Sir Arthur C. Clarke: Imagination par excellence

Posted on March 20, 2008  /  1 Comments

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

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 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 power had been designed.

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 then laughing and telling him off camera that only he could get away with such outlandish and impractical claims. Yet, as I saw young people working in BPOs in Bangalore and Manila and then Colombo running to world time, I began to see his point.

I recall him forwarding me an e-mail from BT labs around 2000 asking what could be done on Giga Bit network. I, cautious quasi-bureaucrat, talked about the dangers of supply-side push. But Sir Arthur was all imagination. 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 first. And then Ronald Reagan said, famously, “doveryai, no proveryai” (trust but verify).

He also imagined Sri Lankan living in peace. With Sir Arthur’s track record, may be we stand a chance.

A generous man and a kind man. It was easy to be generous with money when you 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, then Arpanet. 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 about the named individuals 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 thought he had given to his list and rationale. The inventor of the jet engine was on his list, beyond the usual suspects.

The show 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 fortunate to have him live here in Sri Lanka with us. Over the last thirty years, not much good news has come out of this country. War, refugees, riots, tsunami. 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 is of war and suicide bombers.

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.

Thank you, Sir Arthur.

This was written for Montage, the monthly news magazine.

1 Comment

  1. He was a great man and his works will not be forgotten.