August 9th 1969: Arthur C Clarke claims ‘If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong’


From “A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities: A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas” by Roy Sorensen :


“‘If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong,’ declared Arthur C. Clarke (New Yorker, 9 August 1969). An elderly but distinguished scientist replies, ‘It is impossible for Mr Clarke to be correct.’  How likely is the elderly scientist’s claim?”

Check out the answer tomorrow! And here is the original article featuring Clarke’s claim, Jeremy Bernstein’s “Out of the Ego Chamber”:


Clarke has been in the business of scientific and technological prophecy for over thirty years now, and from this experience he has evolved a set of laws and principles. There are three basic Clarke Laws. (He once remarked that if three laws were enough for Newton they were enough for him.) The First Clarke Law states, “If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong.” Clarke has confirmed this law by counting up the elderly but distinguished prewar astronomers who “proved,” by portentous calculations, that space flight was technologically impossible. The Second Clarke Law was originally a simple sentence in his book “Profiles of the Future” but was promoted to a law by the translator of the French edition. It states, “The only way to find the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.” The Third, and most recently formulated, Clarke Law, which he made use of in writing the enigmatic ending of “2001,” states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In addition to the laws, there are several empirical principles, one of which Clarke feels is fully applicable to his 1945 Wireless World article on the communications satellite; namely, that in making scientific prophecies the tendency is to be optimistic in the short range and pessimistic in the long. At the time that Clarke wrote his Wireless Worldarticle, the V-2s had already fallen on London, so it was well known that high-altitude rockets were a practical possibility. Clarke felt that they would be used as high-altitude research probes, and in 1944 he predicted that this would take place within a decade, which was somewhat optimistic. However, the communications satellite, he felt, would not come into existence for half a century or more, which was pessimistic, since Syncom 3, the first synchronous TV satellite, was launched on August 19, 1964. In his “Pre-History,” Clarke has an interesting aside concerning that launching. He writes:

This event, incidentally, is a good example of the perils that beset a prophet. In October, 1961, while moderating a panel discussion at the American Rocket Society . . . I had mentioned that the 1964 Olympics would be a good target to shoot for with a synchronous satellite. (I cannot claim credit for the idea, which I’d picked up in general discussions a few days earlier.) Dr. William Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was in the front row of my audience, and he was so tickled with the suggestion that hepassed it on to Vice-President Johnson, speaker at the society’s banquet the next evening. The Vice-President, in turn, thought it was such a good idea that he departed from his prepared speech to include it; so when “Profiles of the Future” was published in 1962, I felt confident enough to predict that most large cities would carry live transmissions from Tokyo in 1964. What I had failed to foresee was that, despite heroic efforts by the White House, the Communications Satellite Corporation, nasa, and the Hughes Aircraft Company (builders of Syncom 3), a large part of the United States did not see the superb live transmissions from the Olympics, which were made available by this triumph of technology. Why? Because they arrived at an awkward time, and the networks did not want to upset their existing program and advertising arrangements!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s