Thursday, 9 January 2014

Arthur C Clarke's Magic Postulate

Arthur C Clarke is known to science fiction fans as one of the most original writers of science fiction. His book, Rendezvous with Rama, about humans encountering a mysterious extra-terrestrial spacecraft, name after Rama after the hero of the Ramayana, is perhaps his best novel – it is perhaps my favorite science fiction book, above even those of Jules Verne. Film buffs may know him for 2001, A Space Odyssey, of which I have a low opinion.

He wrote realistic science fiction: not the Star Wars – Superman like mythical sagas, with weapons and tools and locations that sound scientific, but are really just about heroes and bravery and character and evil. Clarke uses science and scientific ideas as themes in his stories. The heroes or characters do not merely exhibit courage, humour, defiance, love, etc. but also use their scientific knowledge to solve their problems, which are often posed by Nature, not an archetypical human adversary. One of my favorite Clarke short stories is “Summertimeon Icarus”, another is “Hide and Seek”. You have to read them to enjoy them. A brilliant example of using scientic understanding is Isaac Asimov’s short story, “The Martian Way.”

Besides being a brilliant science fiction writer, Clarke had a major scientific contribution – the Clarke belt, or the geo-stationary orbit. He deduced that, if any body revolved around the earth at an orbit of 36000km, its orbital period would be 24 hours, i.e. it would revolve around the earth at the same speed as the earth rotates on its own axis. From any point on earth below it, it would appear to hover directly overhead – viz. it would seem geo-stationary. Thus was born the principle of the Communications Satellite, and rockets that launched satellites into the geo-stationary orbits. For contrast, most satellites, US space shuttles like Challenger and Discovery, and Russia space stations like Mir, orbit the earth at approximately 600km – they complete one orbit every 90 minutes or so.

The January 5, 2013 launch of GSLV from Sriharikota, where the G stands for GeoStationary, put such a satellite in orbit. In practice, the satellite doesn’t orbit Earth in perfect gravitational discipline, but is kept in place by occasional corrective maneuvers.

But the point of this essay is Clarke’s famous postulate on human understanding.

Clarke’s Postulate: Any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic.

My corollary: Any sufficiently complex science is indistinguishable from bullshit.

String theory and quantum physics fall into this category, in my opinion. Not that my opinion matters a whit J  But I am deeply skeptical of expensive, non duplicable, highly theoretical science. And I just needed to get this off my brain and dump it in my blog.

It is a pity though, that people don’t understand or appreciate what miracles most technologies and technical products are. We marvel at the unique and the rare and quickly  get used to wonders, and only notice them when they fail. Plastic, paper, pills, cars, bicycles, lenses, clothes… so many things fit into the miracle category. And with all these, we manage to feel poor or insufficiently wealthy!

1 comment:

  1. Thx for a nice article Gopu! I will give a try to the books you have mentioned..