Thoughts on Clarke's Laws

Speaking of dubious and oft-cited "Laws", I've run into a number of citations of "Clarke's Laws" recently. Of course, these were apparently subliminal mentions, because I can't seem to locate any of them again, but it put the subject in my mind, which is partly why I was primed to be annoyed by the subject of the previous post.

Anyway, "Clarke's Laws" are statements by the noted science fiction writer (and, no doubt, personal friend and mentor of Jonathan Vos Post, which I really don't want to hear about in comments) Arthur C. Clarke:

  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.

These are frequently cited by SF fans as if they're some sort of fundamental principle of nature, when in fact they really say more about the psychology of SF authors and fans than they do about science. In fact, I have big problems with two of them.

The second "law" is semantically empty piffle, and almost never cited, but the other two get brought up a lot, and I'm not really happy with either of them. Take the first "Law," for example, which really contains two statements:

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

These both sound good, but what's really striking about them is how frequently they're wrong. The problem with the second is trivially obvious: look at Bob Park. He's certainly elderly, and definitely distingushed, and spends a great deal of his time saying that various forms of crank science are impossible. And he's always right.

(His article on the signs of bogus science is absolutely essential reading, and his book, Voodoo Science is pretty darn good.)

Of course, the first sub-statement is also pretty ridiculous. In fact, there's a long tradition (sadly pronounced among physicists) of elderly and distinguished scientists going a bit barmy, and proclaiming the possibility of all sorts of ludicrous things. Some of them (Kary Mullis, Brian Josephson, I'm looking at you) don't even have the decency to wait until they're elderly. Even some of the very best fall into this-- Einstein spent the last twenty or thirty years of his life chasing scientific dead ends, and Niels Bohr said some really goofy things in his later years.

I'm also not terribly fond of the third "Law," the oft-cited:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Here, though, I think the problem has a lot to do with misunderstanding the nature of magic. Magic is, in every conception of it that I know of, capricious and contingent. It works for some people, some of the time, and doesn't work for others. Past performance does not guarantee future results-- even in the technologized modern forms of magic ("ESP" or whatever they're calling it these days), this is generally accepted by even sincere believers in magical phenomena. If you do the exact same thing on two different days, it won't necessarily work the same way both times.

This is in stark opposition to the nature of technology, which is that it works on basic scientific principles. Anything technological will necessarily have consistent rules governing its behavior, and those rules can be deduced by experiment. The rules might be fairly complicated, and you might not understand the principle by which the effects are obtained, but they'll be there, and repeatable. This means that, at least in principle, any technology ought to be distinguishable from magic, in that technology is consistent, and magic is capricious.

(Of course, on days when I find myself using Office a lot, I sometimes begin to question this conviction...)

In the end, as I said, I think these "Laws" are primarily statements about the worldview of SF fans and writers, or at least a subset thereof. They reflect a positive bias, and a belief in the infinite possibility of progress-- statements that things are possible are good, statements that things are impossible are bad. The fact that our technology can't do magical things is just an indication that it is insufficiently advanced, not a reflection of inflexible laws of physics.

In the end, "Clarke's Laws" are really just a geekier version of the oft-cited and frequently derided poster from The X-Files, proclaiming that "I Want to Believe." They're a reflection of a desire to have magic in the future, or at least in stories about the future, and an attempt to provide a scientific-sounding justification for the belief that there will be magic someday. If we all just believe hard enough, we'll find a way to beat Special Relativity and Conservation of Energy.

This also probably explains the observation (either at a convention panel or in conversation with an editor, and I no longer remember the context, so I'll be vague) that people who buy a lot of hard science fiction are also big consumers of the most dreadful woo-woo crap imaginable-- aliens and Bigfoot and loopy conspiracy stuff...


