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Birth centenary of a visionary

Celebrations of the birth centenary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke will take place across the world, including Colombo where he lived and died, this month. Sriganesh Lokanathan will be speaking on Future Data at the Colombo event. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, our resident SF writer, is also playing a role.

I thought of contributing to the celebrations with this eulogy I wrote for the now-defunct Montage back in 2008:

Sir Arthur C. Clarke: Imagination par excellence

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, resident of Sri Lanka, citizen of the United Kingdom, and man of the universe, passed away on the morning of 19 March 2008. His was a life well lived. He will be remembered; his ideas will live on.

Sir Arthur imagined what the world could be. In some cases, such as the geostationary orbit that was named after him, he even did the mathematics to substantiate his imagination. But the mathematics was not the true achievement: it was that he imagined this wondrous idea of a specific orbit where satellites would be stationary in relation to the earth and could therefore serve as very tall towers for wireless transmissions with a line of sight covering one third of the surface of the globe; it was that he imagined it a decade before anything had been sent that far into space and before the rockets with that kind of power had been designed. The Wireless World piece was published in 1945 in an exhausted post-war England. It was more than a decade later that Sputnik 1 went up into space; followed by Laika, the space dog.

His was a creative mind until the end. I recall him saying that we should consider a single time zone for the world at a video conference that we participated in back in 1998. I remember laughing and telling him off camera that only he could get away with such outlandish and impractical claims. Yet, as I see young people working in BPOs in Bangalore and Manila and then Colombo running to world time, I begin to see his point.

He forwarded me an e-mail from BT research labs around 2000 asking for ideas on what could be done on a Giga Bit Network. I, cautious quasi-bureaucrat, talked about the dangers of supply push. But Sir Arthur was all imagination. He was having fun, imagining up new things to do on the Net. Today, when the YouTube site consumes as much bandwidth as the entire Internet did in 2000, I realize the incredible ability of that wonderful mind.

Satellites for arms control. He thought it; he wrote it. And then Ronald Reagan said, famously, “doveryai, no proveryai” (trust but verify).

He also imagined Sri Lankans living in peace on this little island he called home. With Sir Arthur’s track record, perhaps we stand a chance.

A generous man and a kind man. It was easy to be generous with money when you have plenty. But he was generous with time, the scarcest of all commodities. I was an underling at the Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technologies in 1985-86, tasked with connecting Sri Lanka to the inchoate Internet, at that time Arpanet and its cousins. He paid attention to my project, invited me to play with his lifetime CompuServe subscription from his home at a time when international calls were like gold. It was rarely that he declined an invitation or refused an appointment for a visitor wanting an autograph and a photograph.

He cared. I recall one of the early “Internet to your home” programs I was helping with at the government TV channel in 1999. In the run up to the millennium, we had cooked up this idea of asking significant people to name five people who had made the most important contributions to the dying 20th century, and then doing live web searches (pre-google, of course) about those on the list to demonstrate the power of the Internet. Few hours before the first show was to air, I got a desperate call. They did not have the person to answer the question lined up.

Sir Arthur to the rescue. I called him from the studio live. He spoke on speaker phone and I translated his list and rationale. I still recall the extensive thought he had given to his list and rationale. The inventor of the jet engine was on his list, outside the circle of the usual suspects.

The program went on for all of 1999. I recall how often Sri Lankans of significance who were asked to give their lists included Sir Arthur among the five. There he was, in the company of Gandhi and Mandela.

We were blessed to have him live here in Sri Lanka with us. Over the past thirty years, not much good news has come out of this country. War, refugees, riots, bombs, tsunami, more bombs, disappearances, assassinations: they constitute our brand. It gets kind of tiresome when you’re at lunch with a bunch of foreigners, someone asks where you’re from, and then a pall of gloom descends on the table because the talk moves to who invented suicide bombing. Bad for the digestion; terrible for the mood.

I used to say I was from Sri Lanka, where Arthur Clarke lived. And then, we’d have a pleasant lunch-time conversation about the literary license he had taken to move Sri Lanka south to the equator so that the space elevators could be located there (Fountains of Paradise, 1979) or his claim that the oceans surrounding Sri Lanka were the closest he could get to outer space in his life time or his recommendations on where to visit in Sri Lanka or time zones or how he wrote books parked at the Galle Face Hotel, or whatever. Or how I got a fan of his to work for the Telecom Regulatory Commission for free, the only payment being a visit with Sir Arthur. Good for the digestion; great for the mood.

Thank you, Sir Arthur.

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