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Arthur C. Clarke's Pool of Knowledge

11 March 1997

Arthur C. Clarke, universally recognised as one of the greatest scientific seers of our time, reveals the source of his inspiration in this exclusive interview.

Arthur C Clarke illustration
Arthur C. Clarke is the groundbreaking author behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood's End. delcarmat/

Esteemed author Arthur C. Clarke, who died in 2008 at the age of 90, spoke to Saga Magazine's Edna Tromans in 1997 to promote his new book 3001: The Final Odyssey, the fourth and final novel in his Space Odyssey series, discuss his love of diving, the imminent arrival of comet Hale-Bopp and how technology has made the world smaller. 

Arthur C. Clarke's love of diving

Arthur C. Clarke - the distinguished writer whose giant leaps of imagination have presaged a number of the most important scientific developments of the last half-century - gets his best ideas under water. Either when he is relaxing in the bath or, best of all, diving under water.

Recently, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, while towelling himself dry after a dip at his local swimming club, he settled back into a canvas-backed chair and looked down fondly at the 42-metre expanse of water. "I must have made a million dollars in this pool," he said with a chuckle. It is here that he has had ideas which have produced 80 books, over 500 short stories and articles, including his latest exploration into the future, 3001: The Final Odyssey.

Since coming to live in Sri Lanka in the mid-Fifties he has become a favourite adopted son of the country and is Chancellor of the local Moratuwa University where the Centre of Modern Technologies is named after him. The century-old Galle Facé hotel, famous for its celebrated clientele of royals and visiting potentates, displays a sculpted head of him in the lobby.

Today is an important day. After an absence from the sport of two years due to poor health he is preparing to tackle scuba diving again and this trip is an exploratory excursion into the pool to see how he fares underwater. Diving underwater, he long ago discovered, imparts a feeling of weightlessness, of freedom and liberation that overcomes physical restrictions. (In fact, his work on weightlessness was a contributing factor towards NASA training astronauts simulating weightlessness by performing tasks underwater in space suits.)

"As far as I can see," he reports when he finally frees himself from his mask and goggles, "everything is fine. I'm 90 per cent operational."

Colombo Swimming Club - with its comfortable wood-panelled club rooms, shaded verandah and air of discreet exclusivity - is a popular meeting place for local residents, many of them ex-pats. It seems the kind of place that would make a perfect meeting place for a selection of Somerset Maugham's colonial characters caught up in steamy, tortuous emotions. Alongside the pool is a paved terrace and tropical foliage, and rattling along in the distance is a brightly-coloured train which runs on a track alongside the Indian Ocean.

It is one of his favourite places, along with Otter's Aquatic Club where he comes most evenings to take on anyone who might fancy a fast game of table tennis. Although in recent times he has been displaying signs of post-polio syndrome, experiences difficulty walking and is often aided by a wheelchair, he has got the hang of supporting himself firmly against the table while he slams home his winning points with a ferocity and energy that crushes even the most uppity opponent.

Arthur C. Clarke at 80

He is coming up to his 80th birthday and in spite of some physical impediment he is presently showing the quick-fire agility and impatience to get moving of a young, restless individual.

After the exertions of diving, he sits by the pool with a small group for half-an-hour or so. The heat from the sun is intense and induces a soporific calm over the gathering but after tea is served and drunk he is soon asking, "What's next? What are we waiting for now?"

It seems he is already suffering withdrawal symptoms from the barrage of information which awaits him at home. He tunes into TV news programmes every 15 minutes, has a constant stream of communication coming to him from major world figures in all parts of the globe and his diary is thick and dense with impending visits from old friends, scheduled meetings with business associates and discussions about his future work.

Earlier in the year his publishers asked for a selection of his best non-fiction pieces for which he will write a foreword. He has now crossed out the contractual date and inserted his own revised date of delivery, a year later: February 1998. He is considering calling it, "Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds".

Deep Impact and other adaptions in the works

Steven Spielberg has just started filming Deep Impact, based on his book Hammer of God; he has been asked by the BBC to prepare a series of four broadcasts called Letter from Colombo; American TV icon Walter Cronkite has approached him about appearing on a special TV programme for the Discovery Channel, two notable German professors are arriving from Munich to talk to him, and any day he is expecting a visit from his long-time associate Gentry Lee (with whom he collaborated on the Rama stories) when they will get into a huddle about a projected TV series about Family Life in the 21st. century. They are still looking for a title. "How about Down and Out in the 21st Century?" Arthur asks. "Think they might like that?"