More like this

Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction author, predictor of the future, and inspirer of at least one little kid from rural Northern California, is dead at age 90. Although I learned to cringe at some of Clarke's writing as I grew older, I have very distinct and fond memories of reading "Childhood's End…
I heard this morning on the news that Sir Arthur C. Clarke has passed. NPR did a nice piece on him, if a bit focused on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke was a big influence on me and my interest in science and science fiction, and I thought it would be nice to have a permanent memorial of sorts,…
As approximately six billion other blogs have noted, Arthur C. Clarke is dead. His obit in the Times runs to three pages, which is a good indicator of just how long and distinguished his life was. My initial reaction is similar to Matt McIrvin's: it feels like the passing of an age. Bradbury and…
Josh Rosenau has a post about the supernatural, spinning off recent posts about a recent Calamities of Nature webcomic. Josh makes a point that I think is valid but subtle: The issue with the supernatural is not whether it's part of the universe, but whether it is bound by the same laws as all the…

Rules 1 and 3, at least, do hold up well - in science fiction.

Rule 1, both clauses, merely describes plot devices. If the hero is told by a respectable scientist that what the hero is attempting is madness, then the hero will have accomplished it by the end of the book or movie. In fact, the accomplishment will probably be the climax.

If the hero believes something is impossible, but the wise old man tells him otherwise, then, again, the accomplishment will be the climax of the story. (See, for example, Star Wars ep. 4, which features one old man telling Luke to switch off his targeting computer, and another old man asking him why he's switched off said computer. Of course, Luke makes the impossible shot and saves the day.)

And Rule 3 is used by lazy writers to keep from having to think about how or why their story technology works. "Eh, it's like magic. It works when and how I need it to."

Rule 2, on the other hand, sounds like something that belongs on the bottom of one of those trite "motivational" posters.


Okay. But...

20.20 Vision

Arthur C. Clarke, the distinguished scientific writer and futurist, who among other things predicted the communications satellite, has described two common errors that face those trying to predict the future. The first he calls a "failure of nerve." The "failure of nerve" occurs, as Clarke puts it, when even given all the relevant facts the would-be prophet cannot see that these facts point to an inescapable conclusion. Examples of this cited by Clarke were the comments on the future of commercial aviation by the American astronomer William H. Pickering, whose lengthy career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( M.I.T.) and Harvard straddled the 19th and 20th Centuries:

"The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steamships. It seems safe to say that such ideas must be wholly visionary and even if a machine could get across with one or two passengers the cost would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could own his own yacht." And furthermore, Pickering insisted, "it is clear that...there is no hope of [airplanes] competing for racing speed with either our locomotives or our automobiles."

Ironically, Pickering in his own field of astronomy was fearless in his predictions, even though some were wrong. While he saw no future for commercial aviation, he did see evidence of vegetation and even insect life on the Moon. But he was unable to draw the clear conclusions on aviation that flowed from the technological and scientific facts of his time. Such "failures of nerve" are surprisingly common in business, academia, and politics. Think of global warming.

Clarke distinguishes a second hazard of prophecy that he calls the "failure of imagination." Here the problem is not that one refuses to fit the available facts together, but rather that all the available facts are insufficient. What is needed is an imaginative leap. An example of this failure cited by Clarke involves the history of the computer itself. As long ago as 1819 Charles Babbage had worked out the principles underlying computers. He realized that all mathematical calculations could be broken down into a series of step-by-step operations that could in theory be carried out by a machine. With the aid of a government grant and a substantial private fortune he devoted his life to building such a machine, which he called an "analytical engine." What defeated him was that the precision engineering he needed did not exist at the time. He was in fact tragically not one, but two, technological revolutions ahead of his time. If there had been a precision-tool industry in the 1820s his machine would have worked, though it would have been much slower than an electronic computer. But it was the development of electronics that made modern computers possible, and electronics is based on scientific principles that neither Babbage nor anyone else could have foreseen in those pre-Maxwell days.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I think you may be overthinking this one. I've always interpreted it as how a less-scientifically-developed society would view technology from a more-scientifically-advanced society. When Newton's laws define your science, then macroscopic manifestations of quantum mechanics are impossible, and thus "magic". *Shrug* I don't think it was meant to be any deeper than that.

