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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 October 2005, 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK
Arthur C Clarke still looking forward
By Martin Redfern
BBC Radio Science Unit

Arthur C Clarke in 1953 (BBC)
Clarke says the future holds many surprises
It was 60 years ago this month that the popular magazine Wireless World published an article entitled Extra-terrestrial Relays: Can rocket stations give worldwide radio coverage?

The author was a young writer by the name of Arthur C Clarke.

His "rocket stations" are today known as communications satellites.

Eighty-seven years and the after-effects of polio have left Sir Arthur in a wheelchair and somewhat forgetful of past events; but as a science visionary, he is as sharp as ever, looking forward to the time when other predictions he has made come true.

He is convinced that we will become a space-faring species.

That people have not been back to the Moon for more than 30 years he regards as merely a temporary glitch.

As he points out in a special documentary on BBC Radio 4 this Wednesday, some of the greatest explorations in history were not followed up for decades.

I've heard since from a later editor of Wireless World that his boss handed him back my paper and asked him to tell this crackpot to kindly drop dead
Arthur C Clarke
He is sure that we will journey to Mars and eventually on to other solar systems; first sending robot probes, then humans, perhaps in suspended animation or even with their thoughts and consciousness transferred into a machine.

"When their bodies begin to deteriorate", he says, "you just transfer their thoughts, so their personalities could be immortal. You just save their thoughts on a disc and plug it in, simple!" he says, with a characteristic grin.

'Crazy' idea

Clarke grew up on a farm near Minehead, Somerset. His memories of that time are becoming hazy, but his younger brother, Fred, who still lives in the area, remembers the times well.

Anik F2, Arianespace
"Rocket stations" have made it a smaller world
Arthur, he says, used to slip out from school in the lunch-break to search for copies of science fiction magazines, such as Astounding Stories.

And he was a regular in the local bookshop, browsing science fiction novel like War of the Worlds by HG Wells, until he had read them so often that the copies became worn out.

On the farm, Clarke experimented with communications and built his own miniature rockets. He even persuaded one school friend to let him strap a rocket to his model aeroplane which then promptly shot across the field only to crash in flames.

Clarke was only 16 when the British Interplanetary Society was founded in Liverpool and he soon became an active member.

The possibility of using rockets for relaying radio communications was a frequent topic of conversation, but it was Clarke who wrote the seminal paper in 1945.

In it, he suggested that stations might be placed in what later became known as the Clarke orbit, a region 36,000km above the equator where the stations would orbit at the same rate as the Earth turned, allowing them to stay over one point.

Arthur C Clarke Blue Plaque (BBC)
Somerset still remembers one of its famous sons
This was still 12 years before even the first primitive satellite, Sputnik; and, to many people, it seemed ridiculous, as Clarke recalls.

"I've heard since from a later editor of Wireless World that his boss handed him back my paper and asked him to tell this crackpot to kindly drop dead.

"But the assistant editor took it back and read it and said, 'you know, I don't think this is completely crazy; we should publish it'.

"So, the editor said, 'OK, we will publish it but if it is crazy, you're fired!'. Now, they are very proud of it."

Nano futures

The prediction was not entirely accurate. It was made before the invention of the transistor and, at the time, Clarke had been working on military radars that depended on vacuum tubes or valves which were bulky and prone to failure.

"I thought the space stations, as I thought they would be, would have to have teams of engineers on board.

Space elevator (Nasa/Pat Rawling)
The space elevator gets ever closer, Clarke says (Concept by Nasa/Pat Rawling)
"And I have sometimes said, not entirely seriously, that the invention of the transistor was a disaster for spaceflight, since, without it, we would need shuttle flights every day."

Clarke is still proud of his prediction, though, as he says, "sometimes, when I see what comes down from the satellites, I feel a certain kinship with the late Dr Frankenstein."

Many of Clarke's visions have yet to be realised, but some are getting ever closer.

For example, the space elevator connecting Earth with geostationary orbit would depend on materials inconceivable when he popularised it in his novel the Fountains of Paradise in 1979.

The recently discovered carbon nanotubes do have the strength, at least in theory, to construct it; and a competition will soon start to drive competition technologies forward.

But Clarke admits that some things have happened that have taken even him by surprise.

"The microchip. It hasn't really changed anything but has made it much more accessible," he says.

"I never dreamed that everybody would have this equipment on their desks that they do now."

'Guiding light'

This is one of the reasons why he expects more surprises in the future, particularly in the arena of space travel.

"The analogy I often use is this: if you had intelligent fish arguing about why they should go out on dry land, some bright young fish might have thought of many things but they would never have thought of fire and I think that in space we will find things as useful as fire."

Clarke and Couper (BBC)
Clarke with BBC radio presenter and astronomer Heather Couper
Clarke's attention to detail and scientific accuracy has made his fiction popular with engineers and space enthusiasts alike. However, there is another hidden side to the person that comes out in his more imaginative fiction - an almost mystical side.

He says he dislikes and distrusts religion but that does not mean to say he has no feeling or wonder for the mysteries of the Universe.

Clarke likes to quote the first Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru: "Politics and religion are obsolete; the time has come for science and spirituality. I regard that as my guiding light," he says.

Arthur C Clarke: The Science and the Fiction is presented by Heather Couper and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, 5 October, at 1100 BST. It will then be archived on the programme website.

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