Life out there will be discovered too, one day

60 years after Clarke first mooted the communications satellite, Kavan Ratnatunga talks to him about astrology, fantasy and life on Mars.

Sixty years ago, a letter titled Peacetime Uses for V2 from Arthur C. Clarke of the British Interplanetary SocJety suggesting the use of Geostationary Satellites for instant global communications was published in the February 1945 issue of the Wireless Wod magazine.

“An `artificial satellite' at the correct distance from the earth would make one revolution every 24 hours; i.e., it would remain stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the earth’s surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet’ Clarke wrote.

World War II was only just ending after five long years and the technology to make the suggestion a reality had not yet been invented. Arthur Clarke in his Scientific Autobiography Ascent to Orbit published in 1984 says that he had forgotten about this letter till he was reminded of it in 1968 by the engineering staff of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporátion.

The equatorial circular orbit at a distance of approximately 42,164 km from the centre of the Earth, i.e., approximately 35,787 km (22,237 miles) above mean sea level has a period equal to the Earth’s rotation on its axis (Sidereal Day=23h56m) and would remain geostationary overthe same point on the Earth’s equator In 2005 the Clarke Orbit had over 330 satellites.

A more detaile and famous paper with the original title The Future of World Communications was published in the October 1945 issue of Wireless World under the title Extra-Terrestrial Relays. The timing was perfect. The rocket technology and expertise developed in Germany for military use was picked up by USA and USSR, two nations with difterent political ideologies which tried to impress the world and obtain military superiority in space.

However, the applicauon of the same technology for science and peaceful ex ploration of space is unique. Earth Satellites became a reality with Sputnik in a dozen yearson October 4, 1957 and the first commercial communication Satellite Intelsat I Early Bird was launched into geostationary Orbit on April 6, 1965. Man landed on the Moon in 1969, less than 25 years.

Arthur C. Clarke visited Ceylon over 50 years ago in December 1954 and within a few years decided to make his residence in Lanka. In February 2005, Clarke travelled to his hideout in Hikkaduwa which had survived the tsunami that had devastated a large extent of the coast around Lanka.

This was the first trip he had taken to this region after the disaster. The heritage seaside walauwa, just south of Hikkaduwa is probably from the Dutch era and over 200 years old. The house walls are so thick that it stood its ground against the tsunami except for minor damage to some doors. The more recenty built boundary walls to the property had been washed away giving a more magnificent view of the sea.

On reaching the walauwa, Clarke first went out to the edge of the property to look out to the sea. The access ramp which allowed him to go on to the beach had been washed away by the tsunami leaving just the support columns.

Now two months later, the beach had been cleaned but tourists had still not returned. The golden beach with no one, not even footpñnts to spoil the view was clearly a rare sight.

Clarke's original plan was to travel all the way from Hikkaduwa to Kirinda, off the coast of which is the Great Basses Reef on which Clarke had helped discover a shipwreck with silver coins in 1962. His present condition however allowed him to only travel up to Weligama after a brief visft to Unawatuna. Back at Hlkkaduwa on February 24th evening, Kavan Ratnatunga who made the trip with him took the opportunity to interview Sir Arthur Clarke.

Q:In 1945 you suggested the idea of geostationary satellites for instant global communications. Any reflections on the 60th anniversary of the first publication of your great idea ?
I can't remember what happened then. After all, it was 60 years ago. The war was then about to finish. In fact the atom bomb was dropped soon after I worked on this article. The idea for that was brewed over a period of time. There has always been an interest in space travel. There may have been stories that suggested communication satellites, and I would like somebody to do some research to see if anybody did mention them earlier.

Q: Mobile phones have made instant global communications very personal. Do you carry this mobile technology with you?
Well, I don't carry anything with me now since I can hardly carry myself. I have my staff and they have mobile phones to take care of those needs.

Q:The tsunami of December 26 was Lanka's worst natural disaster in recorded history. Shouldn't instant global communications have solved the problems of disaster management?
Obviously instant global communications are needed to warn people of disasters but I don't think it applies to this case. I don't believe there could be any warning of a tsunami, since there is no way of predicting earthquakes, and that's what caused this.