By Grant Goodyear (not verified) on 19 Jul 2007 #permalink

I think the primary aim of Clark's 3rd is not a commentary on technology so much as a statement on the perception of said technology. The idea that as a new technology gets more and more complex, those who have never seen it before are less able to perceive it as technology. Show a Zippo lighter to somebody in 800 B.C. and, to them, perhaps, you are a magician who can produce fire in your hand. (And if you have ever spent a lot of time with a Zippo, you know full well that it can be just as capricious as magic is supposed to be.)

And yes, it is certainly a SF shortcut, a way of writing Fantasy and claiming it to be Sci-Fi, but I don't think it is as useless a rule as the first two (which, as you have pointed out, are utter crap).

actually, if you look at the practice of magic in various cultures throughout history, the "ficklishness" is really an issue of "getting all the parameters correct" -which is still an issue in modern science. How often does the molecular biologist look at his DNA gel and wonder if the moon wasn't in the right position for his PCR to work? ;)

Theoretically, at least, magic was often very much seen as a kind of "science", in which you could write up recipes and rituals and get "reproducible" results -and if they weren't reproducible, then you must have had one of the parameters wrong.

The point, however, that I believe Carke wants to make here is: If someone from 1000 years ago would look at our technology today, he'd have to think it was magic, because he doesn't understand the principles along which our technology works and, especially with the most advanced technology, would have trouble grasping even the basics. Now, given the increasing speed of progress, how much more does this have to be true if we think about 1000 years from now? Now, a lot of people think that we have discovered so much that it's unlikely anything revolutionary happens, but then precisely that was told physicists a few years before the quantum revolution.

I think you may be overthinking this one. I've always interpreted it as how a less-scientifically-developed society would view technology from a more-scientifically-advanced society. When Newton's laws define your science, then macroscopic manifestations of quantum mechanics are impossible, and thus "magic".

See, the problem with this line is that quantum mechanics was developed by people whose science was defined by Newton's Laws (well, and Maxwell's equations, and the laws of thermodynamics, etc.), in response to observable phenomena that require quantum explanations. The whole reason we have quantum mechanics is that they didn't just say "Aiieee! Magic!" but rather set about a systematic program of experimental and theoretical investigation that eventually produced a successful description of quantum phenomena.

Dismissing unfamiliar science or technology as "magic" is a profoundly unscientific thing to do. Technology is built on rules, and given enough time and experimental ingenuity, those rules can be deduced.


that's all nice and fine, but if the time you need to deduce it is not only within your lifetime, but within dozens of generations, then the only thing you as an individual can do is shrug and say "No idea".
Quantum mechanics was developed by people for whom quantum mechanics was the logical next step -there were results pointing in that direction already. It's not a 1000-year jump. This is why Clarke writes "SUFFICIENTLY advanced". We're not talking about the likes of quantum mechanics here, we're talking about, to use a well-known example "Heisenberg compensators" and the likes. Stuff that for us looks impossible and in violation of the laws of nature, much like Einstein still said for quite a while "God doesn't roll dice" and for thousands of years, people believed "natura non facit saltus". Well, nature DOES make jumps.

Look around you: 500 years ago, people believed that the only way man could fly was through witchcraft. Today, we're flying people by the hundreds across the globe.

I have always interpreted the 3rd law the way that Jones does. It's more the perception of the technology... In fact I tend to extend the third law to also say "any sufficiently understood magic is indistinguishable from technology."

This sort of deals with your repeatability issues. If it's understood, it's repeatable, and so it's technology, even if it involves "chi", if it's not understood, it isn't repeatable, and so it's magic, even if it involves creating fire with a knife and flint.

I'm reminded of the computer koan:

A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on. Knight, seeing what the student was doing spoke sternly: "You can not fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong." Knight turned the machine off and on. The machine worked.

