ⓘ Clarkes three laws. British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three adages that are known as Clarkes three laws, of which the third law is the ..


ⓘ Clarkes three laws

British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three adages that are known as Clarkes three laws, of which the third law is the best known and most widely cited. They were part of his ideas in his extensive writings about the future. These so-called laws are:

  • The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  • 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.
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

1. Origins

One account claimed that Clarkes "laws" were developed after the editor of his works in French started numbering the authors assertions. All three laws appear in Clarkes essay "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", first published in Profiles of the Future 1962. However, they were not published at the same time. Clarkes first law was proposed in the 1962 edition of the essay, as "Clarkes Law" in Profiles of the Future.

The second law is offered as a simple observation in the same essay but its status as Clarkes second law was conferred by others. It was initially a derivative of the first law and formally became Clarkes 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, despite being latest stated by a decade, is the best known and most widely cited. It appears only in the 1973 revision of the "Hazards of Prophecy" essay. It echoes a statement in a 1942 story by Leigh Brackett: "Witchcraft to the ignorant, … simple science to the learned". Earlier examples of this sentiment may be found in Wild Talents 1932 by Charles Fort: "…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," and in the short story The Hound of Death 1933 by Agatha Christie: "The supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood."

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’".


2. Variants of the third law

The third law has inspired many snowclones and other variations:

  • Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice Greys law
  • Any sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice Clarks law
  • The following two variants are very similar, and combine the third law with Hanlons razor
  • Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God. Shermers last law
  • Any sufficiently advanced act of benevolence is indistinguishable from malevolence referring to artificial intelligence
  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo
  • Any sufficiently advanced idea is distinguishable from mere magical incantation provided the former is presented as a mathematical proof, verifiable by sufficiently competent mathematicians
  • Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook or the viewpoints of even the most extreme crank are indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced satire Poes law
  • Any sufficiently crappy research is indistinguishable from fraud Andrew Gelman

A contrapositive of the third law is

  • Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced. Gehms corollary

The third law has been reversed for fictional universes involving magic:

  • "Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science!" or "Any sufficiently arcane magic is indistinguishable from technology."

A rebuttal to the ambiguous "sufficiently advanced" part has been offered by another science fiction author:

  • "Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who dont understand it."

In the Doctor Who episode The Robots of Death, the Doctor phrases it as:

  • "To the rational mind nothing is inexplicable, only unexplained."
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