In 2004, Matthew Teague traveled to Arthur C. Clarke's Sri Lankan home for a Popular Science profile. They candidly discussed Clarke's incredible legacy as well as his insatiable thirst—even at age 87—for the next Big Idea. Here we present again this feature in tribute to a man whose visions still continue to profoundly influence the world of science and technology today.
The gate to Arthur C. Clarke's compound stood tall, white and blast-proof. We ran our hands over its surface, poking around for some secret doorbell. "Hello? Can anybody hear us?"
I wasn't trespassing—I'd called ahead, and Clarke agreed to see me, apparently curious why an American would track him down to this doorstep in Sri Lanka, the tiny, troubled island nation off the coast of India. But the place spooked Thilac, my Sri Lankan driver. "Maybe wrong house," he said, looking around. "OK?"
Cinnamon Gardens is Sri Lanka's most lavish, powerful neighborhood. Clarke is the country's most famous resident. On an island where the caste system remains in force, taxi drivers don't go pawing at castle walls. When the gate mysteriously pulled back, triggered from inside, Thilac turned on his heel and walked back to his car. "You go," he mouthed from the driver's seat.
A mustached valet appeared and waved me in: "He is waiting." The main garden was barren but for the miniature headstones of pet dogs Clarke has owned during his almost five decades on the island. Dust blanketed every surface inside a glass atrium attached to the main house; sun-faded movie posters from 2001: A Space Odyssey decorated the walls. It appeared that only house staff lived in this stale place, until my guide threw open the door to Clarke's library and a gust of cool air rushed out. The library was full of light; rows of lovingly organized books covered the walls. In the room's center sat Clarke, 87 years old and wheelchair-bound from the effects of post-polio syndrome but still spry. "Look!" he said without preamble, spinning his chair to face a bank of computers. "You must see something!"
Monitors surrounded him. One displayed a paused DVD: Independence Day, Will Smith's mug frozen in goofy horror. Others blinked with e-mail alerts. "Look," Clarke said again, waving for me to look over his shoulder. On one screen he summoned recent photos transmitted from Mars. He cycled through shots of an orange landscape, a mountain, a canyon. Here we sat, in this wood-paneled study, on this remote island, and, as if by magic, stared out at a Martian sunset.
The world owes that sight, in part, to Clarke's own vision as a writer and thinker.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" he said.
Only a handful of science-fiction writers have reached beyond the bounds of their genre and grabbed the attention of the world: H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. But it wasn't Clarke's lyrical prose that carried him there. His ideas did the job.
As a child in England, he explored in the way little boys often do: Dinosaurs. Chemistry sets. Science-fiction magazines. But his obsession with what lay ahead—the Big Idea—never subsided. When he was a soldier in World War II, he joined a military team attempting to harness the power of radar.
He was no scientist or inventor. But when he was 27, seemingly out of the blue, Clarke offered the world a remarkable vision: satellites. At the time—1945—there was an ongoing to-do about ways to create global communication. The reigning idea was to plant television towers across countrysides everywhere, an impossibly expensive and ugly notion. Then came Clarke's outrageous idea, in a paper called "Extra-terrestrial Relays." "Many," he wrote, "may consider the solution proposed in this discussion too far-fetched to be taken very seriously."
Rockets, he suggested, could carry into orbit lightweight units that could act as superhigh relay towers. Two decades later, when the world caught up, scientists named what we now call the geostationary orbit the Clarke Orbit.
Despite the Luxe surroundings—the mansion, the attendants, the reminders of his fame and influence—Clarke opened our conversation with a disarming nervousness. He fidgeted, toying with his eyeglasses, playing with my tape recorder. Time has claimed pieces of his memory, and he seemed aware of it. When I asked about his latest book, a collaboration with science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter, he looked down sheepishly and said, "Yes . . . Time's Eye. . . What was that about?"
For a while he wouldn't reply to my questions at all but instructed me to direct them to his Sri Lankan assistant. ("He can answer all these," Clarke said. "I can hardly talk.") Later, instead of speaking aloud, Clarke flipped through his older books for passages relevant to our conversation.
"Read this," he would say. "It's all in there." He could trust his words better, it seemed, when he could see them in black and white. "So," I ventured. "You've written every thought you've ever needed? No more need to speak?"
At this mild provocation he came alive. The question bumped our discussion out of the past—slippery terrain for a man in his late eighties—and into the future. He felt comfortable in the future, the home of Big Ideas.
"You've reminded me of something," he said. "How many books could ever be written?"
"Like . . . how many songs could ever be composed?"
He practically came out of his wheelchair. "Exactly! I think I worked it out one time, and it's some big number, like 10 to the power of 100 to the power of 10." I sat dumbfounded, feeling dense. He added for my benefit, "Since there are only a limited number of letters."
And so a pattern emerged in our talk, like a game. I asked a question, and he picked a random point elsewhere in the conversational universe and answered from there. Then, just when I thought he had blasted off into the void of senility, he would touch down neatly on our topic.
The picture was of a Chihuahua, whose name, he said, was Pepsi. "I'm going to get another one today," he said.
"Yes. Oh yes. The same one again."
Talking with Clarke was like spending time with a prophet. No answers came easily, and when they did come they often took the form of parables. Rather than entangle himself in a long argument over the ethics and viability of cloning, he simply handed over a picture of his beloved Chihuahua—a fine candidate, one might infer, for cloning.single page
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