31st December 2000
By Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha
It was 32 years ago that the film 2001 - a Space Odyssey erupted on to the world's screens.
The space movie classic ensured the fame not only of director Stanley Kubrick but also the man who wrote the book - science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.
Considered one of the world's most brilliant minds, Sir Arthur (he was knighted in 1998) now lives quietly in his Colombo home. His accurate predictions over the past 65 years, foreseeing many of the scientific discoveries we now take for granted, prompted fellow sci-fi writer the late Isaac Asimov to observe "Nobody has done more in the way of enlightened prediction than Arthur Clarke."
As 2001 approaches, the octogenarian space prophet and best selling author is still active - he remains Chancellor of Moratuwa University, plays table tennis on most evenings, writes letters on everyday subjects to the editors of Colombo's newspapers and communicates with the outside world using emails, faxes, international phone calls and a well-greased secretarial machine.
We were indeed lucky to have the opportunity of meeting up with him again at his Barnes Place residence recently.
He greeted us dressed in a sky-blue cotton shirt and sarong, saying "I cannot talk for long because of the disease." Diagnosed with post-polio syndrome 11 years ago, he uses a wheel chair and cannot travel by airplane unless he has a bed in which to recline.
His one-eyed chihuahua Pepsi made a growling advance as we sat down. "She's quite fierce - but take no notice," he observed airily.
Sir Arthur first became known in scientific circles as the man who, 20 years before they became a reality, predicted that orbiting satellites could be used to beam radio transmisions around the earth.
That was back in 1945, in an article entitled Extraterrestrial Relays published in Wireless World magazine. Today, communications satellites that can each carry several TV programmes and thousands of phone calls play an essential part in worldwide communications. Their orbit around the earth is called, in tribute, the Clarke Belt.
Since that time he has predicted (he prefers the term 'extrapolated') many of the innovations which today we take for granted.
Twenty five years ago when much of the world still found it difficult to make a trunk call from Bambalapitiya to Maharagama, Arthur Clarke wrote an article in which he boldly listed some of the services that would be available in the average home by the year 2001:
* facsimile services whereby letters and printed matter could be reproduced instantly
* telephone calls between moving individuals everywhere on earth
* direct reception of foreign TV programmes via satellite
* immediate access to the world's great libraries via simple computer-type keyboards and TV displays - with the facility of printing or filing items needed for permanent reference.
His predictions at the time were greeted with incredulity - but today's generation hardly thinks twice before faxing or emailing information overseas, placing a call to a mobile phone thousands of miles away or accessing information from a database a continent away via the internet!
Born in England on December 16, 1917 in Minehead, Somerset, Sir Arthur served as a radar officer in the RAF during World War 2. His love affair with Sri Lanka began in December 1954. Sailing from England on the SS Himalaya to join up with his friend Mike Wilson on an expedition to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a half day visit while the ship docked in Colombo gave him the opportunity to meet a man who mutual friends had suggested he look up.
That meeting with Rodney Jonklaas, Assistant Director of the Colombo Zoo, was to have far reaching effects on his life.
Jonklaas, an underwater enthusiast himself, suggested that once the young Englishman had finished his trip to the Barrier Reef, he return to Ceylon to explore the crystal clear waters surrounding the tropical island.
Making no promises, Clarke sailed away to Australia, where Wilson and he shared several adventures above and below the seas - but once they'd completed their work off the Australian coast, they decided that their next underwater adventure would be in the Indian Ocean off Ceylon.
In January 1956 they returned to Colombo where Jonklaas met them and helped them settle in.
Within a few years the three of them had located several shipwrecks of historical significance off Sri Lanka's coast. The highlight of these explorations was a wreck on the Great Basses reef containing thousands of silver Moghul coins dated 1702 and several cannon - which resulted in a TV documentary as well as a book entitled Treasure of the Great Reef.
Sir Arthur, whose first novel Against the Fall of Night was published in England in 1948, continued writing in his new home. Over the years he produced over 80 full length books - among them Childhood's End (1953), the hugely popular 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Rendezvous with Rama (1973) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) - that made his name famous in non-scientific circles. His most recent works are 'Greetings, Carbon-based bipeds!' and 'The Light of Other Days' (written in collaboration with Stephen Baxter).
Nowadays he concentrates on movie productions of his books and video documentaries. 2001: A Space Odyssey became something of a cult movie in the late sixties. Sir Arthur is currently excited about the movie option taken out on his series of Rama stories by Morgan Freeman of Revelations Entertainment - as well as Universal Studios' snaring the option on Childhood's End and Stephen Speilberg's Dreamworks securing an option on Hammer of God.
Interestingly, except for Fountains of Paradise, a story about the construction of a space elevator to transport astronauts and materials into space, set in an island called Taprobane (which Sir Arthur admits is "about 90% congruent with Sri Lanka") none of his novels feature his island home.
However his 1957 novel Deep Range, about whale breeding and undersea farming, shows how Buddhism was influencing his thinking.
"With the weakening of its three great rivals" he predicted then "Buddhism was now the only religion that still possessed any real power over the minds of men."
He now acknowledges "Many of the elements of Sri Lanka, including its mystical and religious elements, even if I do not necessarily agree with them, I respect them and have worked them into my books."
Though his original intention was to stay in Sri Lanka for a year or two, the island's imagination-enhancing environment gradually wove its spell on him, enticing him to stay permanently. He now lives in a sprawling house in one of Colombo's prime residential area with his 'extended Sri Lankan family' - Hector and Valerie Ekanayake and their three daughters.
A typical day begins with a hot brew of Ceylon Tea ("a proper cup, no tea bags") at 7am. He reads, not just Sri Lanka's three English-language newspapers but selected publications from the UK and US. Meals are simple - because despite his three decades in Sri Lanka "I cannot stomach hot curries!".
He insists on an afternoon siesta each day between 2-3 pm "during which time my secretaries have strict instructions not to disturb me". Outside his upstair bedroom stands a telescope allowing regular and comfortable scanning of the night skies.
Dubbed the 'godfather of the space race' by NASA this Arthurian legend who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 modestly admits he never dreamed how all pervasive the technologies he predicted - like email and satellite communication - would become. "The only regret I have in life" he observed reflectively "is that I never learnt to play the piano".
As we approach the year 2001, I would like to extend my greetings and best wishes to all Sri Lankans
. Perhaps no other year before or since 1984-George Orwell's famous novel--has been awaited with such eager anticipation (and, I like to think, with far less apprehension). It was my friend Stanley Kubrick who chose the year to name our movie, and more than three decades later, I have no idea why he did so. But it has turned out to be quite apt, as the intelligent minority of this world will mark January 1, 2001 as the real beginning of the 21st century and the Third Millennium. (Those who celebrated the twin-events a year too soon are also invited to join in the celebrations!).
However, we should be less concerned about adding years to life, and more about adding life to years. I have been very fortunate to have witnessed some of humanity's greatest achievements during the 20th century that is nearing its end. Yet we must admit that it has also been the most savage century in the history of our kind. If I can have one more wish, I want to see lasting and meaningful peace achieved in Sri Lanka as early as possible. But I am aware that peace cannot just be wished; it involves hard work, courage and persistence.
As we welcome 2001, let us harness our collective energies to create a culture of peace and a land of prosperity.
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