Eagerly awaiting the arrival of Hale-Bopp

Today, too, he is feeling a sense of excitement about the possibility of getting a better glimpse of Hale-Bopp, the comet which has been hiding behind Colombo cloudbanks for the past few nights but might be better glimpsed from his rooftop telescope tonight. He takes a call from a local resident who was trapped on his own roof the previous evening after clambering up in position to watch for the comet. Hours after the event, the amateur astronomer had tried in vain to open the roof hatch and eventually been forced to scream to a passer- by for help to bring him down.

Encouragingly, Arthur urges him to try again and choreographs his evening for him. "Be in position by 7.30," he suggests, "optimum time for Hale-Bopp will be 8 o'clock."

His own plans for the evening are entirely designed around the event. On his wide rooftop terrace is a large telescope screened by a cover on wheels which slides back for easy access. Between the telescope and the electronic equipment which fires up instant contact with the rest of the world he has virtually everything he needs right on his own doorstep.

Using technology to stay in touch

It seems fitting that he stays in touch by means of satellite, fax and e-mail, all of which he predicted. His correspondence is buzzing 24 hours a day. Recently he received a letter from the Dalai Lama after the religious leader read his famous short story, The Nine Billion Names of God, and he struck up a friendly correspondence with movie star Tom Hanks after the actor starred in Apollo 13. (Now Hanks is declaring his interest in joining him scuba diving in Sri Lanka.)

There are overnight faxes awaiting him when he gets to his desk at 7.30 in the morning and there's his midday mail delivery and, of course, the all-day e-mail which delights him because it often delivers jokes from a group of people he mysteriously refers to as his "ex-Pentagon friends". There's one among the recent batch which gets him chuckling. It follows a spate of exchanges about recent developments in cloning.

"It's about Bill Gates," he says and relates the story. "Bill Gates was so overworked that he decided to get himself a clone to share the burden. The clone is fine except for one thing. He suffers from Tourette's Syndrome and uses obscene language. Every third word is an obscenity. He puts up with it for as long as he can but eventually he just gets fed up with the clone and throws him through the window on the 34th floor. When the police come they don't whether to arrest him for murder or suicide. Can't decide. Finally they book him for making an obscene clone fall."

Arthur delivers the punchline and roars with laughter.

"Isn't that terrible? Isn't that just the most terrible wordplay you ever heard?"

Not only jokes come across his desk. He is engaged in correspondence with some of the greatest minds in the fields of science and physics at work in the world today. Freeman Dyspon writes to him on the subject of Jupiter's moon Europa… "the easy way to look at evidence of life in the Europa ocean is to look for freeze-dried fish orbiting around Jupiter. Every large impact on Europa will make a huge splash and the fish will have a good chance of being splashed out with the water. The fish on Europa… like many other good things... was… your idea…".

With another leading scientist Frank J. Tipler, author of The Physics of Immortality, he shares a continuing debate on the subject of cloning and its implications. "Given technology capable of duplication I think people would regard their duplicates as back-up copies," Tipler writes with a light-hearted suggestion that Arthur re-read his own book, City and the Stars.

And from Professor Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, and professor at Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, comes a letter professing his disappointment that the space programme is on hold. He writes, "… for all my students, man on the moon is ancient history - an episode driven by national motives as mysterious as those that led the Egyptians to build pyramids. When young people watched the recent Apollo 13 movie I think they viewed it rather like a western - old technology and ancient 'right stuff' values. All very sad for those of us who've shared your inspirational views of space."

Arthur C. Clarke shares the sense of disappointment. "NASA was planning to put men on Mars in the 1980s," he says. "Well, we haven't even put men back on the moon yet. The chief reasons for that are Watergate and Vietnam, plus the breakup of Russia so the fears about The Evil Empire have been allayed."

Space Odyssey's legacy

In his story for 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke introduced to the world the HAL 9000 onboard computer, the awesome example of computerised artificial intelligence that was guiding the space mission until it was seized by a fit of near-human folie de grandeur. It decided to seize control for itself and kill the astronauts aboard. He has re-introduced HAL in his latest book 3001The Final Odyssey and he intends it to be just that. Final. He has concluded, he says, his exploration of that particular theme.

But HAL lives on, one of the great fictional characters of the 20th century. Everyone who has seen the film remembers his final words. "I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it... there is no question about it..."

