Fried Light: The bell tolls, don?t ask

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By Roger Snodgrass

A young man was working his way through college in the Office of Manned Space Flight at the relatively new National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington, D.C.It was a great time to be there in the early 60s, during the days of the New Frontier. Although the college student was only on the outskirts of Camelot, he was working at the place that was determined to put humans on the moon, and there was an electric feeling in the air. One Saturday, while working in the mailroom, he ran into the famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, but that was not the most memorable encounter.Occasionally, the college student was asked to fill in for one of the chauffeurs on staff who drove important officials around town or picked up dignitaries at the airport.One night, he was asked to fetch Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer and technological prophet, who was arriving from Europe for a meeting with the space agency brass.On their way back to NASA headquarters on Constitution Avenue, they had a conversation. The details have faded from memory, of course, so many decades later, and yet an overall impression remains. The experience was always cherished.One topic was what a writer of fiction was doing talking to the bureaucrats at NASA.Well, that was not so strange at the time. Clarke was already well known as the person who came up with the idea of geostationary satellites for the telecommunications purposes. Although others had similar ideas, he has been given most of the credit based on his paper, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays,” published in 1945.Clarke said something like, “Yes, they invite me to come in periodically to brainstorm.” The college student remembers thinking, “What a great government we have that would want to explore such an inventive writer’s imagination.”It was a time when the imagination seemed to have something to contribute to reality and many new things were possible.The driver and his passenger also talked about literature, which was what was on the student’s mind at the time.They agreed on some words that meant a lot to both of them, a passage by John Donne, the English metaphysical poet, who wrote the meditation in 1624.Sir Arthur C. Clarke died March19 – author of nearly 100 books, a man with a skeptical but profoundly hopeful vision of humanity and its potential.He was a great inspiration to many people, including me. I was looking at that passage again the other day, and it had a whole new meaning, or maybe it was the original meaning, exactly what it was meant to mean. From John Donne’s Meditation XVII:

... No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.