Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I was just a small girl interested in science and animals and writing when I first read Arthur C. Clarke’s aphorism about magic. Despite my youth, this statement had a tremendous impact upon my life, more so than any other single sentence that I’ve read before or since, because it reminded me of my place within the overall historical context.
I had since forgotten that Clarke was its author because I was so young when I read it, but nonetheless, this observation was apparently writ upon my heart, changing how I viewed the world and my place in it. It changed how I dealt with my schooling, since I secretly thought of myself as a magician’s apprentice, learning all the essentials of a good education as I worked to gain access to a world blazing with secrets eager to be revealed and understood. It colored everything I did during my university years, giving me a quiet, contented pride, knowing that every day as I worked with my birds and puzzled over the molecular mechanisms that underlie their behaviors, as I cloned and sequenced their genes, that I was exploring the mysterious depths of life itself, and further, that I was realizing my destiny by pursuing science; I was seeking out magic, I was doing magic.
Do you think that Clarke, who lived 90 years, thought that he was a magician living in magical times? Certainly, he witnessed tremendous technological advances during his years on this planet: the invention of the first freely programmable computer—a monster of a machine that filled a large room—when he was just 9 years old, the popularization of small laptops with thousands of times more computational power, the excitement over even smaller iPhones and those cute little iPods, and of course, the widespread use of email, which consumed much of Clarke’s last years. Perhaps this early monstrous computer was the inspiration for the ghostly HAL 9000 that haunted the corridors of the space station in Clarke’s pivotal science fiction movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey?
Did Clarke feel a quiet pride to know that one of his own “magical” scientific ideas from long ago, that of placing satellites in geostationary orbits explicitly for communications purposes, has provided daily pleasure to countless cell phone users and satellite television aficionados? Did he feel honored when NASA scientists named several space vehicles Odyssey? Did he feel like an initiate to the mythical Round Table of long ago when the Queen knighted him? Did Clarke stay up-to-date with modern scientific advances as eagerly as he kept up with his email to his many friends around the world?
Arthur C. Clarke saw a lot during his lifetime. He grew up when horses were the primary mode of transportation and lived to see space probes drill holes in the surface of Mars while others fled the solar system in pursuit of distant mysteries. Even though he was known as an inventor and futurist, when asked, Clarke specifically stated that he wanted to be remembered foremost as a writer. If his words inspired other scientists as they inspired me, maybe Clarke knew that by writing, he was also, in a way, performing magic.
GrrlScientist blogs at Living the Scientific Life on ScienceBlogs.
Originally published March 20, 2008