“I take a lot of Sri Lankan tea and convert it into science fiction.” –
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, as quoted by Nalaka Gunawardene, his associate for 27 years.
From time to time, sages appear on Earth who disturb the sleep of mankind for ever and profoundly alter our thinking. Human life is never the same again.
Arthur C. Clarke hailed from this elite group of global sages.
Sri Lankans can be justly proud that Arthur lived more than half his life here in our land.
Arthur C. Clarke was born on December 16, 1917, to a family of farmers, in Minehead, Somerset, in England. He passed away, to use his own words, after “orbiting the sun” for 90 years. He died on March 19, 2008.
As a child, Arthur was fascinated by space, and spent much of his childhood in hours of star-gazing.
He started out as an auditor in the pensions section of the Board of Education, in England. His career as a scientist and thinker began towards the end of World War II. It is ironic that this man who could not afford a university education would come up with concepts that would be worth billions of dollars when translated into applications. In his later years, honours and accolades would be showered upon him.
His keen conceptualisations and his gift for expressing and articulating those complex ideas brought him a following of devoted admirers. Sir Arthur caught the attention of the global scientific community with his breakthrough theoretical essay – “Extra-terrestrial Relays” – on geostationary satellites.
The article appeared in October 1945. Arthur posited that if a satellite is lofted 23,300 miles into space, it would be geosynchronous – that is, it would rotate at the same speed as Planet Earth. The result is that the satellite would be geostationary – as if motionless.
A satellite so lofted could serve as a communications centre in space. By placing three such satellites at three specific points in space above Earth, live messages could be relayed around the Earth in six seconds. Sir Arthur never patented this concept. Modestly, he would say he was not the father of this concept, but its “godfather”. I remember reading somewhere that Sir Arthur received a payment of US$ 45 for this article.
That was a daring forecast. There were no rockets to send a satellite so far up into space. The computer and the transistor had still not been invented. The first communications satellite, Early Bird, was lofted into space in April 1965, exactly as Arthur C. Clarke visualised it back in 1945. Arthur C. Clarke’s concept had turned into a practical reality, and the new miraculous era of satellite communication had arrived.
By the time Sir Arthur’s theory had become reality and the first communications satellite was put in place 22,300 miles up in space, the author of the concept had already settled here in Sri Lanka. In a sense, Sri Lanka became the centre of the new age of satellite communication. It seems to me that the full significance of this achievement has not really entered the Sri Lankan psyche. If it has, we would be occupying an exalted position in the global map of advanced communication.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke arrived in Sri Lanka in 1956, as a young man of 39. When he passed away at 90, in 2008, he had spent more than half of his life (51 years) here in Sri Lanka.
Initially, he settled down in Unawatuna, south of Galle. He was enamoured of the beautiful beaches of Unawatuna. Personally, as a native of Unawatuna, I felt it a great honour that Sir Arthur, who knew his universe, should choose Unawatuna. Eventually, Sir Arthur moved to Colombo.
In his early days in this country, he would have to book a trunk call to telephone London. It would take an hour, two hours or even more, to connect the call.
Sir Arthur would keep the telephone on his dining table. After the communications satellite became a reality, he wrote: “Now when I dial 13 digits for London, I find London responding with a “Hello”, even in less time than it took me to dial the 13 digits.”
Arthur C. Clarke was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he was nominated for an Oscar Award. He won the UNESCO-Kalinga Prize for the Popularization of Science, and many accolades for his science fiction. Sir Arthur was one of the freest spirits that walked the Earth. He was unencumbered by convention or dogma. He once described himself as a crypto-Buddhist (later he would drop the “crypto”).
He sent me a touching greeting on my 85th birthday, on December 3, 2007, just 13 days before his 90th birthday.
Addressing me as “Dear Edwin”, he wrote: “I see that you are catching up on me. I’ll be turning 90 on 16 December. I also take this opportunity to thank you for many decades of popularising my ideas and visions among Sri Lankans through newspapers, radio and television. I wish you many more years of action as the “elder statesman” of Sri Lankan media.”
I quote this to stress the personal warmth of this Great Sage. He was Sri Lanka’s space station and our antenna to the universe.
We should be initiating a national programme to honour this universal Sri Lankan Citizen.