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Famed Author Sir Arthur C. Clarke: 1917-2008

The legendary futurist who first proposed orbiting satellites be used as telecommunications relays passed away earlier today in a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was 90 years old. Sir Arthur C. Clarke will remain a legend to millions who came to know of his farsighted ideas through his many works of fiction, nonfiction, and even movies -- such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Sir Arthur was kind enough to grant us a long-distance interview last October as part of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I (please see "Remembering Sputnik: Sir Arthur C. Clarke").

His last in-person interview may well be the one conducted by our correspondent Saswato R. Das at his bedside in the Apollo Hospital in Colombo in January (an account of which will be published in our pages online tomorrow). An audio copy of this final interview is available now on Spectrum Radio, "Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Final Interview".

We wrote this of him in October:

To some readers, an introduction to Sir Arthur C. Clarke may be necessary. To others, no introduction will suffice.... Although he is more revered for his role as an author, Clarke has well deserved the title of futurist for his groundbreaking thinking on space exploration. In October 1945, he published a paper in the magazine Wireless World called â''Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?â'' In it, he predicted that geostationary satellites would soon become the basis of global communications. And in his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, he describes a space elevator that would ferry passengers and cargo to a docked space station, a concept that is currently undergoing its first primitive implementations.

Clarke was born in 1917 in Minehead, England, where he developed an early interest in science and science fiction, from reading pulp magazines and comics imported from America in the kit of sailors on shore leave. After secondary school, where he excelled in math, he found himself unable to afford a university education and took a position as an auditor in the pensions section of the Board of Education.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Clarke served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist and was involved in the early-warning system that contributed to the RAF's success in the Battle of Britain. After the war, he earned a first-class degree in mathematics and physics at King's College, London. He then got involved with the nascent British Interplanetary Society, serving as its chairman from 1947 to 1950.

In 1948, Clarke published his first book of short stories, The Sentinel, which includes a story by that name that eventually became the basis of his most well-known effort, the screenplay to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has inspired generations.

Over the years, his opus of over 100 books included some of the most influential works of speculative fiction and nonfiction. He won numerous awards for his famous novels, such as Prelude to Space (1951), Childhood's End (1953), Earthlight (1955), The Deep Range (1957), A Fall of Moondust (1961), Glide Path (1963), The Nine Billion Names of God (1967), and Rendezvous With Rama (1973). His nonfiction books and essays, meanwhile, influenced science, particularly astronautics. They include Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (Temple Press, 1950), The Exploration of Space (Harper, 1951), The Making of a Moon: The Story of the Earth Satellite Program (Harper, 1957), Voices from the Sky: Previews of the Coming Space Age (Harper & Row, 1965), The Promise of Space (Harper & Row, 1968), and The Lost Worlds of 2001 (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972).

In 1953, Clarke married Marilyn Mayfield, a 22-year-old American with a young son, but they separated after six months, although their divorce was not finalized until 1964.

In 1956, Clarke moved to the Indian Ocean island of Ceylon, destined to become the nation of Sri Lanka. As Das informed us, he was first attracted to the locale by its beautiful offshore waters, where he could practice one of his favorite avocations, scuba diving.

The next year, he attended an October meeting of the International Astronautical Federation in Barcelona, Spain, where word of the successful launch of Sputnik was relayed to him by reporters who immediately wanted to learn the well-known author's reaction to the momentous news. He was thrilled by it.

"While manned spaceflight and Moon landings were widely speculated about, many still harbored doubts about an American lead in space," he told Das last year. "One delegate, noticing that there were 23 American and five Soviet papers at the Congress, remarked that while the Americans talked a lot about spaceflight, the Russians just went ahead and did it!"

In 1964, he met famed film director Stanley Kubrick, who was interested in working with him on a screenplay. What emerged formed the basis of a movie widely regarded as the greatest sci-fi effort ever to reach the screen, known simply since its release as 2001.

