British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three adages that are known as Clarke's three laws, of which the third law is the best known and most widely cited. They are part of his ideas in his extensive writings about the future.
The laws are:
- 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.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
One account stated that Clarke's laws were developed after the editor of his works in French started numbering the author's assertions. All three laws appear in Clarke's essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", first published in Profiles of the Future (1962); however, they were not all published at the same time. Clarke's first law was proposed in the 1962 edition of the essay, as "Clarke's Law" in Profiles of the Future.
The second law is offered as a simple observation in the same essay but its status as Clarke's second law was conferred by others. It was initially a derivative of the first law and formally became Clarke's second law where the author proposed the third law in the 1973 revision of Profiles of the Future, which included an acknowledgement. It was also here that Clarke wrote about the third law in these words: "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. It was published in a 1968 letter to Science magazine and eventually added to the 1973 revision of the "Hazards of Prophecy" essay. In 1952, Isaac Asimov in his book Foundation and Empire (part 1.1 Search for Magicians) wrote down a similar phrase "... an uninformed public tends to confuse scholarship with magicians..." It also echoes a statement in a 1942 story by Leigh Brackett: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, ... simple science to the learned". Even earlier examples of this sentiment may be found in Wild Talents (1932) by Charles Fort: "...a performance that may someday 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," and in the short story The Hound of Death (1933) by Agatha Christie: "The supernatural is only the nature of which the laws are not yet understood." Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography explicitly compares advanced technology to magic:
Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying – but how it's done I can't even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.
Clarke gave an example of the third law when he said that while he "would have believed anyone who told him back in 1962 that there would one day exist a book-sized object capable of holding the content of an entire library, he would never have accepted that the same device could find a page or word in a second and then convert it into any typeface and size from Albertus Extra Bold to Zurich Calligraphic", referring to his memory of "seeing and hearing Linotype machines which slowly converted 'molten lead into front pages that required two men to lift them'".
Variants of the third law
The third law has inspired many snowclones and other variations:
- Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God. (Shermer's last law)
- Any sufficiently advanced act of benevolence is indistinguishable from malevolence (referring to artificial intelligence)
- Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice (Grey's law)
Isaac Asimov's Corollary to Clarke's First Law: "When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervour and emotion – the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right."
- List of eponymous laws – Adages and sayings named after a person
- Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics – Fictional set of rules by Isaac Asimov
- Niven's laws – Author Larry Niven's rules about how the universe works
- Beech, Martin (2012). The Physics of Invisibility: A Story of Light and Deception. New York: Springer Science + Business Media. p. 190. ISBN 978-1-46140615-0.
- Keyes, Ralph (2006). The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-31234004-9.
- "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.
- Shermer, Michael (2011). The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Henry Holt & Co. p. 358. ISBN 978-0-80509125-0.
- Clarke, Arthur C. (19 January 1968). "Clarke's Third Law on UFO's". Science. 159 (3812): 255. Bibcode:1968Sci...159..255C. doi:10.1126/science.159.3812.255-b. ISSN 0036-8075. S2CID 159455247.
- Clarke, Arthur C. (1973). Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. Popular Library. ISBN 978-0-33023619-5.
- Asimov, Isaac (1952). Foundation and Empire. New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House, Inc. p. 10. ISBN 0-553-29337-0.
- "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon", Astounding February 1942, p. 39.
- Gooden, Philip (2015). Skyscrapers, Hemlines and the Eddie Murphy Rule: Life's Hidden Laws, Rules and Theories. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-47291503-0.
- Shermer, Michael (January 2002). "Shermer's Last Law". Scientific American.
- Rubin, Charles T. (5 November 2008). "What is the Good of Transhumanism?". In Chadwick, Ruth; Gordijn, Bert (eds.). Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity (PDF). Springer. p. 149. ISBN 978-904818005-9. 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. (eds.). 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. 161–84. ISBN 978-0-8194-2078-7.
- "Asimov's Corollary" The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction February 1977
- Leeper, Evelyn; Leeper, Mark (5 November 2004). "Correction". The MT Void. Vol. 23, no. 19. Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society. Archived from the original on 29 December 2004. Retrieved 29 November 2015.