“Imagination is more important than intelligence.”
- Albert Einstein
“The road to the stars has been discovered none too soon. Civilisation cannot exist without new frontiers; it needs them both physically and spiritually.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future (1962)
Towards the end of his life Arthur Clarke was asked the inevitable question: how did he most want to be remembered, as a scientist or a writer? I have always drawn comfort from the fact that Arthur came down unequivocally in favour of his literary accomplishments; or to put it another way in favour of imagination over reality. First and foremost Arthur was always a story-teller, even when he was dreaming of communication satellites, or the type of world-brain or global consciousness that would one day become the internet.
Imagination and reality both play an essential role in scientific and technological advancement; if he has aspirations as an inventor, the unbridled dreamer won’t get far unless he can find a way to turn his dreams into something more tangible. Imagination and reality are, in effect, opposite sides of the same coin. The power of harnessing these complimentary facets was very much in evidence at this year’s “Arthurs,” which are designed to celebrate the achievements of the space industry and community, both in the UK and internationally. This ability to dream an idea into existence – through visionary thinking, hard work, dedication and persistence – is a modern type of alchemy, a process of intellectual transmutation which is delivering real returns for the British economy, as well as inspiring a new generation of space scientists, engineers, technicians and writers.
Hosted by Lord David Cobbold on the terrace of the House of Lords, with well-known space enthusiast and celebrity impressionist Jon Culshaw as Master of Ceremonies, the 2012 “Arthurs” were a chance not just to celebrate world class excellence, including the best of “Britain in space;” they were also a chance to remember the man in whose name these awards are given, Sir Arthur C. Clarke. With accomplished ease Jon conjured that very same man into being, summoning a vocal presence that was, to all intents and purposes, the real thing. For a few startling seconds Arthur’s voice could be heard throughout the marquee as our host recreated that instantly recognisable West Country burr, full of ironic humour and mischief. It was a voice which cast scepticism on the existence of both the Loch Ness Monster and the fabled Yeti, while sill leaving room for the possibility that conclusive evidence for both might one day turn up. As Jon talked about how he’d been fascinated by Arthur’s TV series (still fondly remembered more than thirty years on), an image of the celebrated author strolling along a Sri Lankan beach under that famous umbrella quickly came to mind. It was a welcome image which did much to dispel the autumn chill that had settled on a grey and dreary London.
Of all the award categories, perhaps the one that might have been closest to Arthur’s heart was the prize for media, won this year by the Space Boffins Richard Hollingham and Sue Nelson, both of whom were clearly delighted with their well-deserved achievement. Sir Arthur would also have been pleased that Jon took the opportunity to present Sir Patrick Moore’s Sky At Night co-presenters Pete Lawrence and Paul Abel with a 55th anniversary plaque from the BIS. A well-deserved award for the longest running TV series in the world. Sir Arthur and Sir Patrick first met at a BIS meeting in the 1950s and a life-long friendship followed.
All the nominees spend as much time in the future, as they do in the present, as they strive to bring about the type of tomorrow that Arthur so often wrote about. It is unlikely that we will ever unearth a monolith on the Moon but some of the other shapes found in many of Arthur’s stories may well take a very real and influential form in the years to come. This is particularly true of the spaceplane that was one of the iconic vehicles in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The “Arthurs” major sponsor this year was Reaction Engines, an Abingdon based engineering firm which is currently working on a revolutionary rocket engine designed to power the SKYLON spaceplane. Knowing that this concept has started to move from the drawing board into the real world gave the awards an undeniable frisson of excitement. Arthur’s imagined future is edging ever closer.
As Master of Ceremonies, Jon allowed us to share the company of Terry Wogan, Tom Baker, Tony Blair, Bruce Forsyth, Patrick Moore and Brian Cox. The latter impression was so uncannily accurate that it was easy to believe that Cox was actually in the room with us, “pointing to any bright object in the sky” in his unending quest to explore the universe. My only regret was that, through Jon, we never got to meet Russell Crowe, who as General Maximus might have asked the assembled guests: “Are you not entertained?” Indeed we were, and as is often the way at BIS meetings, Arthur was there with us, not just in Jon’s wonderful vocal evocation but in spirit too. Arthur’s reputation and achievements live on through his novels and scientific writings, and through these prestigious awards. And as Jon might have said through the borrowed tones of Patrick Moore: “long may that continue.”
Mark Stewart, FBIS
The Arthur C. Clarke Foundation: http://www.clarkefoundation.org/
Powering the Future, Building the Engines of Tomorrow: http://www.bis-space.com/2012/05/04/4545/building-the-engines-of-tomorrow
The 2012 Arthurs were awarded to:
Best Space Activity – Industry/Project
SSTL NigeriaSat-2 Team
Best Space Activity – Academic Study/Research
Professor Ian Wright and the Rosetta Ptolemy Team
Best Space Education – Outreach
Best Space Education – Student
Charlotte Lucking, Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, University of Strathclyde
Best Space Media – Broadcast/Written
Jean-Jaques Dordain – Director General, European Space Agency
Sir Patrick Moore and The Sky at Night
For a full list of nominees see: http://www.bis-space.com/2012/10/09/7117/nominees-for-sir-arthur-clarke-awards-2012