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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sir Arthur C. Clarke completes 90 ‘orbits around the sun

Sir Arthur C. Clarke completes 90 ‘orbits around the sun’

By Thilina Heenatigala
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, is a writer, under-water explorer, science popularizer and futurist, - the last surviving member of what was sometimes known as the “Big Three” of science fiction, which included Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. He completes his 90th orbit today, December 16, 2007.

The achievements of Arthur C. Clarke, unique among his peers, bridge the arts and sciences. His works and his authorship have ranged from scientific discovery to science fiction, from technical application to entertainment, and have made a global impact on the lives of present and future generations.

Arthur C. Clarke is the son of an English farming family, born in the seaside town of Minehead, Somerset, England on December 16, 1917. As a young boy, he enjoyed star gazing and reading old American science-fiction pulp magazines. After secondary school and studying at Huish’s Grammar School, Taunton, he was unable to afford a university education, and then he moved to London in 1936, and pursued his early interest in space sciences by joining the British Interplanetary Society. There he started to experiment with astronautic material in the BIS, contributed to the BIS Bulletin, and began to write science fiction.

As with so many young men at the time, when World War II started in 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force, eventually becoming an officer in charge of the first radar talk-down equipment. He was involved in the early warning radar defence system which contributed to the RAF’s success during the Battle of Britain. Clarke actually spent most of his service time working on Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) radar. Although GCA did not see much practical use in the war, after several more years of development it was vital to the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. He was demobilised with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
Later, his only non-science-fiction novel, Glide Path, was based on this work.

After the war, he returned to London and to the BIS, becoming its president in 1947-50 and again in 1953.
His most important contribution - geostationary satellites, would be ideal telecommunications relays. He was the first in the world to propose this concept, doing so in a paper privately circulated among the core technical members of the BIS in 1945. The concept later was published in a UK periodical magazine, Wireless World in October of that year as a technical paper “Extra-terrestrial Relays” laying down the principles of the satellite communication with satellites in geostationary orbits - a speculation realised 25 years later.

During the evolution of his discovery, he worked with scientists and engineers in the USA, in the development of spacecraft and launch systems, and addressed the United Nations during their deliberations on the, ‘Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’. His invention has brought him numerous honours, such as the 1982 Marconi International Fellowship, a gold medal of the Franklin Institute, the Vikram Sarabhai Professorship of the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, the Lindbergh Award and a Fellowship of King’s College, London. Today, the geostationary orbit at 42,000 kilometres is named The Clarke Orbit by the International Astronomical Union.

After leaving the RAF in 1946, he resumed his formal studies and was awarded a Fellowship at King’s College, London where he obtained first class honors in Physics and Mathematics in 1948.

While Clarke had a few stories published in “Fanzines” between 1937 and 1945, his first professional sales appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1946: “Loophole” was published in April. The first story Clarke sold professionally was “Rescue Party”, written in March 1945 and appearing in Astounding Science in May 1946. Along with his writing, Clarke briefly worked as Assistant Editor of Science Abstracts (1949) and also contributed to the Dan Dare series.

Thereafter he devoted himself to writing full-time from 1951 onward. He went on to become a prolific writer of science fiction, renowned worldwide and with more than 70 titles to his name. Among his many non-fiction works, “Profiles of the Future” (1962) looked at the probable shape of tomorrow’s world and stated his “Three Laws”.

In 1948, he wrote “The Sentinel” for a BBC competition. Though the story was rejected, it changed the course of Clarke’s career. Not only was it the basis for A Space Odyssey, but “The Sentinel” also introduced a more mystical and cosmic element to Clarke’s work. Many of Clarke’s later works feature a technologically advanced but prejudiced mankind being confronted by a superior alien intelligence. In the cases of The City and the Stars, Childhood’s End, and the 2001 series, this encounter produces a conceptual breakthrough that accelerates humanity into the next stage of its evolution.

He met and quickly married Marilyn Mayfield, an American, on June 15, 1953. They split in December 1953, although the divorce was not finalized until 1964. As Clarke says, “The marriage was incompatible from the beginning. It was sufficient proof that I wasn’t the marrying type, although I think everybody should marry once”.

In 1954, Clarke wrote to Dr. Harry Wexler, then chief of the Scientific Services Division, U.S. Weather Bureau, about satellite applications for weather forecasting. From these communications, a new branch of meteorology was born, and Dr. Wexler became the driving force in using rockets and satellites for meteorological research and operations.

