Monday, April 07, 2008

Re: What did you learn at work today?

It's become something of a ritual this year: Whenever I pick up my son from school, I ask him "So, what did you learn at school today?"

And he'll answer and then ask a question of his own:

"And what about you dad? What did you learn at work today?"

That's a fascinating question, is it not? What did you learn at work today?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Three colossi towered over the science fiction landscape of my early youth: Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. On 19 March 2008, the third and last of that mighty triumvirate, Arthur C. Clarke, passed from the scene. (Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov having exited right and left in 1988 and 1992, respectively.)

Although Asimov was my favourite, I think there's a very good chance that it will be Clarke whose influence will last the longest.

Here are five strong reasons why:
  1. Writing. This includes both his fiction and his non-fiction. In my view, Clarke was at his best in the short form. Many of his short stories, novellas and essays are classics. In response to a challenge from Wired to write a story in just six words (a la Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."), Clarke submitted a ten word story which he refused to trim. Nonetheless, it was a classic: "God said, 'Cancel Program GENESIS.' The universe ceased to exist."

  2. Geostationary satellites. Clarke wrote the original paper outlining the principles of geostationary satellite communications in 1945. Without this seminal contribution from Clarke, global communications in all its forms (television, Internet, telephony, etc.) would not be what it is today. A geostationary orbit is also known as a Clarke orbit, in his honour.

  3. Clarke's Three Laws of Prediction.
    I. 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.

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

    III. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

  4. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Critics and fans frequently choose this 1968 film as among "the best" of all time, although this appraisal is by no means unanimous. What is beyond dispute is that 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential films in cinematic history. Clarke co-wrote the screenplay with Stanley Kubrick. It was based on Clarke's short story The Sentinel (1948). Clarke cited this collaboration in his CV under under "Occupation" as follows: Writing “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY” with Stanley Kubrick, 1964-68. 1964-68! Not surprising perhaps, given the perfectionism for which Kubrick was famed.

  5. A profound sense of wonder and possibility. The term "sense of wonder" is often used to describe the purpose and effect of science fiction. And like the term "science fiction" itself, it has no universally agreed definition. Arthur C. Clarke had a very acute sense of wonder, and with it of possibility. It's both: wonder and possibility. How else could you describe a man whose many conceptual innovations include a space elevator?
Jeff Greenwald interviewed Clarke in 1993 for Wired. He recalls that at the end of that interview he asked Clarke what he wanted his epitaph to be. According to the transcript, this is Clarke said:

Oh, yes. I've often quoted it: "He never grew up; but he never stopped growing."