Arthur C Clarke: Of Nukes and 'Impotent Nations'
by Nalaka Gunawardene
21 March 2008: Colombo, Sri Lanka
“Do you know about the only man to light a cigarette from a nuclear explosion?” Sir Arthur C Clarke was fond of asking his visitors a few years ago.
Clarke, the celebrated science fiction writer and space visionary who died on March 19 aged 90, loved to ask such baffling questions.
In this instance, the answer was Theodore (Ted) Taylor, a leading American nuclear scientist who designed atomic weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently he just held up a small parabolic mirror during a nuclear test -- the giant fireball was 12 miles away – and turned light into heat.
"The moment I heard this, I wrote to Taylor, saying 'Don't you know smoking is bad for your health?'" Clarke added with a chuckle.
In fact, he took an extremely dim view of both smoking and nuclear weapons, and wanted to see them outlawed. But he was aware that both tobacco and nukes formed strong addictions that individuals and nations found hard to kick.
Years ago, Clarke had coined the slogan ‘Guns are the crutches of the impotent’. In later years, he added a corollary: "High tech weapons are the crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative chromium plating."
Living in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey was acutely aware of tensions between neighbouring India and Pakistan – both nuclear weapon states.
British-born and calling himself an "ethnic human", Clarke offered a unique perspective on nuclear disarmament. His interest in the subject could be traced back to his youth, when he served in the Royal Air Force during Second World War. As a radar officer, he was never engaged in combat, but had a ringside view of Allied action in Europe.
Shortly after the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the War, he wrote an essay "The Rocket and the Future of Warfare". In that essay, first published in the RAF Journal in 1946, he said: "The only defence against the weapons of the future is to prevent them ever being used. In other words, the problem is political and not military at all. A country’s armed forces can no longer defend it; the most they can promise is the destruction of the attacker...."
Arthur Clarke's continued his advocacy against the weapons of mass destruction to the very end. The lure and folly of nuke addiction is a key theme in his last science fiction novel, The Last Theorem, to be published later this year. He completed working on the manuscript, co-written with the American author Frederik Pohl, only three days before his demise.
From his island home for over half a century, Clarke was a keen observer of the subcontinent’s advances in science and technology. He personally knew some of the region’s top scientists – among them Indian space pioneers Vikram Sarabhai and Yash Pal, and Pakistan’s Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam.
Shortly after India carried out nuclear weapons test in May 1998, Clarke issued a brief statement saying: “Hindustan should be proud of its scientists - but ashamed of its politicians."
He chided the mass euphoria that seemed, for a while at least, to sweep across parts of the subcontinent. He signed the statement as "Arthur C Clarke, Vikram Sarabhai Professor, 1980".
That was a reference to three months he spent at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabd, in western India, lecturing about peaceful uses of outer space. It was the only time he held the title 'professor'.
Clarke’s direct associations with India went back further. In the early 1970s, he advised the Indian Space Research Organisation on the world's first use of communications satellites for direct television broadcasting to rural audiences. Preparations for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) Project were underway when India carried out its first "peaceful explosion" of an atom bomb in 1974.
"I can still remember Vikram telling me how Indian politicians pleaded with him to ‘build a teeny weeny (nuclear) bomb’,” Clarke recalled in an interview in 2002.
He returned to the subject when delivering the 13th Nehru Memorial Address in New Delhi in November 1986, which he titled 'Star Wars and Star Peace'. He critiqued the Strategic Defence Initiative (which President Reagan called 'Star Wars') – a nuclear 'umbrella' over the United States against missile attacks. Clarke argued that SDI was conceptually and technologically flawed, and that its pursuit could hurt America’s lead in other areas of space exploration.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rejoined from the chair: "Forty years ago, Dr Clarke said that the only defence against the weapons of the future is to prevent them from being used.... Perhaps we could add to that, we should prevent them from being built. It’s time that we all heed his warning....I just hope people in other world capitals also are listening..."
While campaigning against nuclear weapons, Clarke was equally concerned about all offensive weapons. "Let's not forget the conventional weapons, which have been perfected over the years to inflict maximum collateral damage," he said in a video address to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Pugwash Movement in October 2007. "If you are at the receiving end, it doesn't matter if such weapons are ‘smart’ or stupid…"
As tributes to Arthur C Clarke from all corners of the planet confirm, he commanded the world's attention and respect. His rational yet passionate arguments against warfare were heard, though not always heeded in the corridors of power and geopolitics.
For such people, he had the perfect last words from his own hero, H G Wells: "You damn fools – I told you so!"