Text and photos by Nalaka Gunawardene
In San Diego, California
As a science fiction writer and scientific visionary, Sir Arthur C Clarke was widely respected and acclaimed for his perceptive reflections on humanity’s near and far futures. From his exceptional imagination stemmed over 80 books and hundreds of short stories and essays.
This week, the University of California San Diego and the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation launched a new Arthur C Clarke Centre for Human Imagination (ACCCHI) to study and understand human imagination in all its many forms and dimensions.
The centre, located at UC San Diego campus, will work across a wide range of disciplines such as technology, education, engineering, health, science, environment, entertainment and the arts. It will seek to bridge science and arts in trying to harness imagination for human progress.
Officially, the new centre’s mission is to develop, catalyze and be a global resource for innovative research, education and leading edge initiatives drawing upon the under-utilized resources of human imagination.
“We are pleased to create the first and only Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination,” UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K Khosla said at the public opening of the new centre on May 20.
“At UC San Diego, innovation plays an integral role in our education and research, so our campus is ideally suited to launch and grow a major center to better understand, enhance and enact the gift of human imagination,” he added.
The creation of the new centre is the culmination of a decade long process that the Arthur C Clarke Foundation (ACCF), when the non-profit organization set out looking for the best way to celebrate the legacy of legendary author.
Clarke personally endorsed the initiative before he passed away in March 2008. A series of public events and activities at UC San Diego throughout this month pay tribute to his many literary and scientific achievements.
Tedson Meyers, ACCF Chairman of the Board, said several excellent US universities had responded to a call for proposals to host the Arthur C Clarke Centre for Human Imagination. Among them, UC San Diego had made the most compelling case.
He explained: “UC San Diego and its faculty provide both a practical as well as theoretical framework to put imagination under a microscope, to find its historic limits and go beyond them, and to promote its positive use in education, commerce, science, social change and more. Clearly, ACCCHI will also put Sir Arthur’s spirit back to work in a significant way.”
Meyers also suggested a slogan for both the Foundation and the new Centre: “Science forges fiction into function”.
“The Clarke Center will be a focal point for active collaboration on current and future research and an intersection of disciplines for the purpose of identifying and advancing creative and innovative solutions for the challenges of contemporary and future societies,” said Sandra Brown, the university’s vice chancellor for research.
The new centre is being headed by Sheldon Brown, a professor of media arts in the Department of Visual Arts in UC San Diego’s Division of Arts and Humanities. For him and team, this week’s public launch came after two years of planning and ground laying work.
“In our proposal for the new centre, we brought together connections from all divisions of the campus to show how the subject of imagination could be pursued through an engagement of the arts, literature, sciences, medicine and technology,” he said.
Understanding the brain will be a key plank in the new centre’s multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work. Among the big questions the new centre will address are: what is the neurological basis for imagination and creativity? How does imagination occur in human societies? And does it vary from culture to culture?
The impetus for probing and understanding human imagination came from cultural research, Brown added. In recent years, the University has regularly brought science fiction writers and scientists together in a series of meetings that explored the interface between science, technology and society.
According to UC San Diego sources, it has produced more science fiction writers than any other university in the United States, many of who are already involved in developing the new centre.
Seth Lerer, Dean of Arts and Humanities, described UC San Diego as the ‘campus of possibility’. He quoted Arthur C Clarke’s famous Second Law: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”
Director Sheldown Brown said he wants to develop international collaborations in exploring myriad ways in which human cultures and societies respond to a fundamental question that is at the root of imagination: “What if?”
As part of the launch events, the centre hosted a two-day “Starship Century Symposium”. It was a scientific meeting devoted to discussing a ‘big idea’ of developing an inter-stellar ‘starship’ in the next 100 years. Space scientists, astronomers, science fiction writers and other experts explored the challenges and opportunities for humanity’s long-term future in space.
Among the speakers were physicist Freeman Dyson, futurist Peter Schwartz, and science fiction authors Neal Stephenson, Allen Steele, Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford, Geoffrey Landis and David Brin.
Other events included an exhibition of Arthur C Clarke books, book cover paintings and signed photographs, as well as a public screening of the 1997 BBC documentary on him titled ‘The Man Who Saw the Future’.
The Man Who Saw the Future (BBC 1997)