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5 Reasons We'll Miss Arthur C. Clarke

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The late Sir Arthur C. Clarke was loved by nerds and normals alike for his contributions to literature, film, and technology. Here's a rundown of the five biggest reasons we'll miss him.

1. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World

Clarke kept extensive files on mysterious events, objects, and locations throughout the world. Starting in the early 1980's, he mined these files to bring us Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, a thirteen-part TV series covering topics ranging from UFOs to crystal skulls. The show told fascinating stories and Clarke classified them according to his three categories of mystery (dubbed, simply enough, the first, second, and third kinds) depending on how well they're currently understood.

While the show is very dated (and a few of the "mysteries" have since been definitively explained as hoaxes), it's great fun, and Clarke's sober introductions to each story are fascinating to watch. I remember watching the show after school when I was growing up, and it brings back memories -- the series gave me a sense of wonder, and introduced me to notions of scientific skepticism which have served me well. Today you can watch bits of Mysterious World on YouTube. Here's a clip from one episode, in which Clarke narrates a solar eclipse (a "mystery of the first kind" -- one that was a mystery to our ancestors, but is understood now):

In 1985, Clarke returned with Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers featuring another thirteen episodes on strange topics, and again in 1994 with Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe, his final series on the weird.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke teamed up with director Stanley Kubrick to write 2001: A Space Odyssey, a landmark film released in 1968. The film was originally based on a previous short story of Clarke's, but the collaboration with Kubrick significantly expanded the narrative. During development, Clarke kept an amusing diary detailing his work with Kubrick. Here's a selection:

July 9. Spent much of afternoon teaching Stanley how to use the slide rule -- he's fascinated.

July 11. Joined Stanley to discuss plot development, but spent almost all the time arguing about Cantor's Theory of Transfinite Groups. Stanley tries to refute the "part equals the whole" paradox by arguing that a perfect square is not necessarily identical with the integer of the same value. I decide that he is a latent mathematical genius.

July 12. Now have everything -- except the plot.

Read more of the diary for lots of great 2001 trivia. Warning: if you haven't seen the film, the diary is full of spoilers! 2001 is also an excellent book (released shortly after the film, and with a bit more backstory about why certain things are happening), and sci-fi fans should also check out 2010, 2061, and 3001. (Although I'll admit, the latter two volumes are a little corny around the edges.)

3. The Communications Satellite

Clarke is widely credited with dreaming up the idea of geostationary satellites -- orbiting satellites that enable worldwide communications networks. He published his ideas in a 1945 article entitled Extra-Terrestrial Relays - Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?

Clarke didn't patent the idea and thus didn't profit from it, leading to a 1965 article entitled: "A Short Pre-History of Comsats; or How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time." Other inventors came up with similar ideas around the same time, and there's some disagreement as to whose idea it was first. Regardless, Clarke is already remembered as the originator of this particularly great idea.

4. Clarke's Laws

Clarke's interest in science, the future, and famous mysteries led him to formulate three laws on the nature of prediction. The third law has become famous, and is reprinted widely -- it even appeared on my father's office door when I was growing up. The three laws are listed below (with emphasis added to my favorite):

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

5. His Sense of Humor

Throughout his endeavors, Clarke maintained his quiet, good-natured sense of humor. In 2006, WIRED magazine invited him to contribute to a series of Very Short Stories which were supposed to consist of only six words, after Hemingway's famous example. Clarke, true to his lifelong practice of writing long, multi-volume fiction, insisted on writing ten words instead:

God said, 'Cancel Program GENESIS.' The universe ceased to exist.

Please share your memories of Arthur C. Clarke's life and work in the comments.

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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Kevin Winter / Getty Images

George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

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Space
Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."

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