed, also had his Three Laws of Robotics. However, in the 1999 edition of Profiles of the Future, Sir Arthur C Clarke added an additional law: “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert”, which is not usually considered at the same rank as the previous three canonical laws.
Days before he died, Sir Arthur C. Clarke reviewed the final manuscript of his last novel, The Last Theorem coauthored with American author Frederik Pohl, which is expected to be published later in 2008. He had said before that many of his previous books would have been his last one, but this will certainly be, in fact, it will be posthumously published by Random House.
To meet Sir Arthur C. Clarke in person was a real pleasure, and an unforgettable experience. One could feel his genius and imagination talking to him, listening to him, seeing him, reading him.
After contacting him via satellite, I had the pleasure to talk to Sir Arthur C. Clarke a few times and he invited me to visit him in his home in Sri Lanka. We met in his “Ego Chamber” at his famous address in 25 Barnes Place in Colombo 7, decorated with many souvenirs from dinosaurs to the space age. I transcribe below some excerpts of my conversations with him.

Astronaut in 2001: Space Odyssey

JLC: What do you think about the future?
ACC: As others have said, the future is no longer what it used to be!
JLC: What do you think about religion?
ACC: Religion is the most malevolent of all mind viruses. I am afraid to be struck by lightning one day while saying this (laughing).
JLC: Do you think that there might be an after life?
ACC: No, I don’t believe in after life.
JLC: Do you believe in reincarnation?
ACC: No; I don’t see any mechanism that would make it possible. However, I’m always paraphrasing J.B.S. Haldane: “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”
JLC: What do you think about physical immortality?
ACC: I have written a lot about it in my books. In fact, in Profiles of the Future, I wrote that we might conquer death by the end of the 21st century.
JLC: Are you writing a new book?
ACC: Yes, I have been working on The Last Theorem. I have written over a hundred pages. It is about Fermat’s theorem, that a young British mathematician Andrew Wiles proved over 300 years after Fermat. It is quite fascinating that something simple took so long to prove, and then a young Sri Lankan mathematician appears.
JLC: And are you also writing a book about science fiction?
ACC: Well The Last Theorem is science fiction, in a sense. But what is science fiction? That is a good question. And what is the difference with fantasy? My definition of fantasy is something which we would like to happen but it can’t in the real world, and science fiction is something which we would like to happen and it probably will.
JLC: Have you revised your famous laws of the future?
ACC: They stand as they are. Some technologies were pure magic only 20 years ago, and they are reality today, just like your digital camera and recorder.
JLC: Would you like to add a new future law now?
ACC: No, I don’t think so. Has Newton added any new laws?
JLC: Do you believe in the accelerating pace of technology?
ACC: Yes, my best example is the CD-ROM. It is my favorite example of the first law. I still remember the first tape recorders we had years ago. Another incredible example is mobile telephones.
JLC: Are you familiar with the NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno) idea?
ACC: It is quite possible that there will be a convergence of several technologies in the near future.
JLC: How about nanotechnology and space elevators?
ACC: I have talked about Carbon 60 (C60), Buckyballs and Fullerenes that can be made commercially and will make travel to space cheap. Bucky (Buckminster Fuller) was a good friend, and the last time I saw him was in this room.
JLC: How much would it cost to go to space with such new technologies?
ACC: It will cost nothing to go into space.
JLC: No cost at all to go into space?
ACC: Well, OK. Just a $100 to go up, but you could get a refund on the way back! (laughs)
JLC: When do you think that this will happen?
ACC: I will tell you the same answer that I give everybody. Just a few years after everybody stops laughing!
JLC: In 1999, you predicted clones by 2004. What has happened?
ACC: Well, it was only a guess, but some people have claimed that it has already happened. In 1999 it seemed like a reasonable guess, it may be even an accurate guess, and we don’t know yet.
JLC: How about your 100th anniversary in space?
ACC: Absolutely in 2017.
JLC: But do you really plan to celebrate in space?
ACC: Well, it depends on my health. I am suffering from post-polio syndrome.
JLC: How do you feel physically?
ACC: I am doing fine except for the post-polio syndrome, which means I can’t really walk any more and I have to sleep 15 hours per day.
JLC: Will some future technology be able to cure it?
ACC: Some doctors have worked on some electrical stimulation in babies paralyzed. I am quite sure someday that stimulations will overcome such problems.
JLC: Who do you think is one of great visionaries of mankind?
ACC: Look at that picture to my right. Can you recognize him?
JLC: No, not really, I am sorry. Who is he?
ACC: Good Lord! Isn’t that incredible? Isn’t that terrifying? You don’t recognize that guy?
JLC: Well, I never met him!
ACC: H.G. Wells.
JLC: OK, I had seen other pictures of him, but not that one. Well, he is the father of science fiction.
ACC: Exactly! He was one of the geniuses in history. The Time Machine is probably the best work of science fiction ever written.
JLC: What do you think is the greatest achievement of humankind during the last century?
ACC: We have finally traveled outside the Earth, we have gone to the Moon and beyond. We are now able to leave the cradle in our planet.
JLC: And what do you think is the greatest failure of our civilization?
ACC: We have traveled to the Moon and then we stopped. We landed in the Moon in 1969 but only a few years later abandoned it. We should continue!
JLC: What have you heard about transhumanism and extropism?
ACC: Nothing much. Just a few things on the Internet.
JLC: Do you surf the Internet?
ACC: Yes, I do. When I feel fine and have time.
JLC: Which is your own favorite book?
ACC: That is a difficult question. Maybe The Songs of Distant Earth (1986) and then Childhood’s End (1953).
JLC: Do you believe that there is life in the universe?
ACC: I think it is quite common. Probably even Mars had life before!
JLC: But how about really intelligent life?
ACC: Sure, and the proof is that they are not here! The best proof that there’s intelligent life in the universe is that it hasn’t come here.
JLC: When will we make contact with them?
ACC: Well, we are still searching for intelligent life here on Earth. Who knows? Who knows? I mean, it could be tomorrow! I don’t believe it has happened yet because people could not keep quiet about it.
JLC: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of humanity?
ACC: I believe one should be optimistic because there is a chance of a good self-fulfilling prophecy. It is dangerous to be pessimistic because that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a bad one. However, one should avoid being naively optimistic.
JLC: Do you think that time is linear or cyclical?
ACC: Everything that can happen will happen. There are billions of universes proliferating everywhere.
JLC: So, do you believe in parallel universes?
ACC: I don’t “believe”, but it is a possibility since in a practically infinite universe almost anything is theoretically possible to happen somewhere.
JLC: And, some of those parallel universes could have cyclical time?
ACC: Yes, yes. In one of those universes I shoot you now, you see, and we end this interview (laughing out loud).
JLC: Fine, I get your point. Thank you so much for your time and live long and prosper.
ACC: Good luck and thanks to you.