He later recounted that one of his signature touches to the film occurred in the memorable scene in which the mad computer HAL is disconnected from its memory core by the lone astronaut left from its deep-space murder spree. He suggested to Kubrick that HAL be reduced to singing a song called "Daisy Bell," as its electronic "life" ebbed slowly away. His inspiration came from the work of the man who had taken Clarke's idea of geostationary communications satellites and turned it into reality by creating the Echo and Telstar vehicles of the early 19560s, John Pierce of AT&T Bell Labs. Clarke had visited Pierce in 1962 at his lab for a demonstration of a colleague's new computer speech synthesizer, which used a vocoder to sing the very same song.

In the print version of his January interview with Clarke, Das notes that he considered his idea for communication satellites to be his "most important contribution." But in his next breath, he added, "And maybe in a generation or so the space elevator will be considered equally important." He came up with the notion of using a giant, space-tethered elevator to reach orbit for use in one of his novels. (Please see Spectrum's August 2005 cover story, "A Hoist to the Heavens" for more on the concept and its earliest prototypes under development.)

He told Das from his hospital bed: "Iâ''m often asked when do I think the space elevator will be built. My answer is about ten years after everyone stops laughing. Maybe 20 years. But I am pretty sure that the space elevator is an important element in future space travel."

While he was waiting to speak with Clarke in the hospital, Das observed that visitors and medical staff who entered his private room removed their shoes prior to entering and then put them on again after leaving. He interpreted the behavior as a sign of veneration on the part of those who were attending him. "In Sri Lanka, almost everyone knows who Clarke is," Das writes. "I took the shoe removal to be a mark of veneration -- Sri Lanka has a long Buddhist tradition, and you take off your shoes before you enter a Buddhist shrine."

When he did get his first audience with the author, Das observed that he "looked pale and in some pain, but he seemed to be in fine humor, except every so often he would have to pause for breath."

What did they talk about first? "We chatted about 'the design faults of the human body'," Das writes.

That shortness of breath, stemming from an on-and-off again battle against post-polio syndrome, which he had waged for nearly five decades, finally ebbed away at the vitality of the man and took his very human life at 1:30 am (local time in Sri Lanka) on 19 March 2008, according to a report from the Associated Press.

In our earlier interview with him from October, Clarke told Das that, if he were granted three wishes for the future of technology, they would be these: "A method to generate limitless quantities of clean energy. [An] affordable and reliable means of space transport. [And] eliminating the design faults in the human body."

To commemorate the legacy of such a noteworthy life, we should re-commit our efforts to making these farsighted ideas come true. It seems the least we can do in return.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Science Fiction Author and Visionary, Dies at 90

Sir Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction colossus and visionary, who first espoused the idea of geosynchronous satellites for telecommunications, died today in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He had turned 90 on December 16, 2007.

When I visited him in January, he was in the hospital with severe back pain. Since then, he has been in and out of the hospital. The end came around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday Sri Lanka time (about 4:00 p.m. Eastern today) and was because of breathing difficulties, the Associated Press is reporting. He had been suffering from post-polio syndrome, which left him wheelchair bound; he had a bout of polio in the late 1950s.

I found Sir Arthur - he was knighted in 2000 - to be a warm, funny and magnanimous man. Even though he was in severe pain and confined to a hospital bed, he said he would meet me since I had made the long trip.

He had been interviewed by Spectrum on occasion of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1. Here's the link to the piece:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/oct07/5584

Sir Arthur had a restless intelligence, and a mischievous sense of humor. Though confined to a wheelchair because of his condition in recent years, he kept up his spirits, saying this left him with more time to think and roam the universe with his mind.

He told me that he thinks his most important contribution is his 1945 paper in Wireless World that talked about geostationary satellites and telecommunications. He also added that a future generation may think it is the space elevator - if the space elevator is ever built. He was one of the space elevator's early champions.

He wrote a hundred works of fiction and non-fiction. He was also an accomplished underwater explorer.

The New York Times has posted a good obituary of him:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/books/18cnd-clarke.html?pagewanted=1&hp

The world will miss him.

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008

Arthur C. Clarke has died. Or, rather befitting his visionary stature, he dies tomorrow, because as January Magazine points out, it's already tomorrow in Sri Lanka.

I think this L.A. Times obit is right: "It didn't seem possible that we would ever hear such news: Didn't Clarke seem timeless?"

