Thor, Superman and Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law: Technology or Magic?

Thor: Another spectacular moving image creation from Marvel
Last evening, I wanted an escape from reality. So I walked into a local cinema with two friends and watched Thor – the latest cinematic production from Marvel Comics.

It’s another superhero spectacle, with lots of special effects and great fireworks. Not entirely plausible in the universe as we know it, but hey – we enter cinema halls willing to suspend disbelief. As C S Lewis was fond of saying, the only people really against escapism are…jailers!

Thor even has some reasonable acting and occasionally enjoyable dialogue. Half way into the story, I was pleasantly surprised to see Natalie Portman’s character quote Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law (of prediction): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Then I realised how much the story depends on this ‘Law’ to make it plausible. Returning home, I asked my resident magician Google for some insights, and she found others have already noted this.

On Discovery magazine’s blog, Kyle Munkittrick has an interesting post titled Thor Pays Tribute to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rule About Magic and Technology. He says:

“…the Marvel universe is internally consistent… Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters. It seems like anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damn quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense.”

He adds: “Thor does not pull a George Lucas and attempt to over-science the magical elements. Thor is not superhuman because he has some Norse equivalent of midichlorians. He is superhuman because he is magical. Sure, that magic is allegedly based in technology, but technology so incredibly advanced, we can’t distinguish it from magic. That lack of distinguishability is the indicator of just how advanced the Asgardians actually are. It’s also what let’s us enjoy the movie for what it is.” Read the full post.

On the indispensable Internet Movie Database, it says: “This acknowledgement that one man’s science is another man’s magic/faith (with a hat tip to Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law”) is just enough to make Marvel’s comic book appropriation of mythology palatable for a mainstream Hollywood audience.”

So Clarke’s Third Law keeps popping up in popular culture, and as Kyle Munkittrick says, it’s so very convenient for script writers! The grandmaster of science fiction has given them a blanket cover to take whatever creative liberties…

And some don’t always acknowledge the source when they take cover in this quote/law. For example, the Third Law was famously uttered by Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (2006) — but without any mention of the source.

At that time, I was working with Sir Arthur as his research assistant, and remember how much the late author was intrigued by this reference. For a brief few seconds, he was (slightly) miffed that there was no attribution — and then he cheered up. He accepted that Clarke’s Three Laws are now out there in popular culture and the public imagination, having assumed a momentum and identity of their own. The product of his fertile mind was roaming free.

Profiles of the Future - 1982 UK edition
It’s about time too. The Three Laws have been in print for nearly half a century, in various forms. The first law was published in an essay titled “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination'” in the timeless Arthur C Clarke non-fiction classic Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible, 1962. The book itself was a collection of essays exploring the far future, written during the period 1959 – 1961, and originally published in various popular magazines — most notably Playboy, where many Clarke pieces first appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

The First Law read: “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.”

In the original essay, Sir Arthur actually offered further insights on the threshold of elderly: “Perhaps the adjective ‘elderly’ requires definition. In physics, mathematics and astronautics, it means over thirty; in the other disciplines, senile decay is sometimes postponed to the forties. There are, of course, glorious exceptions; but as every researcher just out of college knows, scientists of over fifty are good for nothing except board meetings, and should at all costs be kept out of the laboratory.”

The Second Law was included as a simple observation in the same essay; its status as Clarke’s Second Law was conferred on it by others. That read: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

In an endnote to the ‘Hazards of Prophecy’ chapter (two) in the 1982 revised edition of the book, Sir Arthur wrote: “Originally, I had only one law, but my French editor started numbering them. The Third, which arises from material in this chapter, is perhaps the most interesting (and most widely quoted).”

In fact, this best known Third Law didn’t appear in its currently known form until the 1973 revision of Profiles of the Future. He wanted to round out the number, he said, and added: “Since three laws were sufficient for both the Isaacs — Newton and Asimov — I have decided to stop here. At least for the present…”

The first and second Laws of Clarke are known and cited among scientists and other technical experts. But it’s the Third Law that is the best known among the public: in fact, Wikipedia has compiled a collection of citations in other works.

Profiles of the Future - 1999 Millennium edition
As Sir Arthur’s biographer, Neil McAleer, wrote in the 1992 biography Odyssey: “Profiles of the Future has been, and continues to be, an influential book for all those interested in science, technology and the future. Some thirty years after its original publication, it still stands out from the dozens of less important books that attempted to imitate it.”

Neil quotes Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, as saying how Profiles left a lasting impression on him. Says Roddenberry: “I read Childhood’s End, of course, and was mightily moved by it. And I should say that Profiles of the Future was the next most important Clarke work in my life because a great deal of what I did on Star Trek was guided by that.”

Star Trek: The Original Series debuted on US network television in September 1966. The publication of Profiles, four years earlier, was clearly fortuitous. Star Trek would have been made anyway, without or without Profiles — but the 23rd Century universe might well have been different…

Profiles of the Future was revised by Sir Arthur Clarke on three occasions — in 1973, 1982 and again in 1999. The last revision, where I played a part in assisting the author, came out as the Millennium Edition.

These revisions were not extensive. As the cover blurb of the first revision noted: “Since it (the book) was concerned with ultimate possibilities, and not with achievements to be expected in the near future, even the remarkable events of the last decade have dated it very little.”

The same held for the last revision. But by then, the First Law was updated for Political Correctness:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he states that something is impossible, (s)he is very probably wrong.”

Next year, 2012, will mark the 50th anniversary of this future-shaping book’s first publication. Fans of science fiction and science fact should perhaps do something to mark the occasion — and not leave it entirely to the whim and fancy of Hollywood script writers.

Read also:
May 2009 blogpost: Star Trek: Advocating a world of equality, tolerance and compassion

‘The Futurist’ Interview with Sir Arthur C Clarke, published shortly after his death in March 2008

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

3 thoughts on “Thor, Superman and Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law: Technology or Magic?”

  1. Sir Arthur’s quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”
    What is magic. Last night we had a large dinner in my home…10 people sitting around the table…as it was my daughters birthday. The magic began…one by one people pulled out their individual iPhones. We are in Ontario Canada and my son is in Vancouver 3500 miles away….everyone was veiwing the people at the table…and in Vancouver…and we were having a live conversation…with everyone. We were in a magic bubble of something from an Arthur C Clarke book. We we alive in the moment together visual to eachother. I understand the basic technology…but to see the “Magic” used….12 people in different parts of the world enjoying a dinner togehter….in the same time space reality.
    That was magic…and I have the feeling that the magic to come would even shock Sir Arthur if that is possible.

    David Damario

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