Monthly Archives: December 2014

Educating Arthur

Bookshops are dangerous places: once you pick up a book there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.


Sir Arthur C. Clarke 1917-2008

One of the most dangerous books that I have ever picked up was called Report On Planet Three And Other Speculations . I think I may have been eleven or twelve years old when I bought it from the local bookshop-cum-art-supplies-shop-cum-tourist-gift-shop that was my little provincial hometown’s sole purveyor of middlebrow culture. I think paid the princely sum of 30p for it. It was a collection of essays by science and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. I can still see the cheap textured purple cover which bore the legend Corgi SF Collectors Library now, and feel (and smell) the excerably cheap paper on which it was printed.

I don’t think a single book has ever widened my mental horizons quite as much before or since.

I was hooked from the moment I started reading the eponymous title essay in which Clarke imagines himself to be a Martian astronomer soberly speculating on the possibility of life on the mysterious ‘Planet Three’, in spite of its ‘unpleasant greenish hue’, and the vast quantities of that toxic gas known as ‘oxygen’ in its crushingly thick atmosphere:

[One of the other results] of the high oxygen concentration is even more catastrophic. It involves a terrifying phenomenon, fortunately known only in the laboratory, which scientists have christened “fire.” . . . During the process, intolerable quantities of heat and light are generated, together with clouds of noxious gases. Those who have witnessed this phenomenon under controlled laboratory conditions describe it as quite awe-inspiring; it is certainly fortunate for us that it can never occur on Mars.

For the eleven year old me, this leap of imagination was heady, intoxicating stuff. I adored looking out through the eyes of a Martian astronomer, even though their conclusions about the possibility of life on Planet Three were somewhat pessimistic:

To sum up, therefore, it appears that out neighbour Earth is a forbidding world of raw, violent energies . . . As for animals . . . if they exist at all, they must be extremely powerful and massively built to resist the high gravity, probably possessing many pairs of legs . . . Their clumsy bodies must be covered with thick layers of protective armour to shield them from the many dangers they must face, such as storms, fire, and the corrosive atmosphere. In view of these facts, the question of intelligent life on Earth must regarded as settled. We must resign ourselves to the idea that we are the only rational beings in the Solar System.

I often hark back to this early inoculation against unimaginative, fuddy duddy, reactionary scientific reductionism, and would like to think that the still, small voice of Arthur C. Clarke sounds a warning in my head whenever I start espousing pompous scientific narrow-mindedness of the same stripe as that fictional Martian astronomer.

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
— Clarke’s First Law of Prediction, Profiles of the Future (1962)

PS The title is meant to imply that Arthur was doing the educating, not being educated.


Filed under Science, Society