Clarke spoke with Spectrum's Saswato Das this past January. You can listen to his final interview here.

Interactive Brokers Announces Winner of Olympiad Trading Contest

Interactive Brokers Group, a global brokerage and trading firm, announced today the winner of its Collegiate Trading Olympiad, a trading-software contest for college students.

And the top prize of US $100,000 cash goes to...

...Christopher Michalak, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.

As I described in an article about the contest last year, Interactive Brokers, headquartered in Greenwich, Conn., created the Olympiad to highlight the need for engineers and scientists in the financial industry -- as well as to spot talented students and hire them.

In the contest, the participants -- 372 students from 32 countries -- had to elaborate a trading strategy and then code an automated trading application to carry out that strategy. Each student started with $1 million in virtual money and had eight weeks to trade equities, options, futures, warrants, bonds, and currencies (the trades were virtual, taking place on Interactiveâ''s simulation system, but the buying and selling prices were based on real market data).

interactive_brokers_operations_center.png

If he decides to go work in the financial industry, Michalak, who grew his account to a final balance of $3,135,104 by the end of the competition, would be the typical "quant." At the University of British Columbia, he works at a lab called the Advanced Numerical Simulation Laboratory on topics like "efficient steady-state convergence for high-order solution of turbulent aerodynamic flows."

As I wrote in my article, the financial industry has long sought to hire math whizzes, physics PhDs, and other prodigy types to work as quantitative analysts, or â''quants.â'' Their job is to concoct pricing models, probe new ways to quantify risk, and mine mountains of data. Now, as automated trading systems take over ever more of the substantive work on Wall Street, many firms are seeking quants who not only know the math but the nuts and bolts of IT systems, too.

For those interested in careers combining finance and technology, the contest is a rare opportunity to see how real-world applications work -- and maybe get some money to help pay for tuition. The contest is awarding a total of $400,000 in prizes to students, including two second-place prizes of $50,000 each and many $10,000 and $1,000 prizes.

If you missed the 2008 Olympiad, wait for the next one later this year. More details should appear at the Olympiad page on Interactive's web site.

Photo: Interactive Brokers technical operations center in Greenwich, Conn.

Low power is the new black

Today, Actel announced a new family of low-power FPGAs (PDF) whose power consumption bottoms out at 5 microwatts. Actel CEO John East told me that low power chips like these will let portable device designers add features while still keeping cost and battery life constant. Think ultrathin phones with Microsoft Exchange.

East proselytizes low-power wherever he goes. Not only are low-power chips one part of the solution to global climate change, but who doesn't want their laptop to have a longer battery life?

Actel is by no means alone in its focus on low-power. At February's International Solid State Circuits Conference, Intel released technical details for a new low-power processor code-named "Silverthorne" (a good name for a bodice ripper) which was just launched this month as "Atom" (not a good name for a bodice ripper). Intel launched the Atom processor specifically for mobile internet devices and computers that are designed specifically (and only) to surf the interwebs.

Actel's low-power FPGAs are part of a larger mission for East that includes re-engineering the country's relationship with nuclear energy and dominating the "Martian" chip market. I don't know if he's just really good at selling it, but he's definitely a great interview.

Out of Africa: the Riddle of Solar Electricity

One of the hottest new approaches to generating electricity today is "solar thermal," a form of capturing sunlight in order to convert water into steam, which in turn drives a conventional electricity-producing turbine. Solar thermal, as a concept, has been around since the 19th century, but in recent years the technology has undergone a revolution, helped by new designs and materials.

I visited last week with Ausra, one of the leaders in the solar thermal revival. Founded by an Australian inventor named David Mills, the company moved from Australia to Palo Alto, California a few years ago at the urging of legendary Silicon Valley financier Vinod Khosla who believed the company would thrive with more capital and the prospect of partnerships with American electric-utilities.

Khosla's vision seems to be coming true. Ausra specializes in providing large-systems to electricity grids and last year the company struck a deal to build a solar thermal plant for PG&E.

The PG&E plant remains years away from generating electricity but Ausra is already getting inquiries from all over the world. The key selling point: national electricity grids, suffering from shortages, can immediately benefit from solar thermal.

