Clarke’s Three Laws

by | Jul 23, 2020

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke was a British science fiction writer and futurist. (Don’t like science fiction? Click Here.) Clarke was known as one of the “big three” of science fiction writing of the 20th Century, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. He’s best known for the fantastic books Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odessey. His book Rendezvous with Rama is also a fascinating read.

He has been credited with postulating these three laws:

Law Number One

#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.”

Clarke’s reference to “elderly” is to scientists over the age of 30. Further, he wrote that “as every researcher just out of college knows, scientists over fifty are good for nothing but board meetings, and at all costs should be kept out of the laboratory!” Also, compare this “law” with Max Planck’s observation that “science advances one funeral at a time.”

Law Number Two

#2: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. According to New Scientist, “he had written this in the context of a list of inventions and discoveries that he had classified as either expected (including automobiles, telephones, robots, “flying machines”) or unexpected (x-rays, nuclear energy, photography, quantum mechanics).” That is an interesting way of thinking about technological progress. In 1900 it was not a stretch to think that at some point humans would invent a way to fly. The idea that nuclear energy was possible or that quantum effects occurred at the atomic level was not something that people in 1900 could envision. Many technological changes that will have big effect on our lives (or our descendent’s lives) are those which are currently unimaginable.

Law Number Three

#3: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This is the most famous of the three laws. Its fun to think about what a human from 3,000 years ago would think about plane flight and the internet and then roll that forward to think about what technologies might exist in the future that will seem like magic to us.

Michael Shermer, the noted skeptic, has added to this law: “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence or far-future human would be indistinguishable from God.”

In an interview, Clarke was asked if he would be unveiling any other laws. Clarke responded: “As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there.”

Law Number Four

But wait! He wasn’t done as there is a fourth law ascribed to him: “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.” So true.


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