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March 24, 2008

Gone beyond the rim ....

Arthur C Clarke has long been one of my favourite reads in Sci-fi. Alongside Isaac Asmiov, Robert Heinlein and one or two others who wrote scientifically plausible and realistic fiction. You don't get lost in the science with them, and you can enjoy the story without falling over scientifically impossible technology or concepts. Even their monsters were phgysiologically plausible and followed the "rules" as far as inter-species reactions were concerned. The most remarkable part of them was the fact that Clarke and Asimov were scientists by day and wrote for fun. Even Heinlein had a degree in Science.

Now Arthur C Clarke is dead, called to join his fellow travellers at last in the next dimension. To put it in the language of Babylon 5 - inspired in many ways by their writing - they have gone beyond the rim.

Personally I have found a couple of things Clarke wrote philosophically interesting in an intellectually provocative way. These have all appeared in different guises in his books, but he has also stated them in various interviews over the years. They include: -

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.

This one always reminds me of the fact that many of the theories on which much of science is founded, are just that, our best guess at the "rules" as we understand them at present. The wise scientist almost always adds - "with the information/data currently available ..." to any "definitive" statement somewhere in his/her paper. Think of the Phlogiston theory popular in the early 19th Century - or the theory that cholera was spread by the stink of sewage - a view the medical profession refused to give up until forced to do so by incontrovertible evidence of the bacterial source.

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Again, a hundred years ago many thought it would be impossible to launch men into space. But then only a few years before that it was considered that flight was an eccentric idea unlikely to ever be practical. Yet in living memory flying has gone from canvas and string gliders to hi-tech carbon fibre/titanium alloy powered by engines of unimaginable power at two and three times the speed of sound. We have even achieved one of the sci-fi writers stock-in-trade vehicles - the reusable passenger and goods shuttle.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Think of the impact electricity has had, of the ability to transfer our voices and our images around the globe in the blink of an eye. To any society that had never seen this - magic!

One of the truly interesting things about Clarke's writing is just how much has already become science fact. Space stations with men permanently in space, shuttles, moon walkers and even computers now edging into Artificial Intelligence.....

HAL 2000 may be just around the corner.

I hope that Arthur C Clarke will join his fellow scientists at rest beyond the rim and continue their exploration of the universe in both fact and fantasy. What an interesting company they must make.

Posted by The Gray Monk at March 24, 2008 09:31 AM

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