The passing of a science hero

On March 18th, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died in his home in Sri Lanka at the age of 90.  A master developer and assembler of ideas, Clarke will be remembered fondly by many for igniting their enthusiasm for science, and how it might be used to better our lives.  His passing leaves a hole in the ranks of science heroes who inspire us to look beyond the obvious, and question the unquestionable.

My early childhood was full of the stories of Clarke, Asimov and others, and without a doubt these writers set me on a path to exploring how the world works and how we can extend our reach with this knowledge.  Clarke had the knack of taking what was known, and pushing it that little bit further into the realms of the “what if…?”.  In doing so, he was the perfect foil to the established scientific community; asking the questions others shied away from and stimulating the process of discovery and development afresh.  But he also excelled at raising scientific consciousness across the board, and sowing the seeds of effective and informed science engagement.

Ironically, my first exposure to the possibilities of nanotechnology came through the one novel of Clarke’s that I struggled with first time round. The Fountains of Paradise (1979) revolves around construction of the first elevator to space.  In the book, “hyperfilaments” of diamond crystal are used to create a tether that is both strong and light enough to tether a satellite in geostationary orbit to the earth.  Nearly thirty years later, Clarke’s vision is closer than ever to becoming a reality.  The big difference between the book and current research: his fictional hyperfilament has been replaced by carbon nanotubes—same atoms, similar properties, just in a slightly different configuration.

Recently re-reading The Fountains of Paradise, I understood why I struggled with it as a young teenager.  The novel is an exploration of the interface between society and technology, and how each influences the other; not the type of stuff that was grabbing my attention at the time.  But with the advantage of years and a professional interest in nanotechnology, science and society, Clarke’s writing now comes across as both insightful and visionary.  Clarke understood the science, but wasn’t constrained by scientific conservatism.  More importantly, he realized that science and technology happen within a social context; and that the successful generation and use of new knowledge must rely on scientific literacy and public engagement.

Clarke excelled in increasing people’s interest in and understanding of science, and laying the grounds for informed science engagement—demonstrating unequivocally that fiction is a powerful illuminator of truths in the world of facts.  He will be sorely missed in a society that is increasingly reliant on technologies to solve new and old challenges—including nanotechnology.  Who now will inspire us to fully engage in the opportunities and challenges that twenty first century science and technology promises?

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This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in March 2008

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