Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 16 December 2012
“Did you hear about the man who lit a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?” Sir Arthur C Clarke was fond of asking his visitors some years ago.
The acclaimed science fiction writer and space visionary, whose 95th birth anniversary falls today (16 Dec 2012), loved to pose such baffling questions to visitors. He would gleefully volunteer the answer, and in that process, also share an interesting factoid.
In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor (1925 – 2004), an American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. He apparently held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test — the giant ‘fireball’ was 12 miles (19 km) away – which turned the focused light into heat.
“The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying ‘Don’t you know smoking is bad for your health?'” Clarke added with a chuckle.
He took a dim view of both smoking and nuclear weapons, and wanted them outlawed. But he knew well that once hooked, individuals and nations found it hard to kick these addictions.
In his youth, disrupted by World War II, Clarke coined the slogan ‘Guns are the crutches of the impotent’. As the nuclear club of nations expanded, he proposed a corollary: “High tech weapons are the crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative chromium plating.”
He was a grandmaster of such one-liners. He had a knack for expressing original ideas or summing up heated debates in a handful of everyday words. His legacy thus includes not only the 100 books and over 1,000 short stories and essays he wrote, but also the rich collection of quotes, slogans, coined phrases and original jokes.
Fun of Everything
His wry humour didn’t appeal to all alike, but he nevertheless made fun of everything – there were no Sacred Cows. “There is nothing in the world that we can’t make fun of,” he used to say.
In fact, he even wrote a funny story about the end of the world – one of his six on that particular theme. That’s surely worth revisiting as we endure the rising cacophony of an impending doom on December 21…
Clarke often spoke with his tongue firmly in his cheek. In a world full of overly serious (fanatical?) people, that sometimes landed him in trouble.
As his research assistant for two decades, I recall two notable incidents.
In early 1996, in an interview with Reuters, he shared his exasperation about long-drawn cricket matches. He was baffled how Test matches lasting for five days could still end without a winner.
The reporter quoted Clarke as saying cricket was the ‘lowest form of animal life’. For cricket-worshipping Lankans, this was blasphemy: there were howls of protest, and a barrage of hate mail.
Clarke quickly clarified in a statement: “During a phone interview, I protested about the continuous coverage of cricket matches – to the virtual exclusion of world news and other important features – on most of our TV channels. As one who enjoys this elegant game for a maximum of 10 minutes, I repeated the well-known and perfectly good-natured joke that cricket is the ‘slowest form of animal life’. ‘Slowest’ has been converted to ‘lowest’, thus completely ruining the pun.”
The day after that explanation, Sri Lanka won the Cricket World Cup. In the euphoric afterglow, fans and editorialists continued to be irked by what they considered an ill-timed snub.
Clarke thus found out how the quaint English game had turned into “South Asia’s true religion”. Despite this, he couldn’t resist making fun of this national obsession from time to time.
“When an important cricket match is being broadcast live, I have to look hard to find any signs of life on the streets of Colombo,” he wrote in 2003. And he privately joked that the best time to stage a bloodless coup in Sri Lanka is when our national team is playing in an important cricket final!
On Dangerous Ground
In another media interview in the 1990s, he described the Pope as “the most dangerous man in the world” due to the Catholic Church’s steadfast opposition to artificial contraceptives. Mother Teresa received an honourable mention.
When the quote spread, the Vatican’s billion plus flock was not amused. For a few weeks following that remark, Clarke’s office received many irate, even abusive, letters.
Having witnessed both incidents, I can say the cricket backlash was more intense than the Catholic one. So perhaps Clarke was right after all…
One-liners can be fun, but generating them in today’s info society is a hazardous pursuit. Many people don’t grasp, or bother with, the underlying nuances. They just react to the sound bite.
Clarke’s regular readers already knew his criticism of the Vatican’s dogmatic policies. His 1992 novel The Hammer of God had a future Pope John Paul IV, on Easter Day 2032, finally accepting family planning by artificial means (and apologising for “having wrecked billions of lives” over the centuries). That date is now just two decades away…
As a secular humanist, Clarke was openly cynical about all organised religions. He called religion a “form of mind virus that afflicts otherwise healthy – and often well educated – human beings”.
Yes, he loved to provoke, but only to make people question their ‘certain certainties’. One of his oft-repeated lines: “I don’t believe in God – but I’m very interested in Her!”
That immediately rattled all believers of assorted deities — but hopefully won him some feminist admirers.
Notwithstanding such dissenting views, Clarke maintained healthy contacts with some of the world’s mainstream religions.
The Dalai Lama once sent him a “fan letter” admiring his story ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, which unfolds at a Tibetan monastery. And in 1984, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences invited him to address a Vatican symposium on the impact of space exploration on mankind.
Clarke was on his best behaviour when presenting his latest scientific book to the Pope. But privately among the delegates, he asked: “After Giordarno Bruno, who?” – referring to the 16th century Italian mathematician and astronomer burnt at the stake after the Vatican found him guilty of ‘heresy’ for claiming the Sun was a star.
Dr George Coyne, the American-born Vatican Astronomer who convened the symposium, replied good naturedly: “If you don’t keep your mouth shut, Arthur, it will be you!”
No Crusty Intellectual
Clarke was no crusty intellectual (his favourite definition: one educated beyond his intelligence). He stayed cheerful and enthusiastic all his life. His one-liners ranged between the profound and the mundane.
In the latter category was this insight into modern life: “The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.”
Clarke’s Three Laws of Prediction are widely known. (The third, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, has permeated into popular culture.) But geeks delight in his less known — and decidedly more irreverent — 64th Law: “Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software!”
As a Resident Guest in Sri Lanka, he was careful when making fun of things Lankan – he knew how self-deprecating British humour didn’t travel too well. So he is remembered for the kind words he had for his adopted country. The cricket episode was an aberration.
He called himself “a machine that converted the finest Ceylon Tea into science fiction”. And our tourist industry loved the slogan he coined in the 1960s: “Sri Lanka is India — without the hassle!”
He lost his rationalist struggle against pervasive astrology, which claims distant celestial bodies control our destinies. (How, he asked politely, but never received any clear answer.) In his last years, Clarke simply said: “I don’t believe in astrology…But then, I’m a Sagittarius — and we’re very sceptical!”
Some soothsayers who took that literally were totally confused. Serves them right.
Perhaps Clarke kept his best to the last. His chosen epitaph, now on his tombstone at the Colombo General Cemetery, has just nine words. “He never grew up, but he never stopped growing.”