Arthur Charles Clarke has been described in many ways: as a “true Renaissance person,” a scientist and inventor, a cosmic dreamer, and the father of satellite communications. During his 90-year lifetime and 70-year career, he wrote nearly 100 books, both fiction and nonfiction. Always, his prime mission was to explore the mysteries of the world and the cosmos. In his scientific and engineering writings, he opened many new doors, most notably in the fields of radar and satellite communications. He not only inspired generations through his writing but also first envisioned the geosynchronous satellite system on which today's global electronic communication system is based.
Clarke is most celebrated for his science fiction, which won every top honor in the field. In fact, Rendezvous With Rama alone won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Jupiter, and the Campbell Memorial awards. He later earned the Edgar Award, named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe.
Clarke's fiction classics include Childhood's End, Fountains of Paradise, and 3001: The Final Space Odyssey. (Both of these books anticipate the creation of a so-called space elevator—a futuristic device that might one day lift cargo and humans to “Clarke orbit.” This is one of his many predictions that has yet to be realized.)
His books and almost countless short stories have now been translated into many languages. Yet it was the screenplay that he cowrote with Stanley Kubrick for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey— based on Clarke's short story “The Sentinel”—that best explains how he became a household name around the globe. The American Film Institute ranks 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the top 10 movies of all time. Ironically, only after the film was released did Clarke actually go back and finish writing the book that made him so famous.
Clarke's compelling science fiction would have brought him fame, but this was only one of his talents. His scientific writings, inventions, and predictions led to his recognition as a “true Renaissance man.” His writings spanned science, energy, the oceans, the environment, mathematics, computers, and communications as well as world peace, futurism, and politics—always with a hint of his wry British humor. His famous “Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws” from his 1962 Profiles of the Future captures the spirit of this much beloved guru:
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.
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
It was Clarke's technical writings that most won him respect and admiration in the scientific world. Many astronauts, including John Glenn, have indicated that Clarke first inspired them. In the spring of 1945, Clarke circulated a paper outlining a radical new idea. It explained how three rocket-launched communications satellites positioned in geosynchronous orbit could provide a global network using earth stations that did not have to track across the sky. Later that year, Clarke published his full landmark paper “ExtraTerrestrial Relays” in Wireless World. It explained in detail the orbital mechanics of the geosynchronous orbit. Clarke showed that a satellite traveling in circular orbit some 22,230 miles (35,870 kilometers) above the earth's surface would appear stationary in this sky. This is because this “magic” orbit at this precise altitude would have precisely the right velocity to travel around the globe once a day, and this velocity would generate sufficient centrifugal force to exactly overcome the gravitational pull at this height. Only one unique solution to this particular set of conditions applies—no other orbit can meet these special conditions.
In 1945, Clarke's article in Wireless World was not even the cover article, and he garnered a mere 15 pounds for his efforts. Yet Clarke's article ultimately led to a multibillion-dollar industry, now with over 300 geosynchronous satellites ringing the globe. Communication satellites in this unique orbit currently provide over 10,000 satellite television channels daily, millions of telephone and mobile communications channels, and multiple Internet connections and data channels worldwide. To honor Clarke, the International Astronomical Union has designated this special ring around Earth the “Clarke Orbit.”
However, the geosynchronous communications satellite was not the only Clarke contribution to humanity. At the start of World War II, he entered the British armed forces and first worked as an accountant. When his greater mathematical talents were recognized, he was promoted to technical officer. In this capacity, he worked on what was then called radio direction finding, or radar. He made major contributions to the development of ground controlled approach radar that is the basis for today's autopilot landing for aircraft. This he did while only in his mid-20s in the service of the British Radar Establishment working under the supervision of Nobel laureate Luis W. Alvarez. (Alvarez would later be one of the physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.) Reportedly, it was Clarke who suggested that the truck equipped with the radar for the ground controlled approach equipment be pulled back farther from the landing strip in the first test. If he had not made this suggestion, both he and Alvarez would almost surely have been killed, and history would have been rewritten.
Clarke, like Isaac Newton, had no famous forebears and was the son of a farmer from Somerset, England. He was born in the seashore town of Minehead, England, and later moved to Taunton, England, where he attended school. As a youth, he showed special talents in math and science at the Huish Grammar School. He was experimenting with rockets and optical communications by the time he was a teenager, and he had a lifelong interest in telescopes and astronomy. When he went for the British Civil Service entrance examinations at the tender age of 19, he scored exceptionally well. Once in government service in London in 1936, he became known as a mathematical whiz and acquired the sobriquet: “Fastest slide rule in Whitehall.” Since he was barely 20, he was also among the youngest.
After the end of the war, Clarke knew he must acquire greater education. He thus entered Kings College, London and zoomed through his courses to receive his degree in only 2 years—an almost impossible feat for any normal student. By 1948, he had his degree in hand. By this time, at the age of 31, he had published several technical articles and was starting to launch his science fiction writing career. In a few short years, by the early 1950s, he would vault to the front ranks of the profession.
Many believe that Clarke spent his life as a confirmed bachelor, but in fact, on June 15, 1953, just as his career was in its ascendancy, he acquired a wife after a 3-week whirlwind courtship in New York City. Marilyn Mayfield Clarke, a “strikingly beautiful” social director for large vacation resorts, was an unexpected choice in many ways. She was American, a strict Presbyterian, jaw-droppingly gorgeous, social in nature, and definitely not a scientist or an intellectual. A very English, agnostic, intellectual scientist who was not all that handsome and very focused on his writing was probably not the best possible match.
When the couple moved to a rural setting in England, with Clarke constantly consumed with writing his books and articles, the marriage quickly developed stresses and strains. By Christmas of 1953, just 6 months after the wedding, a dispute over religion resulted in a clear rift. In January 1954, just as Clarke's writing career had succeeded, he and Marilyn agreed to separate. This seemed to lead quite naturally to a new chapter in Clarke's life.
Clarke became quite interested in the new scuba technology and traveled to Australia to explore the Great Barrier Reef. He had from his youth trained himself to hold his breath underwater for 3 to nearly 4 minutes. For someone who could not expect to go into space, the oceans offered an earthbound weightlessness and adventures in a whole new alien world. This led to his preoccupation with exploring the seas and writing several books about his experiences in the 1950s. After exploring the Great Barrier Reef, he next went to Colombo and the southwest coastline of Sri Lanka, which also offered magical oceans to explore. Thus, he ultimately decided to take up residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he lived out his life. There he not only wrote, but also eventually owned and operated Underwater Safaris Ltd., a scuba diving company for tourists and explorers, which he operated with a Sri Lankan partner.
Over his 90-year life, Clarke achieved amazing things. He provided us with key inventive technical insight in the areas of satellite communications, radar, and ocean thermal energy conversion, among many other areas. He wrote some of the most memorable science fiction stories of all time. He worked on several movies—most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was a gifted athlete and diver as well as one of the world's best table tennis players. (Not surprisingly, he invented a robotic partner so that he could practice returning 60-mph serves.) Clarke twice served as chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and garnered countless other awards including a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth and the British Empire. He was both an innovative mind and a noble human being with more than ample amounts of wit and wisdom. The Arthur C. Clarke Foundation continues to give awards in his name for the most innovative people in the world of the arts and science.
Satellites, Science of, Science Fiction
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