It's a message that Arthur has mischievously inserted on his own computer and HAL's silky voice - otherwise that of actor Douglas Rain - can be heard floating through the office when he downloads the machine.

Earlier this year scientist David G. Stork compiled a book called HAL's Legacy, in which he and other leading computer experts discuss developments in an artificial intelligence and assess how close we have come to creating a real HAL. As Stork points out, some of HAL's abilities can be matched by existing computer systems.

It is not the first time that Arthur C. Clarke's predictions have actually become reality. In 1945 he was the first person to propose that satellites could be positioned above the earth to create global communications. His idea came true in 1957 with Sputnik 1. In 1947 he accurately predicted the 1969 Moon landing.

In the film 2001 HAL easily beat astronaut Frank Poole at chess. This year, to the evident despair of grand chessmaster Gary Kasparov, IBM's Deep Blue computer beat him in a six-game series.

The writer says of his findings. "My interest is always extrapolating from what we know now. Most of what I suggest always has a firm basis in science."

He is back home now, sitting at his desk and riffling through the papers that have landed on his desk during his brief absence at the pool. Among the books in his office is the Oxford Book of Quotations which holds one of his quotes: "If an elderly but distinguished scientist says something is possible he's very possibly right, but if he says it's impossible he's very probably wrong."

His own reputation in the scientific field has won him a place on the sub-committee of the International Academy of Astronautics on the issues of policy concerning communications with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

"It is all to do with matters of protocol," Arthur says matter-of-factly. "What should we do to ensure any visit is not a hoax, how should it be announced. Do we put out the welcome mat or bring out the big guns?"

Life in Sri Lanka

While he is chuckling at the prospect of what might one day possibly face the committee a barefooot male secretary comes into the room with another sheaf of faxes. At various times he has access to the services of nine secretaries, the ninth person having recently been taken on staff to look after nothing but his e-mail.

It is the pressing demands of Arthur C. Clarke's correspondence that is - at least - partially responsible for the recent official time changes in Sri Lanka.

When he first came to live in Colombo in the mid-Fifties, the existing five and a half hour difference between Colombo and England had little impact on his working life.

"In those days people did not travel around or communicate all that much," he says. "But as global communication has increased, that odd fraction of time started to become more and more of a nuisance. Every time I made a call to America or England that odd half-hour bugged me. For 20 years I've been agitating to get them to make it either a five- hour or six-hour time difference. At last they've decided to listen. Recently they've changed things and put the Sri Lankan time clock six hours ahead of Greenwich time. It simplifies life enormously for those of us trying to do international business.

"But I'm convinced that one day there will be a single time zone for the entire planet," he says. "We shall simply adjust to that clock. Some people will get up at zero 12 hours or whatever but we'll all have the same time on our wrists."

His office - complete with outer offices for the secretarial staff - occupies virtually one floor of the rambling secluded house where he lives in Colombo. Massive front gates are opened to visitors by two members of his household staff. In an adjacent residence live his good friends and business associates, Hector and Valerie Ekanayake and their three children, Cherene. Tamara and Melinda to whom he acts as an attentive and affectionate uncle. Their mother says,"Whenever they have an argument with me, they go and cry on Uncle Arthur's shoulder".

Every inch of his house is crammed with books, awards, honours… among them a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, a CBE in the 1989 Queen's Birthday Honours List… then, looking along the walls... Chancellor of the International Space University, the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal and Trophy, the Charles Lindbergh Award... He is an Hon Fellow of the American Astronautical Society and the British Interplanetary Society… and he has won an Oscar nomination for his 2001 screenplay with Stanley Kubrick. The honours go on and on.

His books are flanked by photographs of his meetings with major figures of the time. Although he walks with the great and famous he generally turns a gentle, ironic smile on the pomp and circumstance surrounding them.

He seems oblivious of the photograph of himself with the Pope which is near at hand as he fires off an irritated fax to CNN, one of his regular sources of TV news, when it pre-empts The Computer Connection, one of his favourite programmes, in favour of a biographical segment about the Pope. His fax demands: "When are you going to repeat the programme which was pre-empted by cultists who believe you can turn water into wine, part the seas and resurrect the dead?"

But his flash of irritation disappears as quickly as it came when a stack of new faxes is handed to him and with it comes a warm invitation to join a gathering of highly skilled chess players.

Arthur C. Clarke dashes off his response. "I've never learned the rules of the game," he says, "which is just as well, otherwise 2001 would probably have never been made."


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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