Clarke’s Law n.

any of three maxims formulated by Arthur C. Clarke (sometimes specified as Clarke’s First Law, Clarke’s Second Law, Clarke’s Third Law): (a) ‘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’ (b) ‘The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.’ (c) ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’

SF Encyclopedia

SF Criticism

  • 1962 A. C. Clarke Profiles of Future 25

    I have tried to embody this fact of observation in Clarke’s Law, which may be formulated as follows: ‘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.’

  • 1962 A. C. Clarke Profiles of Future 31

    But the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

  • 1962 Times 6 Dec. 18/6

    He also operates under two laws. The first, which asserts that anything that is theoretically possible will be done if men want it enough, is frequently used to keep his mantle in place against the searching wind of improbability. The second, which is used as a cloak of a different kind, is called Clarke’s Law: ‘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.’

  • [1964 Profil du futur (front free endpaper)

    Quand un savant distingué mais vieillissant estime que quelque chose est possible, il a presque certainement raison. Mais lorsqu’il déclare que quelque chose est impossible il a très probablement tort. 1re Loi de CLARKE.]

  • [1964 Profil du futur (front free endpaper)

    La seule façon de découvrir les limites du possible est de s’aventurer un peu au-delà d’elles, dans l’impossible. 2e Loi de CLARKE.]

  • 1968 A. C. Clarke Letter in Science 19 Jan. 255/2 Arthur C. Clarke

    Clarke’s Third Law is even more appropriate to the UFO discussion: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

  • 1972 A. C. Clarke Lost Worlds of 2001 189 Arthur C. Clarke

    The other is Clarke’s Third* Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ [footnote] * Oh, very well. The First: ‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.’(Profiles of the Future) The Second: ‘The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.’

  • 1972 A. C. Clarke Report on Planet Three 129 Arthur C. Clarke

    Clarke’s First Law: 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. Second Law: The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible. Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

  • 1976 D. Trotter in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Aug. 78 page image Don Trotter

    I graduated from Kansas State University not long ago and am currently in graduate school studying Clarke’s Law and physics in about equal proportions.

  • 1977 A. C. Clarke Profiles of Future (1977) 39 Arthur C. Clarke

    But the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible*… *[footnote] 1) The French edition of this book rather surprised me by calling this Clarke’s Second Law. (See page 25 for the First, which is now rather well-known.) I accept the label, and have also formulated a Third: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there.

  • 1980 M. A. Rothman On Designing an Interstellar Spaceship Sept. 119 page image Milton A. Rothman bibliography

    I also know that when I say: ‘It is impossible for an interstellar space drive to operate without using a reaction principle,’ somebody is going to throw Clarke’s Law up in my face.

  • 1989 C. C. Ryan Blasphemy? in Aboriginal Science Fiction Nov.–Dec. 61 page image

    For instance, would it even be possible to understand this God, or would a variation of Clarke’s Law apply?

  • 1996 N. Brown Three More from the Good Doctor in Interzone July 60/2 page image Nigel Brown bibliography

    Asimov originally conceived them as fantasy-mysteries, and sold two to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but Shawna McCarthy, then the editor of ASFM, objected to this and so, at her request, he changed the mini-demon into a mini-alien and the magic into advanced technology, citing Clarke’s Law.

  • 2009 R. R. Chase Five Thousand Light Years from Birdland in Asimov’s Science Fiction Jan. 56 page image Robert R. Chase bibliography

    Maillardet snorted in disgust. ‘Clarke’s third law. Sir Arthur should have been shot making a statement that excuses so much shoddy thinking.’


Research requirements

antedating 1962

Earliest cite

Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future

Research History
This was originally three separate entries, one for each Law.
For Clarke's First Law:
Fred Bacon submitted a cite from a 1977 reprint of "Profiles of the Future"; it was subsequently verified in the 1962 first edition by Scott Neugroschl. This cite is for the form "Clarke's Law", and for the text of the law itself.
Talin sent in a cite from Clarke's 1972 "Report on Planet Three" in a chapter "Technology and the Future", in which Clarke explicitly names and numbers the laws. (this article is described as edited from a transcription of tapes of a lecture given to the American Institute of Architects in May 1967.)
Bill Mullins sent a cite from a review (in the London Times, Dec 6 1962) of Profiles of the Future, which described two of the Laws, but did not number them.

We would like to see any cites antedating 1972 in which it is explicitly named as "Clarke's First Law".

for Clarke's Second Law:
Fred Bacon submitted a cite of this statement from a 1977 reprint of Clarke's "Profiles of the Future"; it was verified in the first edition by Mike Christie. The first edition doesn't name it as the second law; the sentence is merely part of the text.

Scott Neugroschl submitted a cite from 1972 from "The Lost Worlds of 2001" that refers to it indirectly as Second (in a list); it doesn't use the phrase "Clarke's Second Law" directly. Fred Bacon submitted a cite from a 1977 reprint of "Profiles of the Future" that refers directly to "Clarke's Second Law", and that makes it clear that the law was first so called in the French edition of "Profiles of the Future": Clarke subsequently used the phrase in reprints of "Profiles". We would like a cite of the relevant French text, and a cite of any earlier reprints of "Profiles of the Future" which contain the phrase.

Talin sent in a cite from Clarke's 1972 "Report on Planet Three" in a chapter "Technology and the Future", in which Clarke explicitly names and numbers the laws. (this article is described as edited from a transcription of tapes of a lecture given to the American Institute of Architects in May 1967.)

Bill Mullins sent a cite from a review (in the London Times, Dec 6 1962) of Profiles of the Future, which described the first two of the Laws, but did not number them; that source named the Second Law as "Clarke's Law".

For Clarke's Third Law:
Scott Neugroschl submitted an explicit cite in the form "Clarke's Third Law" from a reprint of the 1972 book "The Lost Worlds of 2001"; Frederic Marchal verified this cite in the first edition. Fred Bacon submitted a cite in an indirect form ("I have also formulated a Third: . . .") from a 1977 reprint of "Profiles of the Future". We know that the cite does not appear in the first edition; we would like to verify earlier reprints of "Profiles" to determine when it does appear.

Talin sent in a cite from Clarke's 1972 "Report on Planet Three" in a chapter "Technology and the Future", in which Clarke explicitly names and numbers the laws. (this article is described as edited from a transcription of tapes of a lecture given to the American Institute of Architects in May 1967.)

Several people have sent in an citation from a letter to Science by Clarke, in January 1968.

Last modified 2021-01-14 02:24:42
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.