Sir Arthur’s Quotations

The quotes provided below reflect the insights of Arthur C. Clarke spanning a wide range of topics concerning the human condition, our existence on Earth, and Earth’s place in a greater cosmos. Uncited quotes are provided by Neil McAleer, Arthur C. Clarke’s biographer. Cited quotes have been checked by Institute staff against primary sources in the collection of the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC.

Selected quotes:

In the struggle for freedom of information, technology, not politics, will be the ultimate decider.

Every revolutionary idea seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: (1) It’s completely impossible. (2) It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. (3) I said it was a good idea all along.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying.

Human judges can show mercy. But against the laws of nature, there is no appeal.

I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.

It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value.

It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.

It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God but to create him.

Our lifetime may be the last that will be lived out in a technological society.

Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.

I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.

The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.

The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.

The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.

There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.

This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one.

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.

The best proof that there’s intelligent life in outer space is the fact that it hasn’t come here.

We stand now at the turning point between two eras. Behind us is a past to which we can never return … The coming of the rocket brought to an end a million years of isolation … the childhood of our race was over and history as we know it began.

The fact that we have not yet found the slightest evidence for life — much less intelligence — beyond this Earth does not surprise or disappoint me in the least. Our technology must still be laughably primitive; we may well be like jungle savages listening for the throbbing of tom-toms, while the ether around them carries more words per second than they could utter in a lifetime.

Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information — in the sense of raw data — is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these.

There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.

from The Sentinel, 1948
I can never look now at the Milky Way without wondering from which of those banked clouds of stars the emissaries are coming. If you will pardon so commonplace a simile, we have broken the glass of the fire alarm and have nothing to do but to wait. I do not think we will have to wait for long.

Yet now, as he roared across the night sky toward an unknown destiny, he found himself facing that bleak and ultimate question which so few men can answer to their satisfaction. What have I done with my life, he asked himself, that the world will be poorer if I leave it.
—Glide Path, 1963

Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
—Foreword to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.
—The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, Jerome Agel, 1970

Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!
—Electronic Tutors, 1980

The dinosaurs disappeared because they could not adapt to their changing environment. We shall disappear if we cannot adapt to an environment that now contains spaceships, computers — and thermonuclear weapons.
—The Collected Stories, 2000

The danger of asteroid or comet impact is one of the best reasons for getting into space … I’m very fond of quoting my friend Larry Niven: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”
—Meeting of the Minds : Buzz Aldrin Visits Arthur C. Clarke, Andrew Chaikin, 2001

SETI is probably the most important quest of our time, and it amazes me that governments and corporations are not supporting it sufficiently.
—Seti@Home, 2006

2001 was written in an age which now lies beyond one of the great divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out on to the Sea of Tranquility. Now history and fiction have become inexorably intertwined.
—Foreword to the Millennial Edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1999

… we have a situation in which millions of vehicles, each a miracle of (often unnecessary) complication, are hurtling in all directions under the impulse of anything up to two hundred horsepower. Many of them are the size of small houses and contain a couple of tons of sophisticated alloys – yet often carry a single passenger. They can travel at a hundred miles an hour, but are lucky if they average forty. In one lifetime they have consumed more irreplaceable fuel than has been used in the whole previous history of mankind. The roads to support them, inadequate though they are, cost as much as a small war; the analogy is a good one, for the casualties
are on the same scale.

—Profiles of the Future, 1972

For his 90th birthday in December 2007, Arthur C. Clarke recorded a greeting to his friends around the world. As part of the message, Clarke expressed three wishes:

Firstly, I would like to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life. I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But we are still waiting for ET to call us — or give us some kind of a sign. We have no way of guessing when this might happen — I hope sooner rather than later!

Secondly, I would like to see us kick our current addiction to oil, and adopt clean energy sources. … Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency. Our civilisation depends on energy, but we can’t allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet…

The third wish is one closer to home. I’ve been living in Sri Lanka for 50 years — and half that time, I’ve been a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country. I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible.

In his 90th birthday message, Clarke also addressed his legacy:

I’m sometimes asked how I would like to be remembered. I’ve had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. Of all these, I want to be remembered most as a writer — one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imaginations as well.

from Profiles of the Future, 1973 Edition
• Our age is in many ways unique, full of events and phenomena that never occurred before and can never happen again. They distort our thinking, making us believe that what is true now will be true forever, though perhaps on a larger scale. Because we have annihilated distance on this planet, we imagine that we can do it once again. The facts are otherwise, and we will see them more clearly if we forget the present and turn our minds towards the past.

• When the pioneers and adventurers of our past left their homes in search of new lands, they said good-bye forever to the place of their birth and the companions of their youth. Only a lifetime ago, parents waved farewell to their emigrating children in the virtual certainty that they would never meet again.
 And now, within one incredible generation, all this has changed.

• We have abolished space here on the little Earth; we can never abolish the space that yawns between the stars. Once again, as in the days when Homer sang, we are face-to-face with immensity and must accept its grandeur and terror, its inspiring possibilities and its dreadful restraints.

• To obtain a mental picture of the distance to the nearest star, as compared with the distance to the nearest planet, you must imagine a world in which the closest object to you is only five feet away — and there is nothing else to see until you have traveled a thousand miles.

• Space can be mapped and crossed and occupied without definable limit; but it can never be conquered. When our race has reached its ultimate achievements, and the stars themselves are scattered no more widely than the seed of Adam, even then we shall still be like ants crawling on the face of the Earth. The ants have covered the world, but have they conquered it — for what do their countless colonies know of it, or of each other? So it will be with us as we spread out from Mother Earth, loosening the bonds of kinship and understanding, hearing faint and belated rumors at second — or third — or thousandth hand of an ever-dwindling fraction of the entire human race. Though the Earth will try to keep in touch with her children, in the end all the efforts of her archivists and historians will be defeated by time and distance, and the sheer bulk of material. For the numbers of distinct human societies or nations, when our race is twice its present age, may be far greater than the total number of all the men who have ever lived up to the present time. We have left the realm of comprehension in our vain effort to grasp the scale of the universe; so it must always be, sooner rather than later.

originally from the essay Space and the Spirit of Man, 1965
verified in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!, Collected Essays 1934-1998, St. Martin’s Press 1999
• We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to
death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.

• …we cannot predict the new forces, powers, and discoveries that will be disclosed to us when we reach the other planets or can set up new laboratories in space. They are as much beyond our vision today as fire or electricity would be beyond the imagination of a fish.

• The rash assertion that ‘God made man in His own image’ is ticking like a time bomb at the foundations of many faiths, and as the hierarchy of the universe is disclosed to us, we may have to recognize this chilling truth: if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.

from The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, 2000
• What we need is a machine that will let us see the other guy’s point of view.

• Science demands patience.

• What is becoming more interesting than the myths themselves has been the study of how the myths were
constructed from sparse or unpromising facts—indeed, sometimes from no facts—in a kind of mute
conspiracy of longing, very rarely under anybody’s conscious control.

• Just as the human memory is not a passive recorder but a tool in the construction of the self, so history
has never been a simple record of the past, but a means of shaping peoples.

• The vendors seemed comical, so intent were they on their slivers of meaningless profit, all unaware of the
desolate ages that lay in their own near future, their own imminent deaths.

• Maybe those nihilist philosophers are right; maybe this is all we can expect of the universe, a relentless
crushing of life and spirit, because the equilibrium state of the cosmos is death…

• We always thought the living Earth was a thing of beauty. It isn’t. Life has had to learn to defend itself
against the planet’s random geological savagery.