Did Arthur C Clarke give us the iPad concept too?

I posted a few days ago about Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) as a writer. He was also a very capable scientist who – among other things – invented the communications satellite.

What other things? Fast forward to August 2011, when Samsung suggested that the ‘iPad’ had antecedent in prior art – on board Discovery in the Clarke/Kubrick 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Obviously this has to be seen in context of their litigation with Apple. However, if we go to the novel we find Clarke’s description of the idea is precise – not of an ‘iPad’ specifically, but of the general concept behind any tablet computer with a mobile connection to news services. Yet another case of science fiction art (ahem) taking the lead – joining Robert Heinlein’s modern waterbed, among others. What is probably less well known is that in 1960 Clarke also figured out that content exchanged via a global information network (which he thought satellites might facilitate) would include salacious content – the story was ‘I Remember Babylon’ It was a moral tale which made clear he understood the human condition very well (as do most historians – the past leaves one quite cynical).

Hard science added a layer of quality to Clarke’s books. He always did write about characters – but they lived in worlds that were absolutely compelling, brutally accurate when it came to the scientific realities. It was not quite as in-your-face as Heinlein, but just as hard. I thought I’d list what, for me, are some of the highights:

1. Surviving a vacuum unprotected. You get ten seconds of consciousness, and you’ll live after ninety seconds if someone with a spacesuit rescues you. Shown graphically in that scene in Space Odyssey where Bowman blows himself back into the Discovery. It was first explored by Clarke in Earthlight – this at a time when there was a wide belief that a microsecond in vacuum would cause people to go pop. Not so. Actual experience during a 1966 vacuum chamber accident demonstrated Clarke right. I believe he got part of the physics from his diving experience – popping up from 10 metres is actually about the same pressure drop as going from one atmosphere to vacuum in the same time.

2. Space is not a meteor shooting range. Early SF stories often portrayed spacecraft as facing a kind of machine gun barrage of rocks, sand and other debris. Savvy astronomers – and hence SF writers – knew otherwise. Clarke handled it in The Sands of Mars with a hilarious sequence where his protagonist – nervous at the thought – had to be enviegled from his stateroom while the crew surrepticiously repaired a pinhole in the wall caused by a strike some days earlier. Yup – his envisaged spacecraft had a life support system that could handle leakage, thus killing a Hollywood dramatic device used even years later. (The real-world figure for the Apollo CM, incidentally, was a 1/4 inch hole, for 15 minutes – enough time to put on a spacesuit. Ironically, the biggest threat our spacecraft face now is from our OWN rubbish left in orbit. Typical.)

3. Real physics are not going to make a Hollywood space combat spectacle. Clarke’s depiction of a space battle with nukes and projected-radiation weapons in Earthlight remains the only one to portray the physics properly. Nuclear weapons do NOT cause mushroom clouds in space, though the heat and radiation will damage. Beams are NOT visible. There was one exception – he portrayed the defenders wielding a visible beam – defying the fact that light (radiation) isn’t visible in a vacuum. The twist was the explanation. It was liquid iron, squirted out at tremendous speed like a super high-energy water pistol. That, of course, would be visible in a vacuum. In fact there was another flaw with it. Iron loses its magnetic properties above its Curie temperature of 1043 degrees kelvin, well before it melts, and can’t be pushed through a linear accelerator. I suspect, though, that Clarke knew that – in the same battle he also invoked a mystery ‘space drive’. The real physics allowed him to suspend reader belief for two unreal but brilliantly dramatic turns.

4. Rama. A spinning alien ‘habitat’, described in every detail down to numbers by Clarke. He got it all right – coriolis drift, the slop of the internal ocean, how it would react when heated from outside in by the sun, and the spin rate needed to generate a 2/3 Earth gravity on the inside surface for the diameter he described (I checked the math).  Every detail was impressively thought through, even down to the scene where the Earth visitors watch a lightning-bolt display inside Rama, associated with a change in its spin rate – and Clarke actually has one of the characters point out that this colossal lightning surge could only have been a secondary and quite trivial energy release compared to what was actually invoked.

Solid, solid stuff. And where Clarke had to hand-wave, he did so believably. Or by poking fun, as in the Harry Purvis stories, Tales from the White Hart, where his raconteur inevitably outlined some quite improbable science to a room full of (real) science fiction authors – and had his errors pointed out along the way – but was able to wave them off. Literally. All, of course, in a quintessentially English style.

Amidst all this accurate science, was HAL an epic fail? Real computers never did go down the track of a sentient and apparently hard-wired mainframe.  Actually, no. Nobody predicted the information revolution. Clarke’s HAL was a reasonable extrapolation of where everybody thought computing was going, from the 1960s. And don’t forget that he also conceived of the tablet computer at the same time.

Similarly, the lack of radiators on Discovery wasn’t Clarke’s doing. He knew they would be needed. Kubrick, however, wanted to make the ship look like a skeleton. Deliberately. Equally, the centrifuge – built full size on the Shepperton sound stage – was actually too small. A real centrifuge of that size would simulate gravity in free-fall conditions, via rotational/inertia effects (NOT ‘centripetal’, which is an inwards force). The way it works is this; the ‘floor’ of the carousel stops the astronaut moving out at a tangent. The force required to do so, in effect to alter their trajectory against their inertial tendency to move in a straight line, is felt as an illusion of ‘gravity’. However, on a 40-foot diameter centrifuge, the coriolis effects would be enough, in all likelyhood, to make the hapless astronauts seasick – especially if they stood up quickly – because of the gradient between the inertia being overcome at the two distances from the spin axis. I am pretty sure Clarke knew that too.

Do you have a favourite science moment in any of Clarke’s work? Do tell. Or is there some other great science moment in one of your favourite SF books you’d like to share?

Oh. One last thing. Clarke was an absolute master both of twist endings – and of the intersection in literature between science and spirituality. Both of them summed up in his brilliant short story ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’. I first read it as a teenager, 30 years ago. The last line – pointed, sharp, ambiguous – still haunts me.

Does it haunt you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011