Arthur C. Clarke: requiescat intra astra

| March 18, 2008

[Thanks for all the incoming links, especially from Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit. And for those of you who have wondered, here’s why Ray Bradbury wasn’t included in the list below.]

Arthur C. Clarke died today, at age 90. He was the last of the Big Three — Isaac Asimov, Clarke, and Robert Heinlein — to pass away, and we shall not see their like again.

It is hard to overstate the impact that these three authors had upon not just one, but at least two or three generations of scientists and engineers in the Anglosphere, particularly those of us who grew up in the 1950s through the 1970s. They wrote science fiction for both kids and adults; they also wrote non-fiction, usually science-related. The earliest novel I remember reading — somewhere around age 8, back in 1961 — was by Heinlein, and I read all three authors voraciously through elementary school, junior high, and high school. Each had his own voice and political point of view, but all three spoke to the power of knowledge, the benefits of science/engineering, and the necessity of intellectual honesty.

Their influence was a much a matter of timing as anything. Their writing careers coincided with rising levels of literacy and scientific/engineering advancement in the Anglosphere, along with post-war prosperity, that preceded the ubiquity of non-reading information and entertainment (cable, internet, video games, personal computers, and so on). In other words, kids growing up in the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and even 1970s were more literate and had more free time than preceding generations, yet had fewer things to occupy their time than following generations. At the same time, we were surrounded by an increasing rate of scientific/engineering advancements and breakthroughs. So we all read; many of us read voraciously, making weekly trips to the public or school libraries; and some of us read heavily about science and engineering, both fact and fiction.

We read lots of different authors, but the Big Three were and are Asmiov, Clarke, and Heinlein, who all started writing within a few years of each other, just before the start of WW II, and who were all very prolific. We grew up wanting to live in their future, wanting to bring that future to pass, to be the technological heroes that they wrote about. So we went into science and engineering, or into related fields. Grab any scientist or engineer over the age of 40 and ask her or him about favorite childhood authors — and you’re likely to hear one or all of the Big Three named. Ask her or him why s/he became a scientist/engineer — and, again, you’re likely to hear the Big Three named.

The irony is that Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein would all have loved to go into space personally, but obviously were never able to. Heinlein postulated a “false dawn” of space travel in his Future History timeline, which turned out to be all too true — even if NASA’s current plans hold up (no sure thing), half a century will have passed between our first and second sets of human Moon landings. It was only half a century from the first transatlantic flight (1919) to the first manned Moon landing (1969). Since then we’ve not only not progressed, we’ve lost ground.

The best memorial that we can give to Clarke — and Asimov, and Heinlein — are permanent human stations outside of near-earth orbit.

But I’m not holding my breath. ..bruce webster..

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Category: Commentary, Main, Science, Space

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (3)

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  1. Bruce Henderson says:

    I had been heads-down working all day and had not heard of his demise. I certainly feel humbled to know that someone of such talent and drive was the same species as the rest of us. Like you I read dozens of his books, and they greatly influenced my interests and outlook.

    Thanks for letting us share your dreams Sir Clarke! You made the world a better place by helping us think beyond our current state towards a larger, more interesting world. One day when we truly do leave the nest, we will have you and your contemporaries to thank for giving us a vision of a broad, wild universe waiting to be explored – with wild secrets and strange discovery at every turn.

    My God, it’s full of stars!

  2. Prasenjeet says:

    Re the false dawn, even though we’ve lost ground, the history of naval exploration in the middle ages (which had numerous such fits and starts) shows that there is little ground for dismay.

    A great example is China, which led the West in building large oceangoing vessels, but never made much use of them for exploration and trade and finally stopped, seemingly because the government lost interest. At about the same time, the Portuguese ventured out into the Atlantic in search of spice and profit, and the rest is history.

    Given that most early space research was conducted as a matter of national pride (much like China’s shipbuilding efforts, perhaps?), there was little incentive to return. It’ll take a entrepreneur like Heinlein’s “Man who sold the moon” to really show us that there’s profit in space and that it’s worth going back to — as a result companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic may be our best hope.

    And — sort of off-topic, but Asimov’s acrophobia prevented him from flying much, but I bet that wouldn’t have stopped him if the SpaceShipTwo was operational when he was alive.

  3. Prasenjeet:

    I actually agree with you — as did Heinlein, that the solution would be private enterprise rather than government — but see this posting (Up Earth Creek without a paddle) that I wrote a year or so ago. And the analogy with China isn’t exactly comforting, given that China’s decision put itself into 400 years of isolation and lack of global influence.

    As for Asimov’s acrophobia — yeah, Rand Simberg already corrected me on that one, though I quipped back that if Asimov could have ridden a train into space, he would have done so. ..bruce..