By Brian Postow (not verified) on 19 Jul 2007 #permalink

On the "indistinguishable from magic" bit -- I think looking at Quantum Mechanics from the point of view of late-eighteenth century scientists (who are not very far from those scientists who developed quantum mechanics) misses the point. QM isn't "sufficiently advanced" technology.

Think about showing radios to the Greeks in the days of Herodotus. They are so far from having anything like that that there would simply be no way for them to even begin to address the scientific principles behind it.

Part of the problem is the use of the term "magic." Chad is using "magic" as something in contrast to "science." Science is systematic, reproducible, sensible, and all that, whereas magic is capricious, not subject to physical laws, etc. In this sense, no, Clarke's Third Law doesn't make sense.

But there's another way to look at it, and that's to compare "magic" to "technology." Technology, in this case, is "something we can build." Ancient Greeks confronted with headset radios would have a hard time telling it apart from telepathy, for they wouldn't have the first idea how to build the radios-- for they have no idea of any of the physical principles behind the radio, or anything like it. In this sense, the technology is magic.

In another sense, however, they could do systematic experiments with whatever radios they have and figure out a set of empirical "laws" -- Kepler's Laws of Headset Radios, if you will -- that describe how they work, and if they were careful enough, those laws would be reproducible and have tremendous predictive power. At this point, they have realized that the radios operate according to scientific principles, even if they don't know what those scientific principles are. (Just as Kepler knew nothing about curved spacetime and the Einstein Equation.) Indeed, in this sense, the magic of Larry Niven's novella "Not Long Before the End" isn't magic at all, but "superscience," an alternate field theory or energy source that can be harnessed in reproducible and scientific ways. (That story, although about wizards and swordsmen, reads like hard sci-fi; how many times is angular momentum and conservation of energy the resolution of a fantasy story?)

So "indistinguishable from magic" refers not to science, but to technology. Quantum Mechanics is not sufficiently advanced in the 1800's. In 400BC, Maxwell's Laws are--- but only from the point of view of technology.


Knop's Corollary to Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently well-described and systematized magic is indistinguishable from technology.

I think it was Dr. Who who said that "Any magic sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from technology". I think it was from the Battlefield episodes in 1989. Dr. Who wasn't the kind of guy to be taken in by woo.

Yeah, I gotta disagree about the third law. I guess it's just a question of what "magic" implies to you. For one thing, it never seemed particularly capricious to me in fantasy. If the magic relies on summoning or controlling other intelligent entities then yes, but otherwise it has always seemed to me that sufficiently advanced wizards had as good a handle on the principles of magic as engineers have got on their creations.

Perhaps I got this idea from computer games, where magic systems are manifestly well-described and systematic, and from computer culture in general. (See the previously mentioned kaon, terms like "black magic" to describe inscrutable code and "wizard" to describe good hackers, etc.) Computers are hard to understand even for experts - hence the references to magic - and completely mysterious and often capricious to non experts. Magic to me means "this works for reasons which are not fully understood," not "this may or may not work because it does not follow any dependable laws." It is all about the level of understanding of the system, not about whether the system fundamentally obeys consistent laws or not. I just assume that they do (or can be modeled as if they do), even when it comes to magic.

I should also say that I read almost no fiction these days, almost entirely because I repeatedly get the feeling that the author is thinking "the world doesn't behave the way I expect it to, so I'm going to create a fictional world that does and pretend that it says something useful about the real one." So I can understand the frustration, even though I've never associated it with Clarke's law myself.

I think the third law is really a fictional conceit. It applies to the spacemen who land on a technologically-backward planet and show the natives levitators. Any scientist today faced with incomprehensible technology, no matter how advanced, would simply say, "I don't understand how that technology works."

With regards to the third can't convince me that integrated circuits don't appear to be magic. I mean, these little things seem to run on magic black smoke, very obviously, because they stop working when the magic black smoke escapes.

The counterexamples you suggest to Clarke's First Law seem covered by Asimov's Corollary:

"When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervor and emotion -- the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right."