Science Fiction and Reality

By Mark Alpert

Ever since I wrote the Kill Zone post about science fiction two weeks ago, I can’t seem to let go of the topic. I started rereading some of my favorite sci-fi stories by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison. I wrote an article for Scientific American about the genre’s “golden age” (the late 1930s to the late 1940s). And I remembered meeting Arthur C. Clarke at the Chelsea Hotel in 2001.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure when the meeting occurred. Was it actually in 1999? Or 2002? I have a vivid memory of the great science-fiction writer, but I’m a little fuzzy on the date. But for the purposes of this story, let’s say it happened in 2001. That would give some symmetry to the tale. It was in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel that Clarke and Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (which was based on two of Clarke’s short stories, “The Sentinel” and “Encounter in the Dawn”).

I was in my office at Scientific American that afternoon when the editor-in-chief rushed over. He said Clarke had called the magazine, completely out of the blue, and invited all the editors to his hotel suite for a chat. He was in town to give a speech at the United Nations, I think, or maybe for some kind of medical treatment. (Clarke was in his eighties then; he made Sri Lanka his home for the latter half of his life.) He didn’t tell the editor-in-chief why he wanted to meet, but it didn’t really matter. Within minutes, four Scientific American editors were in a taxi, heading for 23rd Street.

The Chelsea Hotel was rundown and bohemian, famously so. It had a reputation for catering to writers, artists, and musicians, some of whom came to very bad ends in the hotel’s shabby rooms. (Dylan Thomas spent his last drunken nights there before slipping into a coma. Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death in Room 100.) These days the hotel has a new owner who’s renovating the place, but back then it looked nothing like a Hilton. The rooms were dark and decorated in the tenement style. But when we stepped inside, there was Arthur C. Clarke in the room’s sitting area, dressed in a bathrobe and holding court on a recliner, with a pink, swollen foot propped on an ottoman.

He was suffering from gout, maybe? Or he’d just had surgery? I don’t remember the nature of his malady, but it certainly didn’t depress his spirits. He cheerfully welcomed us in and told his Sri Lankan assistant/valet to bring us some refreshments. Then, before we could find out why he’d summoned us, he started asking friendly questions. He seemed genuinely interested in each of us, genuinely curious about why we’d become editors at Scientific American and what kinds of stories we were working on. I tried to answer as best as I could, but it was hard to say anything intelligible. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was making small talk with the author of Childhood’s End and “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

Eventually, though, Clarke got around to his agenda: he wanted to know if Scientific American planned to run any further stories about cold fusion.

Okay, I need to take a step back and play science teacher for a moment. Fusion is the merger of atomic nuclei, a reaction that produces heavier elements and enormous amounts of energy. It’s the process at the heart of every star, the source of life-giving sunshine. But because all nuclei are positively charged and thus repel one another, fusion can’t happen unless the nuclei bang into each other at really high speeds, and that doesn’t happen unless the temperature of the material gets really hot — at least 13 million degrees Celsius. Outside the core of our sun, where the tremendous pressure of all that hydrogen produces ultra-high temperatures, the only place in our solar system where significant amounts of fusion have ever occurred is inside hydrogen bombs. (Those warheads detonate a nuclear-fission bomb first, which raises the temperature high enough to initiate nuclear fusion in the warhead’s hydrogen fuel a fraction of a second later.)

In 1989, though, a couple of electrochemists announced that they’d triggered nuclear fusion in their laboratory at room temperature. This claim of “cold fusion” got everyone’s attention, but when other scientists repeated the experiment in their own labs they didn’t see the same effect. Within a few months researchers pretty much discredited the claim, but for years afterward a group of cold-fusion zealots continued to insist that the phenomenon was real and should be investigated further. Arthur C. Clarke, we discovered, was one of those true believers. In his cheerful but persistent way, he urged us to review the research and run a story about the cold-fusion debate.

Our editor-in-chief was a very diplomatic guy, and he assured Clarke that we’d look into the matter. But in truth, there was no significant new research to report, and we never ran the story. After we left the Chelsea Hotel, we talked for a while about Clarke’s fixation on cold fusion, which seemed uncharacteristic for someone who was so scientifically knowledgeable. For a scientist, evidence is everything, and if the evidence says cold fusion didn’t happen in the lab, then no amount of wishful thinking can change that verdict.

But as I look back on that meeting now, I realize that Clarke was speaking as a science-fiction writer, not a scientist, and science fiction is all about wishful thinking. Imagine the consequences if cold fusion were really possible: we’d be able to generate unlimited amounts of clean energy from seawater. We could put a stop to global warming right this minute and save the billions of lives that will surely be lost over the next century as climbing temperatures disrupt agriculture and rising seas ravage our coastlines (see my new novel, The Coming Storm). And cold fusion could be used to power spaceflight as well, bringing us closer to Clarke’s visions of the future.

So his “fixation” seems rather poignant to me now. Yes, it would be wonderful if we lived in a universe where cold fusion was possible. But we don’t.

Clarke died in 2008 at the age of 90.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

5 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Reality

  1. Thank you so much for this very informative post! I love learning all this (I had no idea about Dylan Thomas’s connection to that hotel, but I sure do remember when that neighborhood was so bad a girl would think twice about walking through it in broad daylight). I have never heard of Arthur C. Clarke until I read your post, but he sounds amazing. Love hearing about cold fusion. Am I the only one who wonders whether control of the weather is the next front in the Cold War? (Pun was unavoidable)

  2. Wow. Talking about meeting a hero. Kind of like me, a swimmer, meeting Johnny Weissmuller (I did meet and interview Buster Crabbe and Esther Williams but, unfortunately, never met Weissmuller).

    And I love the photo of Clarke with the older iMac in the background. I have that same iMac sitting in a corner (I’m writing on a much newer one now). Maybe a common use of tools will translate into a common sharing of talent? Ha ha!

    Thanks for sharing the memory.

  3. Rumor has it that there have been many declarations of scientific impossibilities that were simply wrong.
    For example, Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society of England, insisted that “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.” He made this statement just eight years before the Wright brothers took to the air.
    In 1934 Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
    I am not a scientist, and I understand cold fusion has not been reliably replicated in laboratories. However, does that mean the possibility of cold fusion has been disproved?

  4. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers – 10-18-2018 | The Author Chronicles

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