Sir Arthur Clarke I remember

By Prof Kavan Ratnatunga

A day in the life of Arthur : At his computer with his pet Chihuahua. Pic by Rohan de Silva
Sir Arthur Clarke made Lanka his home for over 50 of his 90 years. I feel very privileged to have known him for over 40 of those years. He clearly inspired the careers of some of us in Lanka, who became interested in Astronomy and Space. However it was only after the Internet that I realized how many persons world wide had been influenced deeply by his writing. Most who have never met him since he lived in the far distant exotic land called Lanka. Often when I met foreigners and told them I was from Sri Lanka, all that many of them knew about Sri Lanka, was that it was home to Sir Arthur Clarke. He was by far the most famous international personality that made Lanka known to the world.

I first met Arthur Clarke at meeting of the Ceylon Astronomical Society which he founded in June 1959 and was it's first President. During the sixties he used to be travel the world and bring back the latest news and pictures of space exploration which he shared with us at our monthly meetings held at the USIS.

At home in 2007: Celebrating his last birthday at Barnes Place
He had a great sense of humor. An interesting story which has not been told started soon after the Moon landing in 1969. The Flat-earth Society worried that they will be unable to explain the view of the earth as a globe, published a fantasy story in a TWA magazine saying that the Moon landing was staged by NASA with Arthur Clarke writing the Screenplay. I can still remember Arthur being humored to be selected as the Author. Over 20 years later the same fantasy was made into conspiracy theory and made famous by a TV program. Observing the new interest, Arthur said that he had sarcastically written to his good friend Dan Goldin who was then the NASA Administer and reminded him that he had never been paid Royalties on the Hoax Moon Landing screen play. He told me that NASA never replied his E-mail.

Arthur is most famous for his suggestion to use geo-stationary satellites for global communication. The scientific paper was published in the October 1945 issue of "Wireless World" and became reality in less than 20 years. The orbit 22,237 miles from the Earth's Equator, has been officially named the Clarke Orbit.

His first story published "loophole" appeared in the April 1946 issue of the Pulp Magazine "Astounding Science Fiction". Subsequent books like "Childhood's End" (1953), "City and the Stars" (1956) and "Rendezvous With Rama" (1973) created an enormous fan base. His book "Fountains of Paradise" (1976) is set in Lanka. The suggestion he made in it for space elevators is being seriously considered, and supported by recent technological breakthroughs.
At home in 1930: Arthur left, with Michael, Mary, Fred and mother Nora Clarke.

Filmed in 1968 Stanly Kubrick's and Arthur Clarke's 2001 a Space Odyssey won the Academy Award for Special Visual Effects. The film is 15th in the American Film Institutes list of 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. I still remember seeing it at the Majestic Theater in 70MM. It is one of those films that shouldn't be watched on a small screen and hope that it will be screened again, so that the younger generation have an opportunity to see this masterpiece. Arthur was particularly worried about the scene when Bowman is going through the vacuum of Space to re-enter the spaceship Discovery. He knew that a persons blood will boil, but decided by medical opinion that 15 seconds would be safe. His strict adherence to be within Scientific possibility made him the last of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction.

Arthur not only resided in Lanka, he also adopted it's dress and lifestyle. I can remember being totally embarrassed to be in western attire when he arrived in smart National dress, to be witness at my wedding. I remember him commenting about the modern watches on the hands of those in full Kandyan regalia. For those of us who had an opportunity to meet him regularly he was a friend with whom we could drop in without any appointment and discuss life the universe and everything.

I remember very well an incident during one such visit. It must have been in the early 1970's since it was before he moved to his residence in Barnes Place. Arthur's mother had come from England and was visiting him at that time. Arthur asked if I had seen his latest toy and went into his office to bring it out. I was left chatting with his mother who said "Little things please little minds". Arthur was still her kid, who was refusing to grow up. Soon after Arthur returns with a plastic frame enclosing a sand which did not mix completely and created striations like on a rock face.

In Childhood's End published in 1953 before he visited Lanka he wrote "only a form of purified Buddhism--perhaps the most austere of all religions--still survived.". Few years ago this was misquoted in a headline of a issue of the "Sinhala Bauddhaya" which mentioned Buddhagama. He was quick to point out that he was talking about the Philosophy (Dhamma) and not the faith based Religion practiced by an majority in Lanka. Arthur a Scientist did not have any need for religion. He has left instructions that his funeral be completely secular.

I am, so glad Arthur's 90th B'day was celebrated in grand style on 16th of Dec last year, but very sadly it was to be his last. He will remain in the memory of all who were fortunate to know him and his enormous contributions to humanity through a very productive publications will clearly be cherished forever.

(The writer is an Astrophysicist and President Astronomical Association of Lanka)

An edited version of this obituary End of an odyssey By Kavan Ratnatunga appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2008 March 23rd.