While India and China have the greatest needs for electricity going forward, sub-Saharan Africa is suffering from an unprecedented shortage, with South Africa -- the region's biggest economy -- suffering the most. Solar thermal as a technology would seem ideal for sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, Ausra is fielding requests from African governments and electricity companies -- and giving a stock answer, John O'Donnell, an executive vice president for the company, told me.

The answer to the Africans is "be patient."

"We're just saying we want to get proven in the U.S. before we take the next step," he says. "We donâ''t want to get overstretched."

For Africa, with its difficult business and geographic conditions, "you want well-proven systems," O'Donnell says.

"But once some of the technical risks are taken out and we're more experienced, solar thermal is clearly going to be part of the solution to Africa's electricity needs."

Ausra's approach -- providing electricity to a national grid -- runs counter to virtualy all of the current solar approaches in Africa, which is why solar thermal as a technology is worth watching closely. At present, solar in Africa is very small-scale and most often deployed at the level of villages (that are off the grid) or individual homes or buildings in cities (where excess electricity is not even fed back into the grid).

The trouble with these small solar systems is that they are costly, and especially so relative to the electricity generated.

O'Donnell describes proponents of small, off-grid solar in Africa as "romantic dreamers." He thinks the main show in solar should move away from simplistic notions about rural self-sufficiency and instead concentrate on helping to fill the growing demand in African cities for electricity.

Until now, solar in Africa has been dominated by romantics. O'Donnell predicts that will change. "Every African country is looking at solar thermal," he says. "The question is the maturity of the technology, over the next five years, we should begin to get the answers that Africans want to hear."

Reaping what you sow in Nanotech

The Foresight Institute in its blog is a bit disturbed by the promotional copy for a new Public Television series entitled â''Nanotechnology: The Power of Smallâ'' . To their view the ad copy seems to be focusing on the negative aspects of nanotechnology.

Indeed it does. What did you expect? Synthesis and clarity may be pleasing, but discord and controversy interest us. How else do you explain the popularity for so many years of the Jerry Springer show? Or the recent Point/Counterpoint on nanotechnology within the LA Times?

But what is truly so remarkable about the Foresight Instituteâ''s concern is that in at least a couple of the controversies they have contributed mightily to creating these perceptions. Namely that nanotechnology will play some part in compromising our privacy and that we can use nanotechnology to extend our life indefinitely (read "Transhumanists").

Both of these technological futures have found a voice through the Foresight Institute, so it seems ironic that they are concerned now that nanotechnology might be painted in a bad light because of them.

Outside of the molecular nanotechnology community there is hardly a word from any other quarters about how nanotechnology will makes us live forever or relegate us to living in a Big Brother society. In fact, with the latter it seems that IT and telecommunications have done a splendid job of taking our privacy away without any help from nanotechnology. So, now that you have created a controversy, where one did not exist previously, you complain that people are using it as marketing copy for a TV special? Odd.

It is likely that the NSF-funded TV series will do its best to hype the controversies surrounding nanotechnology, and then gently reassure you--to a point. A sign of the direction of the program comes from the fact that the Project on Emerging Technology, which has tried every angle to amplify the risks of nanotechnology, not the least of which is to promote its â''long listâ'' of products that employ nanotechnology (is 500 really that long a list?), will be presenting a premiere of the new program. Do you have any lingering doubts about what themes will be discussed? It will probably go something like this: with 500 consumer products on the market incorporating nanotechnology, do we have any idea what nanotechnology is or what it will do to us? Sigh...

While the Foresight Institute has kept a balanced view of the risks of nanotechnology when it comes to human health and the environment, they have helped to create the idea that somehow nanotechnology is going to impinge on our privacy and they have certainly been at the forefront of somehow using nanotechnology to extend our life indefinitely. Now they are reaping what they helped to sow.

We need a bill to ban importing other people's nuclear waste?

I've been half-following this story, and I can't tell if it's a tempest in a teapot, or the real thing. Today Tennessee Rep. Bart Gordon, the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, introduced legislation to ban the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from allowing us to import foreign-generated nuclear waste.

