In view of the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (May 17), I would like to share a short essay I wrote in early April 2008.
Waiting for the ultimate phone call
by Nalaka Gunawardene
No, this had nothing to do with religion, a notion Clarke publicly dismissed as a dangerous ‘mind virus’. Rather, it’s the prospect of life elsewhere in the cosmos – an idea that always fascinated him, and on which he wrote many stimulating stories and essays.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that this topped the three ‘last wishes’ Clarke mentioned in a short video released in December 2007, on the eve of his 90th birthday.
“I would like to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life,” Clarke said, wistfully. “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. We have no way of guessing when this might happen – I hope sooner rather than later!”
Watch the video on TVE Asia Pacific channel on YouTube:
That ultimate ‘call’ never arrived in time for Clarke. And we have no way of telling which of his wishes would materialize first (the other two being adopting clean energy sources worldwide, and achieving peace in Sri Lanka, where he lived for over half a century).
When it came to ETs, Clarke had a good idea of the probabilities of a positive result in his own lifetime. He knew how it had eluded at least four generations of seekers, including the inventor of radio telegraph itself.
Accepting the Marconi Prize and Fellowship in 1982, Clarke recalled how Guglielmo Marconi had been interested in this prospect. He quoted from a letter he (Clarke) had written to the editor of the BBC’s weekly magazine, The Listener, in February 1939: “…On other planets of other stars there must be consciousness; on them there must be beings with minds…some far more developed than our own. Wireless messages from such remote conscious beings must be possible.”
The letter, sent via the then fledgling British Interplanetary Society, ended as follows: “The only time I met Marconi, he told me of his search for such messages. So far, we have failed to find them.”
After a century of radio and 60 years since its inventor’s death, such proof has yet to be found. However, as Carl Sagan – possibly the best known proponent of the subject – was fond of saying, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Clarke himself is widely attributed as saying: “Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.”
Clarke not only wrote and talked passionately about the subject for decades, but also supported – in cash and kind – various groups engaged in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI.
“SETI is the most important quest of our time, and it amazes me that governments and corporations are not supporting it sufficiently,” he said in a 2006 letter supporting public donations to the SETI@Home project at the University of California, Berkeley.
In the early 1990s, he applauded Steven Spielberg, director of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) for donating US$ 100,000 to SETI efforts. “It seems only appropriate that Steven…should put his money where his mouth is,” Clarke noted.
Clarke welcomed ET‘s box office success, as it departed from the Hollywood tradition of depicting aliens as malevolent. By showing a highly intelligent being as both benign and vulnerable, the movie stretched the public’s imagination to consider other possibilities. Not all aliens would arrive here to take over our world -– or to serve humanity, medium rare…
But Clarke realised how the vastness of space would make inter-stellar travel difficult and infrequent. It was more likely that signals from advanced alien civilisations would roam the universe at the speed of light.
Together with his long-time friend Carl Sagan, Clarke explored the philosophical implications of SETI – and its eventual success. It should be the concern of every thinking person, he said, “because it deals with one of the most fundamental questions that can possibly be asked: what is the status of Homo sapiens in the cosmic pecking order?”
Clarke believed the detection of intelligent life beyond the Earth would forever change our outlook on the Universe. “At the very least, it would prove that intelligence does have some survival value – a reassurance that is well worth having after a session with the late night news.”
Clarke speculated that ETs may be continuously broadcasting an easily decoded “Encyclopaedia Galactica” for the benefit of their less advanced neighbours. “It may contain answers to almost all the questions our philosophers and scientists have been asking for centuries, and solutions to many of the practical problems that beset mankind.”
He was sometimes ambivalent about the value of such an influx of new knowledge, noting that even the most well intentioned contacts between cultures at different levels of development can have disastrous results – especially for the less advanced ones. He recalled how a tribal chief once remarked, when confronted with the marvels of modern technology: ‘You have stolen our dreams’.
But Arthur C Clarke the perennial optimist continued: “I believe that the promise of SETI is far greater than its perils. It represents the highest possible form of exploration. And when we cease to explore, we’ll cease to be human.”
Clarke’s interest in ETs remained undiminished to the end. In his last media interview, given to IEEE Spectrum in January 2008 from his hospital bed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he said: “I’m sure the ETs are all over the place. I’m surprised and disappointed they haven’t come here already… Maybe they are waiting for the right moment to come.”
He added, with a chuckle: “And I hope they are not hungry!”