Q: You first came to Lanka over 50 years ago in December 1954, and in a famous quote from the 'Sea of Sinbad' you said about Unawatuna "Ten thousand kilometres from the place where I was born, I had come home". Now that you have visited it again this morning, what are your thoughts and hopes for Unawatuna ?
I think Unawatuna appealed to me because the curve of the bay reminded me of Minehead where I was born. I am quite happy with the way it is now. I hope it continues to be looked after and not spoiled with too much tourism or anything like that. I think we have gained something from the sea recently as more sand has been built up.

Q:Over 40 years ago you helped discover a ship with the treasure of the Great Basses Reef. As a numismatist, the lumps of Surat Rupee coins you found are of particular interest to me. Any reflections on that discovery?
This is a long time ago. I gave one of these coin lumps I think to the Museum here; not quite sure where they are now. I have only one or two of the coins myself. The book records what happened and what we found. There is a great deal more in the Great Basses and the Little Basses that have been death traps for ships for at least 2000 years. In every ocean in the world there are shipwrecks caused by warfare, hurricanes, and any number of things that will cause a ship to go down. So I don't think there is any shortage of shipwrecks to explore by amateurs and professionals.

Q: In a nation where there are new laws against spreading of false rumours, national TV stations still feel free to broadcast predictions of astrologers, which we know scientifically have no reality. What will it take for educated people to understand that astrology has no reality, like the Flat-Earth Theory ?

Astrology is an attractive idea. I am sure that the celestial bodies, the Sun and Moon will have all sorts of influences some of which may not been discovered. But the idea that astrologers can predict an individual's future is I am sure, utter nonsense, and the idea will die out eventually. Also I don't think there are any flat earth theorists around still. I am also reminded that spiritualism used to have a big role when I was young after the results of the First World War. I don't know what has happened to spiritualism; is it still around or whether it has died a natural death.

Q: As the last remaining Grand Master of Science Fiction, what is your take on the more popular interest in fantasy? Why has magic become more appealing than science to the younger generation of readers ?
I don't know. It is hard to draw the line between fantasy and hard science fiction, because we have seen so many things which seemed fantastic at one time and have come true. I enjoy both and I am not totally against fantasy. Books like Harry Potter will introduce children to hard science eventually.

Q: The headline of a recent issue of the "Sinhala Bauddhaya" quoted the 1953 prediction in your famous novel Childhood's End that only a form of purified Buddhism - perhaps the most austere of all religions - will survive. I understand you meant the Buddha dharma (philosophy). Over the past few decades organised religion has become stronger, although science has a much deeper understanding of the nature of the Universe. As an astronomer I would like to know your thoughts as to why even some of the educated feel they still need so much faith in religion?
Has organized religion become stronger? I didn't know that. I doubt that. Even educated people, what ever that means, need some emotional crutch and it is nice to feel that somebody up there is looking after your concerns and it is harmless unless it becomes an obsession.

Q:NASA has cancelled the servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. It is also now over two years since the Columbia accident in early February 2003, and the Shuttle has not yet returned to space; currently scheduled for mid May 2005. It took a similar 2.6 years for NASA to return to space after the Challenger accident in January 1986. But they landed on the Moon in less time, after the Apollo 1 accident in January 1967. Are we softer now in taking the risks needed for space exploration?
I think one reason why the Apollo, the first moon landing was not held up was the fear that the Russians may be on their way and get there first and I don't know how seriously that was ever taken. So I think we need to wait now till we have more reliable and reusable ways of exploring space and then move on to Mars and Jupiter.

Q: What is your view on the recent evidence for CH4 on Mars and its implications for potential life on Mars?
This latest evidence seems some of the most convincing yet. I mean it will be surprising as well as disappointing if we don't find life there. We know that all kinds of stuff has splashed around the solar system, DNA might survive a trip across space. I sincerely hope that is the case. As for comets, of course they have all the organic material needed for life. I don't remember who said that comets have bad breath.

Q: Is there a major project you would like to see achieved or see happen in your lifetime?
I think I have done enough. There are some things I would like to see happen. The first of course is the discovery of life and intelligence in outer space. I think it is unlikely to be in my lifetime but I am sure it will be eventually achieved.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.