Arthur C. Clarke dies at 90

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, writer of numerous books including the iconic 2001, passed away today in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. Reading various comments around the internet today, I almost get the feeling that Clarke will be remembered as much, if not more, for his influence on the perception of science as much as for his actual science fiction writing. This is certainly true for me personally.

I’ve read very little of Clarke’s work; outside of a number of classic short stories, the only novel I believe I’ve read is Childhood’s End. Clarke had a great influence on me, though, through his series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, which I watched in reruns as a teen (thanks to my dad for videotaping them!). The series, which first appeared in 1980, investigated a number of controversial and/or unexplained natural phenomena, some very well-documented (Tunguska blast) and some highly fringe and improbable (Bigfoot, UFOs).

The series introduced me to two topics which were obscure at the time but have now become much more ‘mainstream’, and remain an endless source of fascination for me. The first of these is Architeuthis Dux, or the giant squid. At the time of the series, most people would tell you that a 40-foot long squid is pure fiction, but today one can even see specimens preserved in an exhibit at the Smithsonian:

(This is a picture of the exhibit, not the specimen!) The other topic, covered in the episode ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, is ball lightning. The term refers to brightly lit spherical objects that appear, often correlated with thunderstorms, move erratically, and are persistent. The phenomenon is still not well understood, but last year a group of researchers produced similar effects in the laboratory; the work was reported by Gerson Silva Paiva, Antonio Carlos Pavão, Elder Alpes de Vasconcelos, Odim Mendes, Jr., and Eronides Felisberto da Silva, Jr. in Phys. Rev. Lett. 98 (2007), 048501. To quote Wikipedia on the theory they tested, “This theory suggests that ball lightning consists of vaporized silicon burning through oxidation. When lightning strikes earth’s silica-rich soil, the silicon could be instantly vaporized, the vapor itself condensing and burning slowly via the oxygen in the surrounding air.” They produced some very convincing videos of the effect, which can be seen here.

Clarke himself was early in life a believer in supernatural phenomena, but it is interesting to note that the experience of making these shows turned him into a die-hard skeptic. To quote from his 1989 introduction to Childhood’s End,

When this book was written in the early 1950s, I was still quite impressed by the evidence for what is generally called the paranormal, and used it as a main theme of the story. Four decades later, after spending some millions of dollars of Yorkshire Television’s money researching my Mysterious World and Strange Powers programmes, I am an almost total sceptic. I have seen far too many claims dissolve into thin air, far too many demonstrations exposed as fakes. It has been a long, and sometimes embarrassing, learning process.

One could see this in the show’s episodes. The 1985 follow-up series Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers was increasingly skeptical as it progressed. By the end of the series, I could almost imagine Clarke shouting “Bullshit!” after every paranormal claim!

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