Guest Commentary

Arthur C. Clarke on UFOs

By: Brett Holman (

This may be apropos of nothing, but I thought it might be interesting to elaborate a little on Arthur C. Clarke's opinions on UFOs - at least, as expressed in his published writings (all I have to go on). His collected essays "Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds!" (published London, 1999; covering 1934-1998) contain three pieces of interest. (Note that I am only attempting to describe Clarke's beliefs, not evaluate their validity.)

First (pp. 114-8) is a 1953 opinion piece published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Here he notes that prior to visiting the US in 1952 and meeting with impeccable witnesses, he thought that UFOs probably did not exist, but if they did, they were probably extraterrestrial spaceships. After this trip. he reversed his opinion - ie, UFOs do exist, but they are probably not spaceships. He believed then that a variety of natural phenomena could account for UFOs, including (but not limited to) Menzellian mirages. He cites astronomer Walter Maunder's 1882 observation of an elliptical object as an example of an object which if seen in 1953, would undoubtedly generate many UFO reports (indeed, writing in 1916 Maunder noted that at that time it would have been described as Zeppelin-like), but was clearly an auroral event of some kind (it appeared during an auroral display, and Maunder confirmed this spectroscopically). Still, Clarke leaves room for doubt: "The only thing to do, therefore, is to maintain an open mind until the evidence is overwhelming, one way or the other. I consider it still quite *possible* - though unlikely - that UFOs may turn out to be of intelligent, extraterrestrial origin."

Secondly (pp. 119-22) is his review of Leslie and Adamski's "Flying Saucers Have Landed" which also appeared in JBIS, in 1954 after Clarke's televised debunking of Adamski's saucer photos. Leaving aside the substance of his review, he concludes by reaffirming that the ETH is possible, but unlikely, and overwhelming evidence is required due to the importance of this question. "Books like `Flying Saucers Have Landed' do a real disservice by obscuring the truth and scaring away serious researchers from a field that may be of great importance. If flying saucers do turn out to be spaceships, Leslie and Adamski will have done quite a lot to prevent people of intellectual integrity from accepting the fact."

I think these quotes show that initially Clarke was fairly open-minded on the subject of UFOs, and recognised it as a legitimate, and even important, field of inquiry. However, his reservations about some of the wild-eyed speculations which then passed for UFO research (eg, the contactee movement) clearly put him off.

And judging from Clarke disparaging remarks in the novel "A Fall of Moondust" (published 1961; chapters XXVI and XXVII), it was indeed the contactees which were the cause of his low opinion of UFO research. He refers to telepathic and physical encounters with ETs, conspiracy theories, cults (with "gods in the sky"), Atlanteans, lunar bridges - he describes it as a reaction to the threat of nuclear warfare, seeking "salvation in the sky". In this future, when space travel came along, mankind's self-confidence was restored and belief in the "Flying Saucer religion" waned. Also, it would seem that the failure of scientists in detecting compelling evidence for the ETH during the International Geophysical Year (when unprecedented scrutiny was focused on the atmosphere and outer space) led Clarke to conclude that no such evidence was likely to be forthcoming. (I should also point out that the novel is set in ca. 2040, with extensive colonisation of the inner solar system ... if definitive evidence of the ETH had not been obtained by then, the book's characters could be excused for considering ETH believers to be nutty. However, the opinions expressed clearly seem to be something like Clarke's own.)

Finally, one of the last pieces in "Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds!" (pp. 512-4) is entitled "More Last Words on UFOs" (published 1997). (He wrote an earlier "Last Words on UFOs", sometime in the 1970s, I think - I don't have a copy of that.) Clarke now argues that UFOs are very common - he has seen 10 of them himself, including the one with Stanley Kubrick which turned out to be ECHO-1. He bases his disbelief of the ETH on two failures - the failures of facilities like NORAD to track all these incoming spaceships (when they can track everything else) and the failures of aliens to look alien (evolution being unlikely to produce human-like ETs, in his opinion).

So I think we can trace here the development of Clarke's opinions on UFOs. Quite open-minded in the 1950s (and as a science fiction author and spaceflight enthusiast, how could he not *want* UFOs to be ET in origin?), by 1961 the lack of concrete data obtained by science plus the excesses of the contactee movement led him to dismiss the matter entirely. Since then, I would say Clarke clearly hasn't delved very deeply into the subject (and would consider that a waste of time, which admittedly as an old man with much to do, he doesn't have very much of) and nothing that he seen in that time has changed his opinion. But clearly, as someone interested in the subject of extraterrestrials, he still thinks about the problem from time to time, and considers the ETH unlikely on general grounds (without getting into specifics).

As evidence that Clarke *is* sometimes willing to go against the weight of scientific opinion in his old age, witness his support for cold fusion research, long after the matter ceased to be scientifically respectable. So he doesn't seem to be a knee-jerk, debunking skeptic, per se.



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