Aliens, clean energy and peace – Arthur C Clarke’s last wishes

December 2017 marks Sir Arthur C Clarke’s birth centenary. It is an apt moment to reflect on his enduring legacy

Arthur Charles Clarke was born in Minehead, England, on 16 December 1917 while the First World War was unfolding on much of the European continent. He grew up in a rural farm between the two world wars in a time of uncertainty and turbulence. He worked for a few years as an auditor in the British civil service and served as a radio instructor in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Afterwards, he earned a first class degree in physics and mathematics from King’s College, London. He became a full-time writer in 1950.

“Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, I never expected to see so much happen within the span of a few decades. We ‘space cadets’ of the British Interplanetary Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel – but we didn’t imagine that it lay in our own near future,” he said in December 2007, when he turned 90. For much of the twentieth century (and a little beyond), Sir Arthur’s writing – both fact and fiction – has influenced and inspired a myriad of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. His place in history is assured by his ideas and imagination expressed in over 100 books, 1,000 essays and short stories, as well as numerous radio and television appearances.

Despite his well-known ego, Sir Arthur never sought personal edifices to be put up in his honour or memory. When a visiting journalist once asked him about monuments, he said, “Go to any well-stocked library, and just look around…”

As I worked closely with Sir Arthur during the last 21 years of his life as a research assistant, I had the opportunity to see this extraordinary mind in action. One good example was in December 2007. On the eve of his 90th birthday, I helped Sir Arthur record a short video message reflecting on his illustrious life. (It turned out to be his public farewell, as he passed away three months later.)

“Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”
-Sir Arthur C Clarke

Sir Arthur always placed a premium on brevity, and in this video, he allowed himself a minute for every decade he’d lived – a total of 9 minutes. In just 540 seconds, he both looked back at his extraordinary ‘90 orbits around the sun’ and cast a wistful look at the future of his island home, planet Earth, and the universe. At the outset, he briefly surveyed the enormous progress accomplished in space exploration, telecommunication and information technology during his lifetime. He remarked how, in just quarter of a century, mobile telephone services were being used by half of humankind – a technology adoption rate unprecedented in history. He hastened to add that “communication technologies are necessary, but not sufficient for us humans to get along with each other”. That also required inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.

He then listed out ‘three last wishes’ that rose above the personal level (he said he no longer had any ambitions or regrets).

First, he wanted to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life. “I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But, we are still waiting for ETs to call us – or give us some kind of a sign.” (Contrary to all the UFO hype, there is no firm evidence of alien life – yet.)

Second, Sir Arthur was anxious for humanity to “kick the current addiction to oil” and adopt clean energy sources. Building a global civilisation relying heavily on finite fossil fuels was never a good idea, and human-induced climate change now makes it an urgent imperative. “Our civilisation depends on energy, but we can’t allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet,” he said, hoping for new or alternative energy sources to be developed on a commercial scale – and fast.

The third wish was closer to home. He wanted “to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible”. For over half a century (1956 to 2008), Sir Arthur was Sri Lanka’s best known foreign resident (although he never became a citizen). About half of that time, he noted, he’d been “a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country”.

Having lived through the most devastating war in history in his youth, he knew that peace was not simply the silencing of guns or the end of hostilities. Lasting peace, he said, “requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence”.

A decade after they were expressed, the three wishes remain grand aspirations – or an ultimate Arthur C Clarke challenge, if you like. The Lankan war ended in May 2009, 14 months after Clarke’s death. Yet, achieving lasting peace has proven to be much harder, and the roots of discontent persist.

The previous government re-built war-damaged roads and bridges without healing war-scarred minds in the North and South of Sri Lanka. Now, halfway into the current government’s term, true reconciliation remains elusive. Without coming to terms with mutual atrocities of our recent past, we cannot hope to build a common future.

For over half a century, Sir Arthur was Sri Lanka’s best known foreign resident. About half of that time, he’d been “a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country”

Sir Arthur’s wisdom can give us some guidance and hope. In a 2005 interview, he said, “I am optimistic that the land that has shown tremendous resilience over centuries and practised a rare type of tolerance could still return to normalcy—although we should ensure that grounds for conflict are removed forever. As I have been saying, peace is not a condition granted or secured by agreements; it is a state of mind that we all need to cultivate.”

Meanwhile, the second wish hasseen much more tangible action in  the past decade. The growing number of extreme weather events attributed to climate change has highlighted the need to reduce fossil fuel burning.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables are now the world’s fastest-growing energy source, with consumption set to increase by an average 2.3% per year between 2015 and 2040. Renewables include solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and some forms of biomass – all natural sources that can be replenished at a faster rate than they are consumed.

However, because renewables are rising from a very low baseline, fossil fuels would still account for 77% of global energy use in 2040. Yet, the dirtier fossil fuels are being edged out by less dirty types. Natural gas (whose combustion emits half or less carbon dioxide than coal) is the fastest-growing fossil fuel in the projections.

Can the world reduce fossil fuel burning fast enough to contain the worst-case scenario of global warming? That depends on our collective ability to balance short-term profits and long-term  survival. One thing is clear: Dirty coal is going to be around for much longer than Sir Arthur once imagined.

On Sir Arthur’s first wish, we are no closer to an answer, but efforts have been stepped up.

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), by monitoring signs of radio or other electromagnetic  transmissions from civilisations on other planets, has been going on since the 1960s. When the US federal funding for SETI was stopped in the early 1990s, researchers sustained the quest with support from European governments and philanthropists. (Sir Arthur himself donated a modest sum for SETI, and wrote a global appeal for funding.)

After years of uncertainty, SETI is now experiencing a global revival. In 2015, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner dedicated $100 million for an effort called ‘Breakthrough Initiatives’. And in late 2016, China commissioned its 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the world’s largest filled-aperture radio telescope, to the cause. One of its scientific goals is “detecting interstellar communication signals”.

Which of these intent listeners might detect a signal that can only originate from an intelligent alien source (and not a natural phenomenon in space)? There is no way to predict, of course, but as things stand, humanity’s first contact with aliens could well be made by the Chinese or the Russians.

What could such contact do to our global civilisation? We can only speculate – and seek guidance from science fiction. Sir Arthur himself has imagined various scenarios of humanity’s contact with aliens: most aliens in his stories are benign.

And he left us with this nugget of wisdom: “Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”

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