Clarke's three laws

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British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three prediction-related adages that are known as Clarke's three laws:

Clarke's first law
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 second law
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
Clarke's third law
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.


Clarke's first law was proposed by Clarke in the essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", in Profiles of the Future (1962).[1]

The second law is offered as a simple observation in the same essay. Its status as Clarke's second law was conferred by others. In a 1973 revision of Profiles of the Future, Clarke acknowledged the second law and proposed the third. "As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there".

The third law is the best known and most widely cited, and appears in Clarke's 1973 revision of "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination". It echoes a statement in a 1942 story by Leigh Brackett: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, … simple science to the learned".[2] An earlier example of this sentiment may be found in Wild Talents (1932) by the author Charles Fort, where he makes the statement: "...a performance that may some day be considered understandable, but that, in these primitive times, so transcends what is said to be the known that it is what I mean by magic."

Proposed fourth law[edit]

A fourth law has been proposed for the canon, despite Clarke's declared intention of not going one better than Newton. Geoff Holder quotes: "For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert."[3]

Variants of the third law[edit]

The third law has inspired many snowclones and other variations:

  • Any sufficiently advanced act of benevolence is indistinguishable from malevolence[4] (referring to artificial intelligence).
  • Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice (Grey's law; compare Hanlon's razor).
  • Any sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice[5] (Clark's law).
  • Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook (Poe's law).
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.[6]
  • Any sufficiently advanced idea is distinguishable from mere magical incantation provided the former is presented as a mathematical proof, verifiable by sufficiently competent mathematicians.[7]

A contrapositive of the third law is

  • Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. (Gehm's corollary)[8]

The third law has been:

  • reversed for fictional universes involving magic: "Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!"[9][10]
  • expanded for fictional universes focusing on science fiction: "Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it."[11]
  • used to refer to unexplained archaeological finds and reconstructions of folk mysticism: "Any sufficiently ancient recovered wisdom or artifact is also indistinguishable from magic."[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination'" in the collection Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962, rev. 1973), pp. 14, 21, 36.
  2. ^ "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon", Astounding February 1942, p. 39.
  3. ^ Holder, Geoff (2009). 101 Things to Do with a Stone Circle. The History Press, 2009. Holder offers as his source Clarke's Profiles of the Future (Millennium Edition, 1999, paperback edition page 143, ISBN 0-575-40277-6).
  4. ^ Rubin, Charles T. (5 November 2008). "What is the Good of Transhumanism?". In Chadwick, Ruth; Gordijn, Bert. Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity (PDF). Springer. p. 149. ISBN 9789048180059. Archived (PDF) from the original on 16 October 2014. Retrieved 17 October 2014. 
    Rubin is referring to an earlier work of his:
    Rubin, Charles T. (1996). "First contact: Copernican moment or nine day's wonder?". In Kingsley, Stuart A.; Lemarchand, Guillermo A. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the Optical Spectrum II: 31 January-1 February 1996, San Jose, California, Band 2704. Proceedings of SPIE – the International Society for Optical Engineering. Bellingham, WA: SPIE—The International Society for Optical Engineering. pp. 161–184. ISBN 978-0-8194-2078-7. 
  5. ^ J. Porter Clark (16 November 1994). "Clark's Law". Retrieved 2014-12-10. They were apologetic and seemed sincere, but sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice. 8-) 
  6. ^ Quote Details: James Klass: Any sufficiently advanced technology... - The Quotations Page
  7. ^ Conesa-Sevilla, J. (2016). Ecopsychology Revisited: For Whom do the Nature Bells Toll? (Ch. 8, pg. 256)
  8. ^ Leeper, Evelyn; Leeper, Mark (5 November 2004). "Correction". The MT Void. Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society. 23 (19). Archived from the original on 2004-12-29. Retrieved 2015-11-29. 
  9. ^ Girl Genius
  10. ^ Sufficiently Analyzed Magic – TV Tropes
  11. ^ Freefall 00255 November 12, 1999

External links[edit]