Clarke first visited Colombo, Sri Lanka (at the time called Ceylon) in December 1954 and started to give up his interest in space, for the ocean. About the reasons, he said: “I now realise that it was my interest in astronautics that led me to the ocean. Both involve exploration, of course - but that’s not the only reason. When the first skin-diving equipment started to appear in the late 1940s, I suddenly realized that here was a cheap and simple way of imitating one of the most magical aspects of spaceflight - weightlessness.”

Clarke has lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, first in Unawatuna on the south coast, and then in Colombo. He has long been an avid scuba diver and a member of the Underwater Explorers Club. Living in Sri Lanka also afforded him the opportunity to visit the ocean year-round. It also inspired the locale for his novel The Fountains of Paradise, in which he first described a space elevator. This, he believes, ultimately will be his legacy, more so than geostationary satellites, once space elevators make space shuttles obsolete.

In 1959, with his colleague/friend, late Herschel Gunewardena, he founded the Ceylon Astronomical Association (now known as Sri Lanka Astronomical Association). Through the Association, Clarke and his colleuges did a tremendous amount of work to improve sceince-astronomy in Sri Lanka.

In 1964, he started to work with the noted film producer Stanley Kubrick on a science fiction movie script. As the idea developed, it was decided that the story for the film was to be loosely based on Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, written in 1948 as an entry in a BBC short story competition. Originally, Clarke was going to write the screenplay for the film, but this proved to be more tedious than he had estimated. Instead, Kubrick and Clarke decided it would be best to write a novel first and then adapt it for the film upon its completion. However, as Clarke was finishing the book, the screenplay was also being written simultaneously.

Four years later, he shared an Oscar nomination with Kubrick at the Hollywood Academy Awards for the film version of “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Then, in 1985, he published a sequel, “2010: Odyssey Two” and worked with Peter Hyams on the movie version. Their work was done using a Kaypro computer and a modem, linking Arthur in Sri Lanka and Peter Hyams in Los Angeles, leading to a book “The Odyssey File - The Making of 2010.”

In television, Clarke worked alongside Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra for the CBS coverage of the Apollo 12 and 15 space missions. His thirteen-part TV series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World in 1981 and Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers in 1984 has now been screened in many countries. He made part of other TV series about space, such as Walter Cronkite’s Universe series in 1981.

In 1988, he was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome and since, has needed to use a wheelchair most of the time. On 10 September 2007, while commenting on the Cassini probe’s Flyby of Iapetus, Clarke mentioned that he now is completely wheelchair-bound by polio, and does not plan to leave Sri Lanka again. But as he says, quote- “ Being completely wheel-chaired doesn’t stop my mind from roaming the universe – on the contrary!”

In early 1998, with Prince Charles visiting Sri Lanka in order to make the investiture, Clarke was scheduled to be made a knight. During this time – just before the ceremony took place- a British tabloid, The Sunday Mirror, claimed in a sensationalist story that Clarke was an avowed paedophile, giving supposed quotations from Clarke about the harmlessness of his predilection for boys. Clarke released a statement saying that, “the accusations are such nonsense that I have found it difficult to treat them with the contempt that they deserve.” He also added, “I categorically state that The Sunday Mirror’s article is grossly defamatory and contains statements which in themselves and by innuendo are quite false, grossly inaccurate and extremely harmful.” He later asked that the investiture of his knighthood be delayed, “in order to avoid embarrassment to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales during his visit to Sri Lanka.” In answer to the newspaper’s allegations, Clarke was investigated by Sri Lankan authorities, who eventually dismissed the accusations. The Sunday Mirror later printed a retraction and Clarke was made a Knight Bachelor on May 26, 2000, in a ceremony in Colombo.

Three wishes...

As Sir Arthur C. Clarke turns 90 this year, on December 16th, on a recent message he released for his birthday he says, “As I complete 90 orbits, I have no regrets and no more personal ambitions. But if I may be allowed just three wishes, they would be these:
Firstly, I would like to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life. I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But we are still waiting for ET’s to call us – or give us some kind of a sign. We have no way of guessing when this might happen – I hope sooner rather than later!

Secondly, I would like to see us kick our current addiction to oil, and adopt clean energy sources. For over a decade, I’ve been monitoring various new energy experiments, but they have yet to produce commercial scale results. Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency. Our civilization depends on energy, but we can’t allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet…

The third wish is one closer to home. I’ve been living in Sri Lanka for 50 years – and half that time, I’ve been a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country.
I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished -- it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.”

The writer
is General Secretary of Sri Lanka Astronomical Association.
Send your well-wishes and greetings to Sir Arthur on his 90th birthday at
Watch his birthday message at

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