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Clarke's three laws

Arthur C. Clarke formulated the following three "laws" of prediction:

  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.


The first of the three laws, previously termed Clarke's Law, was proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in the essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", in Profiles of the Future (1962).

The second law is offered as a simple observation in the same essay; its status as Clarke's Second Law was conferred on it by others.

In a 1973 revision of his compendium of essays, Profiles of the Future, Clarke acknowledged the Second Law and proposed the Third in order to round out the number, adding "As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there." Of the three, the Third Law is the best known and most widely cited.

Clarke's Third Law codifies perhaps the most significant of Clarke's unique contributions to speculative fiction. A model to other writers of hard science fiction, Clarke postulates advanced technologies without resorting to flawed engineering concepts (as Jules Verne sometimes did) or explanations grounded in incorrect science or engineering (a hallmark of "bad" science fiction), or taking clues from trends in research and engineering (which dates some of Larry Niven's novels). Accordingly, the powers of any future superintelligence or hyperintelligence which Clarke often described would seem astonishing.

But in novels such as The City and the Stars and the story "The Sentinel" (upon which 2001: A Space Odyssey was based) Clarke goes further; he presents us with ultra-advanced technologies developed by hyperintelligences limited only by fundamental science. In Against the Fall of Night the human race has mysteriously regressed after a full billion years of civilization. Humanity is faced with the remnants of its past glories: for example, a network of roads and sidewalks that flow like rivers. Although physically possible, it is inexplicable from their perspective. Clarke's Third Law explains the source of our amazement as our limitation, rather than the impossibility of the technology.

In his 1999 revision of Profiles of the Future, published in London by Indigo, Clarke added his Fourth Law: "For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert."

References in other works

Clarke's laws, especially the third, have been referenced or alluded to numerous times in literature. Sometimes they provide corollaries to one or more of the laws. Often, these are parodies solely for humor value, but sometimes they offer interesting applications or perspectives.

  • Isaac Asimov wrote a corollary to Clarke's First Law, stating
  • : "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."
  • Larry Niven, in discussing fantasy, wrote that "any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." This is sometimes known as "Niven's Law" although it is not to be confused with the list of "Niven's laws". Mercedes Lackey has been quoted with the same law.
  • Terry Pratchett refers to Niven's inversion of the third law in his Discworld books by having wizard Ponder Stibbons state that "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." Pratchett also alludes to the second law in another Discworld work, The Last Hero: Leonard of Quirm is working on the Discworld's first (non-magical) flying machine, and states that he has no use for artisans who have "learned the limits of the possible."
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Where No One Has Gone Before", an engineer comments on an advanced alien's technology, saying "You're asking us to believe in magic." The alien (known only as "Traveler") replies, "Yes, I guess from your perspective it does seem like magic."
  • In the first non-Asimov Foundation novel, Foundation's Fear, the emperor declares, "If technology is distinguishable from magic, it is insufficiently advanced." This is a paraphrase of Gehm's Corollary to Clarke's Third Law, "Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced."
  • In Superman Returns, Lex Luthor is twice heard saying, in reference to Kryptonian technology, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. "Clarke's Third Law" is cited in the end credits.
  • In the online webcomic Freefall, a third corollary is introduced by one of the main characters, Florence Ambrose: "Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who do not understand it."
  • In The Simpsons episode Future-Drama, Marge Simpson states "We can do anything now that science has invented Magic," providing an ironic resolution to the issue of what's what.
  • In Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, Jack Shaftoe remarks to Enoch Root "They cannot see the string at this distance, and suppose you are doing some sort of magick", who responds "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo."

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