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Arthur C. Clarke Remembered


David Morrison

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.4, July / August 2008

Science fact and science fiction lost one of our most visionary and influential heroes with the death of Arthur C. Clarke. He inspired my generation of space scientists with his vision of an exciting, transforming future beyond the Earth in novels such as The Sands of Mars, Islands in the Sky, Earthlight, Against the Fall of Night, and especially Childhood’s End. His creation with Stanley Kubrick of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which appeared in theaters a few months before Apollo 11, represented the zenith of science fiction movies—although, perhaps not so surprising in retrospect, it was not well reviewed and received only one Oscar for special effects.

I would particularly like to acknowledge Clarke’s contribution to my own field of understanding and protecting the Earth against cosmic impacts. I chaired the first scientific study of cosmic impact hazard, responding to a 1990 request from Congress to NASA. Our team proposed a “Spaceguard Survey” of near-Earth asteroids, and we called ourselves the Spaceguard Working Group. The name “Spaceguard” had been coined in Clarke’s novel Rendezvous with Rama, in which it described a future system to detect any incoming asteroids or comets in time to protect the Earth from a catastrophic impact. Clarke graciously endorsed our use of the term, which has become synonymous with asteroid surveys. He supported our efforts to initiate this survey and was pleased to have his name associated with such a worthy endeavor.

Partly inspired by the new attention to the impact hazard, Clarke wrote a novel in 1994 on this theme: Hammer of God. The plot concerns efforts to deflect a large comet on a collision course with Earth. This novel was acquired by a Hollywood studio and became the basis for the 1998 film Deep Impact, although Clarke himself did not write the script. Deep Impact was an intelligent film, realistically depicting the impact threat and the ways we might respond if faced with such a calamity. Unfortunately it was released at the same time as the blockbuster film Armageddon, which made no effort toward accuracy, either scientific or political. If your memory of these two impact films is dominated by the antics of Bruce Willis in Armageddon, I recommend you watch Deep Impact again. Also well worth reading is Clarke’s New York Times op-ed of August 14, 1994, entitled “Killer Comets Are Out There. Now What?” for an articulate defense of the importance of the Spaceguard Survey and future efforts to develop a defense against cosmic impacts. (The New York Times reprinted this 1994 op-ed on March 23, 2008).

All of us who have been entertained and inspired by Sir Arthur Clarke mourn his passing.

David Morrison

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David Morrison is a long-time NASA senior scientist and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow. He now divides his time between the SETI Institute and the NASA Lunar Science Institute. He hosts the "Ask an Astrobiologist" column at NASA's website.