Tuesday, June 24, 2008









"Clarke himself was a little like the black monolith in 2001: a huge mathematically-proportioned presence from another dimension bringing 'evolution' to the Earth…for better or worse!"



I didn’t know he had died until I picked up an issue of Time magazine in Hobart last month. He was THE sci-fi icon to me, his name being almost synonymous with “good” science-fiction literature in my mind. And the first thing that always came to mind when I thought of him was his work with Stanley Kubrick on the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is not only my favourite Kubrick film, and probably my favourite film of all (after Bambi and The Wizard of Oz, of course!), but also what I consider to be the best work of both of these minds…a uniquely synergic artistic masterpiece that expanded our horizons and still defies “understanding.”

Clarke himself was a little like the black monolith in 2001: a huge mathematically-proportioned presence from another dimension bringing “evolution” to the Earth…for better or worse!

Like the “overlords” in his novel Childhood’s End, he may have been merely a proxy for beings far greater than himself, just “doing his job” in a grand scheme beyond even his own comprehension; regardless, however, of some of the dark under-tones in his work, for example, The Songs of Distant Earth, I always considered his to be one of the best and most imaginative minds among those of homo sapiens.

People sometimes ask me how I “knew” Arthur C. Clarke when they see his name listed on my card as owning one of my hand-painted rocks. Here’s the story…

It all goes back to the dolphins. Around the time I quit college in 1978 and enrolled in a much larger “uni”…the “uni-verse”…I began to receive what has been a life-long “calling” to reach out to, communicate with, protect, and understand our friends the dolphins and whales.

This “calling” originally came to me through the work and writings of Dr. John C. Lilly, a brilliant and controversial “renaissance mind” of science whose background in neurobiology led him to the dolphins. I moved to California in 1980 to get involved with his dolphin communication work; my main angle was in the use of music as a form of communication.

What interested me most in Lilly’s thinking was that the cetaceans are a true “extra-terrestrial” intelligence (literally, “away from land”) who not only live on the same planet we do, but have done so for millions of years longer than us, in the ocean, without hands or external technology, with brains that are more highly evolved than ours. Lilly said basically that there was no way we could possibly hope to communicate with or understand true ‘alien’ beings from another planet or galaxy if we couldn’t even communicate with or understand highly intelligent beings from the same planet as ourselves.

Lilly was the only biologist at the first “Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence” conference in 1960, along with minds like physicist Philip Morrison; Bernard Oliver, vp of Hewlett-Packard; radio astronomer Frank Drake; and planetary scientist Carl Sagan.

This conference and Project Ozma which it spawned, were the origin of what is called “seti”, or the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” While most of the attention was on looking for and decoding “needle-in-a-haystack” electromagnetic signals from “out there”, Lilly was basically saying that we don’t need radio-telescopes to study “extraterrestrial intelligence”…they are already here in the ocean!

This revelation was a bit much for the hard-core technophiles who were fixated on the idea that any truly “advanced” intelligence would HAVE to be using powerful electronic technologies like our own; to think not only that true “e.t.’s” are already here, BUT also that we are not rolling our the “red carpet” of diplomacy nor “taking them to our leaders”…we are ruthlessly killing them for commercial purposes…was…UNTHINKABLE! Yet this in fact was the essence of Lilly’s message.

All of this resonated powerfully in the depths of my being. I first met dolphins in North Carolina and was overwhelmed by the “magic” of their energy; I moved to California and was actually “on-lab” on the day Joe and Rosie arrived at Lilly’s facility. They were two Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins who had “volunteered” to be part of the project. Later on I was able not only to swim with them, but also to play some music to them as I swam. Lilly’s team had devised a state-of-the-art computer system which could do real-time frequency transforms of our sound range into theirs, and theirs into ours, with hydrophones in the water. I brought some recorded music by Pat Metheny and Ralph Towner; I got in the water with the dolphins and they started the music. I will never forget what happened next. As soon as the music started…I could hear it as well…the dolphins went into this kind of trance-like state where they stopped swimming and just floated there with this really blissful look in their eyes. I knew then that the stories from the ancient Greek philosophers were true…dolphins really do love music!!! I could see it in their eyes! It was as if they were feeling the music with their whole bodies.

I never really fit in with the Lilly group, for reasons I later came to understand; and Lilly himself, despite his profound contributions and awareness-work, began to violate THE most fundamental aspect of respect for fellow beings…they kept Joe and Rosie captive long after they said they would release them back where they came from. At this point Lilly was losing long-time friends and backers because of this. I could see that having the dolphins there was the group’s “ticket” to celebrity; tv crews and other media personnel were showing up every other day. I could also see that all this had nothing to do with understanding the dolphins, and was making them edgier as time went by.

From this experience I learned two major things: that dolphins love music, and that you can’t keep them captive for any reason.