The eye of HAL 9000 computer (no relationship to IBM computers!)

That was a witty way to say that the time was up. Sir Arthur C. Clarke never lost his British sense of humor. After meeting him, we stayed in touch and he even invited me to visit his scuba diving resort in Southern Sri Lanka (which was badly damaged during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami). While he could, he loved floating underwater while diving, which he described as close to the feeling of weightlessness in space.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke was a lover of outer space and deepwater, a student of the past and the future. He believed that we are not the end of “creation” (in fact, evolution). In his view, life is an integral part of the universe and will continue to evolve. We have to carefully transcend ourselves or we will finish the way of the trilobites and dinosaurs. Just like other earlier life forms are history today, humans might be history tomorrow. He said that “If we [humans] hadn’t left Africa, we’d have been wiped out. This is not a very safe neighborhood. If that asteroid hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs, the first creature on the moon would have said, ‘That’s one small step for T. rex, one giant leap for dinokind.’”
In 2005, I organized a major international conference in Venezuela about the future of humanity, and Sir Arthur C. Clarke agreed to be a Keynote Speaker. Unfortunately, because of his health condition, he could not travel from South Asia to South America, but he agreed to have a live videoconference during TransVision 2005: Towards a New World. At the last minute, we had some technical problems (my equipment was IBM, while he used Apple computers) and we could only get the audio, no video signal was available (maybe it was better that way, since HAL could not read our lips then).
Sir Arthur C. Clarke spoke brilliantly, with hope and optimism for humanity in the long term. He finished by reminding us that many future prophecies are self-fulfilling, and that is the reason why we have to be positive about the future. And then I asked him a final question: “If you could tell people one thing, just one thing, what would that be?”
“Don’t panic!” was his brief and sharp answer. And I think that he is right, we have to avoid panic and keep building a better future, carefully, here and beyond planet Earth, or planet Ocean, as he liked to say. The time of humanity’s childhood is ending, and our “Carbon-based biped” species should mature into a higher post-biological level.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke autographing his books, including 3001: The Final Odyssey

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, we Earthlings will always remember you as one of our great prophets of the future. Hopefully, we will meet again in 3001, but far beyond our little cradle, and in a much more advanced post-human civilization. After all, that is the year of 3001: The Final Odyssey, when one of the original astronauts of 2001: Space Odyssey comes back to life after cryopreservation in space.
In the meantime, remember: Don’t panic!