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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Exit another grand old man!

Yet another titan of yesteryear has just passed away. Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, breathed his last in Colombo on Wednesday, 19th March 2008, at the ripe old (and I hope happy) age of 90.

An electrical engineer by training, the man who correctly predicted the dawn of the era of geostationary communication satellites in space which would usher in a miraculous revolution in worldwide communications, he lived it up in the first glorious era of rocket-and space science (the 1940s to 70s), advising NASA on various grand missions and electrifying the world with his fantastic science fiction yarns, among which 2001 (alongwith its sequels) is by far the most famous, if not also the greatest. I’m sure every sci-fi buff in the world has seen Stanley Kubrick’s superb and mystical movie version of 2001. His short stories, like The Nine Billion Names of God, are just as magnificent, I can vouch for that.

Personally my greater hero in this genre was Clarke’s long-time friend Isaac Asimov. I could never decide who was the cleverer, wiser man, but I hugely enjoyed their good-natured rivalry (Asimov wrote far more copiously, at a more furious pace, and he hardly travelled. At one public gathering Clarke supposedly jibed at him: ‘Isaac, you want to write 200 books in 90 years. I am more ambitious. I shall write 90 books in 200 years!’). Together these two men educated me in a rare and magical way, instilling an abiding love for the wonder, the excitement, the romance of science and technology – and perhaps they also played a big role in my decision at the age of 18 that science was taught and done in such a dull, silly, pedestrian and unambitious way in India, with such a singleminded and mediocre aim (one must get a decent job, period) that it would kill me if I pursued it academically for much longer – though I was a good enough student to have continued if I had wanted to. But my fascination with science has stayed with me, and books like Clarke’s The View from Serendip (published 1967) will go a long way to explain why. These two giants, taken along with many other talented writers, have also left me convinced that science fiction is so vast and rich a field of study that it ought to be regarded as the most important literary genre of the 20th century, and the fact that it hardly figures in our contemporary college courses in literature is to be ascribed solely to the fact that our professors of the humanities are so scientifically-illiterate that they know they will be completely out of their depth the moment they take up the great masters. And that is a great misfortune for all our young, because, as intelligent men since the time of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Conan Doyle and Kipling have understood, science and technology have become such an enormous and inseparable part of contemporary life that a literature course that does not directly engage with them is bound to be both useless and absurd. Imagine teaching a minor fantasy classic like Beowulf from the early-middle ages but giving Asimov’s Foundation series or Clarke’s 2001 or Childhood's End the go-by!

Strange to say, despite his serenading the high-tech post-modern society, Clarke, though born British, chose to spend the last few decades of his life in relatively backward Sri Lanka, vigorously scuba-diving into his eighties, and completely ignoring the fact that, politically speaking, Sri Lanka had lost its fabled tranquil charm long ago!

"I think the passing of Arthur C. Clarke is really epical," said Alan Stern, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "There is no one of his caliber or vision on the scene today ... Clarke's contribution was to motivate people to go after careers because they wanted to help shape a certain kind of future, to be at the beginning of something of millennial importance."
Stern said Clarke's legacy at NASA and in the space exploration community was particularly significant.
"For my generation, the children of Apollo, Clarke's writings were hugely and deeply inspirational," Stern told SPACE.com. "He was not just a technically competent writer of science fiction, science fact and futurism, but he was incredibly optimistic. I have had many emails in the last 18 hours, from friends of mine, from childhood, graduate school, adulthood. It's amazing to me how many say the same thing: 'I wouldn't be in this line of work if it weren't for Arthur Clarke.' People across the world, especially the backbone of American aerospace exploration and space science, were inspired by Clarke's writings at one stage or another in their youth."
Clarke had a profound impact on technology and invention. His idea for the communications satellite has affected the whole planet.
"Arthur was not only a major figure in the first baby steps in humans' exploration of space, but a major figure in the building up of our planet as an interconnected organism," said writer Ann Druyan, widow of science popularizer Carl Sagan. "He was someone really significant."
Druyan said she met Clarke many times over the decades that he and Sagan were friends, as well as after Sagan's death.
"He was not only a great technical mind, but of course he had a powerful imagination, which influenced every one of us," Druyan said. "If we use anything based on a communications satellite then we definitely owe Arthur a huge debt. In my mind, '2001' remains the greatest sci-fi movie ever made. In many ways today it seems more futuristic than movies made 30 years later."
Here are a few more words in salutation, and I am providing links on the Net:
You may also be interested in what they have written about him on the official google blog, whose link is provided here (scroll down along the right hand side).
I grew up in an age of much cleverer men: now they are all going away (Asimov died in 1992) – and alas, all the PhDs, MDs and MBAs notwithstanding, I don’t see either much goodness or much wit and wisdom around me today!


Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

Yes Arthur C. Clarke's passing away would surely have its effect felt. I really don't know if nowadays anybody in world literature writes the way Wells, Assimov and Clarke wrote science fiction.

Infact, the idea of well researched novels have slowely seem to have gone away.

I read 2001: A Space Odyssey from your den (in SXS) in probably 1993.


SleepyPea said...

I didn't know he passed away yesterday Suvro da, but I happened to be checking out some websites on Clarke yesterday....
Over here, there's this Italian chap doing a PhD from the Lit. department on Science fiction. The one series that i got hooked onto lately is Dune, which is almost an in-depth account of and interrelation among Buddhism, deep spirituality, politics, and economics along with the scientific and technological development of it all.
Sorry once again, if my post sounds disconnected.

kalyanjit said...

As a comment on the standard of science education around the world, I would like to implore all readers to sit through some lectures of the MIT prof, Dr. Walter Lewin. On a very personal note, after Richard Feynman, whom I greatly adore, I find his outlook extremely fresh and inspiring. Very truly, the word gets poorer everyday without people like Asimov (I still remember Suvro-da saying in class that he has a book on cooking), Clarke, Feynman, ....


Rajdeep said...

Another giant has passed away. Human imagination knows no bounds and only human beings can work their imagination into reality. Thank you Suvro da for introducing his books to us in school. We may otherwise have come aross them much later in our lives.

Sayan said...

Science is indeed taught in a most dull and least thought provoking manner in India. There has been a rapid decrease in interest in scientific pursuits and teachers of science should take most of the blame. Most of these teachers inspite of degrees from Jadavpur and IIT do not even have an inkling as to what their subject is all about. I cannot help thinking that these teachers have ended up in the wrong place for it becomes evident when they teach that teaching is not their forte. But even if one is in a job that he/she is not too good at, he/she must strive hard to get better at it; but the fact that our teachers spend the least amount of time thinking and reflecting on the subject becomes clear when they teach. In our college there is a course on Artificial Intelligence. The number of people in India who can teach the subject can be counted on fingers and hence it is not surprising that our teacher can't do anything but read out notes from a book. Also when one compares an Indian textbook with a foreign one the difference in class becomes apparant. Our authors have this fanaticism with knowing the least amount of theory so as to be able to solve only certain types of problems; whereas foreign authors fill their books with insights. The only way to study science is to constantly look for insights, and our authors do not realize that. Even when our authors copy from foreign authors, without even acknowledging the fact that their books are copied from others, they copy wrongly. There are exceptions of course and there are good Indian authors and teachers at almost all levels of science education but they are very few in number and the number of uninterested philistines both among teachers and students are so numerous that these people can't bring about much difference.
The days of Satyen Bose are past and the only people who study science today are the ones who want nothing more than a well paid, comfortable job. Their relation with education is that of give and take.
Sayan Datta.

Ankan said...

Although I have never been a great fan of the science fiction genre it doesn't require much to realize that Arthur C. Clarke's passing away leaves a void in the art of scientific and innovative thinking....something which made Asimov, Clarke, Carl Sagan and the likes amongst the most respected not only in the domain of science fiction, but also in the world of science.
I still remember a short story of A.C. Clarke read out by Suvro Sir on a post apocalyptic world that had left me both amused and stunned. I agree with you about the tragedy of no science fiction being present in the literary curriculum of schools. But if you do that and want it to be taught to its merit, who's going to educate the teachers first?
As for the condition of science education, that's an old topic and boils down to the apathy of the common man in India towards education and considering it as the easiest means of livelihood. However I am glad that I have across a few people who are really in love with particular branches of science and actually get involved in passionate discussion now and then.