In 1984 I came up with the “Cetacean/Arecibo Project”, which involved doing live musical “dialogues” with free-swimming cetaceans in the ocean and beaming it into space via radio-telescope using a network of computers and satellites. I created a flow-chart for the project and began to create lists of musicians who I’d like to have, as well as of various technical advisors in different areas.

In the course of exploring the radio-telescope connection and how I might get some time on a major “dish”, as well as technical advice on using one as a transmitter rather than a receiver, I contacted the SETI group of NASA, which was based at the Ames Air Force Base in Mountain View, CA, and became friends with Bob Arnold, their director of public relations.

Bob liked my project and shared a lot of information with me; he introduced me to Seth Shostak, director of the SETI group, and put me onto Frank Drake, creator of the famous “Drake equation.” And he invited me to a 1992 SETI ceremony at the Goldstone installation where I got to meet Carl Sagan. But this was the early 1990’s and the “radio-“ astronomy crowd still wasn’t ready to entertain seriously the idea that the cetaceans ARE a true “extra-terrestrial intelligence.”

Bob could sense my frustration; one day he said, “Jeff, you know who you need to talk to about your project? Arthur C. Clarke.”

I said, “ Hey that would be fantastic. You don’t know him, do you?”

“Not personally. But I can give you his mailing address in Sri Lanka.”

So I wrote a letter to Arthur C. Clarke explaining my background and this and other things I was involved with. I sent him a hand-painted rock and a t-shirt with the “Cetacean/Arecibo Project” flow-chart on it. I also mentioned the work of Roger Payne, who was the first to record humpback whale sounds in the 1960’s, and told him that Carl Sagan had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and was hospitalised. This was 1995.

A few weeks later I was truly surprised to receive a letter back from him. Attached are the pages of that letter. It was a form letter telling of his recent journeys and on-going projects, but it had some hand-written notes to me. Most importantly, his phone number was on it, so I rang him up.

A very polite Indian-sounding voice answered the phone, saying this was Arthur C. Clarke’s residence, and who was I. I said, “This is Jeff Phillips calling from Boulder, Colorado. Is Arthur available?”

After a minute or so he picked up the phone. His first words were, “Ah…Jeff Phillips. Good to hear from you. I want to thank you for the painted rock and the t-shirt…”

I was blown away! Here I was talking with the leading science-fiction writer of the 20th century and he was thanking me!!!

We talked for about 45 minutes. This was before the day of 8-cent-per-minute international calls…I think it cost me about $50usd! A bargain at any price! We talked about all kinds of stuff. First he told me that he personally responds to EVERY SINGLE PIECE of mail he gets…which was voluminous…and that this alone takes a lot of his time, but he took his supporters seriously. He asked me how Sagan was doing…I told him his condition appeared to be worsening. We talked about my project and a lot of technical stuff. He said that he would be happy to be a technical advisor. I asked him what he thought of my article that had been recently published by Ad-busters magazine called “The Age of Infotoxin”, about the weaponization of communication and the pollution of our mental environment. He loved it and agreed that we had serious problems here. But he also emphasized that, in his thinking, it was better to have created the technologies of communication, with ALL that it has brought, as opposed to having never created them at all. This gave me a lot of food for thought. In fact, I’m still thinking about it about it 13 years later!

I spoke with him again a few months later, but then we dropped out of touch. It was a very cool connection to have made.

And the “Cetacean/Arecibo Project” got shelved, not because of lack of interest on my part, but because I realized that what musician Ralph Towner told me in an interview I did with him in 1990 was true. Ralph had long been my very favourite of human musicians, and I liked to tell people that if planet Earth needed one person to represent “us”, Ralph and his guitar should do it. And it was some of his music that I first played to the dolphins in Redwood City that day. I had been telling Ralph about the project, and he said he would be honoured to participate. Then he added, “But you know, Jeff, we should really leave those people alone.”

His words have echoed in my mind ever since. Without even thinking about it, he referred to them as “people.”

It’s weird…in today’s world, it seems to me that the whales and dolphins are truly acting more like real “people” than we are. And they wouldn't possibly be able to respond to our music while they're being harpooned, drift-netted, and blasted by naval sonar!!!

But this is another story, and one that I will soon be telling.

I would like to thank Arthur C. Clarke for his immense and creative contributions to the human endeavour, for taking the time to talk with me, and for inspiring me. His work is a testament to the most fundamental belief held by Albert Einstein: 

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

And I may be the only person ever to get him "stoned"...legally, that is!

24 JUNE 2008

* Science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke dies age 90

* This is his “home page”…lots of info…

* Here is a link to the original 1945 article in which he spelled out the details of how to put satellites in orbit around the Earth…

* And this link shows his original drawing…and where we’ve gone with it all…