Thursday, November 4, 2021

Arthur C. Clarke and the Magic of UFOs


Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008) was a scientist who became the world’s most famous science fiction author, best remembered for writing 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke’s influence is enormous, but today we’re focusing on one single phrase.

Arthur C. Clarke himself helped associate the phrase with UFO. He had a letter published in Science magazine, Jan. 19, 1968, correcting a reader who had erroneously attributed a quote by him to Isaac Asimov. Clarke offered the comment: “Meanwhile, Clarke's Third Law is even more appropriate to the UFO discussion: ‘​Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’"

 Science magazine, Jan. 19, 1968

Clarke had a long-standing interest in UFOs, and while visiting the USA in 1952, he looked into the flying saucer issue. 

His 1963 essay “Flying Saucers” for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society explained why he changed his mind. 

“Before going to the United States in the spring of 1952, I believed that flying saucers probably did not exist, but that if they did, they were spaceships. As a result of meeting witnesses whose integrity and scientific standing could not be doubted, and discussing the matter with many people who had given serious thought, I have now reversed my opinion. I have little doubt that Unidentified Aerial Objects do exist – and equally little doubt that they are not spaceships! The evidence against the latter hypothesis is, in my opinion, quite overwhelming...”

Clarke appeared on the Long John Nebel radio show in February 1958 and told of his own many UFO sightings, which all turned out to be identified or explainable. The discussion revealed a depth of his knowledge on the topic, including the books by Keyhoe, Menzel and Ruppelt. Clarke was open to the idea of visits by extraterrestrials, but he thought that reports of flying saucers had nothing to do with it. “Most of the confusion on this subject is caused by mixing up two entirely separate things. One, UFOs. I think UFOs probably exist, and the other, so-called flying saucers, which are vehicles, definite vehicles, which are a totally different thing, and which don’t exist.”

Clarke’s 1959 book, The Challenge of the Spaceship devoted an entire chapter to showing that reports of unidentified flying objects were mostly due to misinterpretation, but he was optimistic about space travel. “If you keep looking at the sky, before much longer you will see a genuine spaceship. But it will be one of ours.”

In the summer of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey was in theatres. Time magazine, Friday, July 19, 1968, featured the article, “Science Fiction: Latter-Day Jules Verne,” a profile of Arthur C. Clarke. The article quoted the “the three premises of which Clarke bases all his writing, fiction and nonfiction alike,” since known as Clarke’s Laws:
“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

"The only way to define the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible."

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
One week later, that quote about magic was first used in to promote UFOs. On July 29, 1968, six scientists spoke at the "Symposium on Unidentified Flying Objects" held by the United States government’s House Committee on Science and Astronautics. 

Dr. James E. McDonald said during his testimony:
“If we were under surveillance from some advanced technology sufficiently advanced to do what we cannot do in the sense of interstellar travel, then, as Arthur Clarke has put it quite well, quoted in Time magazine the last week, we have an odd situation. Arthur Clarke points out that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. How well that applies to UFO sightings.”
The United Press news coverage of the Symposium repeated it for the newspapers:
“McDonald said if the earth was being watched, it was being done by a society so advanced that its technology ‘would be indistinguishable from magic’ to earthmen.”

Indistinguishable from Magical Thinking

Clarke’s Third Law has since been quoted far and wide in everything from science fiction to computer programming discussions. It also became a fixture in UFO discussions.

In the textbook for the U.S. Air Force Academy, at Colorado Springs, Colorado’s third year Physics course, Introductory Space Science, Volume II, chapter 33, “Unidentified Flying Objects.” The Fall Quarter 1970 edition included this passage under the section, “Hypotheses to Explain UFOs.”
“Advanced terrestrial technologies (e.g. test vehicles, satellites, reentry phenomena, secret weapons). The noted space scientist Arthur C. Clarke has observed that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear indistinguishable from magic. Thus advanced terrestrial technologies are certainly the cause of some reports.”
Coral and Jim Lorenzen of APRO cited the phrase in their 1976 book, Encounters with UFO Occupants, saying, “…we may conjecture that we are ‘dealing’ with a very old and incredibly experienced galactic culture which has crisscrossed the vast spatial seas for probably thousands, perhaps millions, of years in starships that, to us, are ‘indistinguishable from magic’ (A.C. Clarke).”

In The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence by Robert Sheaffer, 1981, he quoted Clarke, adding, “But from this it does not follow that all reports of magic represent artifacts of some advanced technology.”

Almost from inception, the phrase has been used and abused to the point of cliché. Clarke’s law was intended to open the imagination, not to be cited as justification for superstition, or to serve as dogmatic mantra for anti-science beliefs. Clarke’s second law is a better motto for ufology:

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