â''No other country in the world is accepting nuclear waste from other countries,â'' said Gordon. â''By doing so, the United States is putting itself in position to become the worldâ''s nuclear dumping ground.â''

According to the terms of the bill, the president can grant specific exemptions if an application shows importing said waste would serve a national or international policy goal, such as a research purpose.

In February, Utah-based EnergySolutions applied for an NRC license to import 20,000 tons of low-level nuclear waste (that means no glowing rods) from decommissioned nuclear reactors in Italy. The waste would be ultimately disposed of at a site in Clive, Utah. â''The United States has only a finite amount of space available for disposal of nuclear waste,â'' said Gordon.

Vietnam Set to Launch First Satellite

Citing a need to upgrade its communications infrastructure, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam said today that it's ready to join the satellite club.

According to numerous sources (Associated Press, Reuters, and others), Vietnam has purchased a specially-built satellite from Lockheed Martin for US $200 million and will spend an unreported amount to launch it into orbit next month aboard an Ariane 5 rocket built by ArianeSpace SA, of Evry, France.

The satellite, known as VINASAT-I, has the transmission capacity to handle 10 000 voice/Internet/data channels or 120 television channels, according to the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunication Group (VNPT) and has an expected lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

A spokesperson for the state-sponsored group said the country will also build a pair of ground stations to work with VINASAT-I, in northern Ha Tay province and southern Binh Duong province. These will bring the total price tag of the project up to $300 million, a sum the Communist government hopes to recoup over the next decade.

"Vietnam has reached the point where significant improvements of the telecommunication infrastructure are needed for its economic and social development," VNPT Vice General Director Nguyen Ba Thuoc said at a press conference in Hanoi today.

He said that growth in the telecommunications sector in Vietnam has risen sharply in the last few years, with some 19 million people subscribed to Internet services and 30 million signed up for cell phones (out of a population of 85 million).

Up until now, Vietnam has been leasing satellite services from Australia, Thailand, and Russia at a cost of $15 million.

The 2.4 metric ton satellite is scheduled for launch April 12 from the Centre Spatial Guyanais, at Kourou, French Guiana (the same base that launched the European Space Agency's Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle on Sunday).

"Vietnam will be more active to improve network capability and quality of telecommunication, IT, and communication services and to reduce the gap between cities and rural areas," added Thuoc.

He noted that the new satellite will meet public needs such as providing weather information and navigation guidelines to fishing ships and oil rigs, as well as offer remote health-care and education services to islands and remote areas.

The launch will make Vietnam the fifth Southeast Asian nation to operate its own satellite service, joining Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, which all told employ 80 spacecraft in geostationary orbit.

Landmark Funding for Water Ship

Today, Houston-based Water Standard Company announced an unprecedented funding commitment from two New York-based investment funds, which were so impressed with the startup's plan that they invested $250 million: that's arguably the largest initial funding in the history of the water industry.

Water Standard's plan is to create a fleet of Seawater Desalination Vessels-- mobile, ship-based water treatment facilities that can churn out 300,000 cubic meters of drinking water per day. Water Standard CEO Amanda Brock explained to me how these ships could end the global water crisis.

It's a truism of the 21st century that water is the new oil. Global warming is already catalyzing droughts throughout China, Australia and now the Western United States (among many other places). At this point, El Paso, Texas gets 40% of its water from so-called "toilet-to-tap" wastewater recycling. Some municipalities are luckier. If you're on a shoreline, you have a limitless supply of ocean water to desalinate. But global warming is the gift that keeps on giving-- in addition to creating further droughts, experts also predict that the severity and number of hurricanes and typhoons will rise over the coming century. Such storms hit hardest on shores, and they have the capacity to knock a coastal desalination plant into the middle of next week.

Brock argues that her ships are a better bet for seawater treatment than conventional shore-based plants. Aside from their ability to get out of the path of a hurricane, the ships are also better at protecting the environment.

Evironmentalist don't much like the land-based facilities because their technology is hazardous to marine life. Those plants have to suck in seawater with so much force that they often trap fish and other marine life in the stream. Needless to say, the fish don't survive the process. But Water Standard says its water intake and discharge systems minimize the technology's impact on marine life.

The full story is at Spectrum Online.

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