IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Bioculture > Staff > Kyle Munkittrick > SciTech
Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law and the Movie ‘Thor’
Kyle Munkittrick   May 12, 2011   Science Not Fiction  

Anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damned quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Director Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.

portmanThe reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech law of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film. So, what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic?

Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit:

Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not our world, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long.

In short, the Marvel universe is internally consistent, which makes me all the more excited for the Avengers film. Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters.

It seems like anytime a preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or as a deus ex machina, that damn quotation gets trotted out as the defense. So does Thor live up to Carroll’s hopes, or does it abuse Clarke’s rule?

To answer that question, we need to investigate Clarke’s law a bit further. There is a corollary to it: “Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.”

By that measure, just how advanced are Asgardians? More than sufficiently. I knew Branagh wanted to explicitly avoid making Thor an actual magical god of thunder. And, because of that, I had so many damn questions about pretty much everything in the film. Why is Thor the only one who can lift Mjölnir? What is Odinsleep? Are Frost Giants aliens? How is Odin able to “take” Thor’s powers?

Needless to say, I was frustrated…


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


Maybe you’ll be less frustrated if you go and study up a little bit on the religion aspects of Valhalla…

Kyle, Kyle, Kyle… you are obviously not a fiction writer.

I was once going to write a series of articles for writers discussing magic vs tech.  They are exactly the same thing, provided you are a good writer able to properly explain things.  The special effects may change but that’s about all.

And since we are about to enter a world in which fantasy and fact are going to become even more difficult to tell apart, it’s going to become important that people understand Clark’s Law.

Wish I had time before work to write more, but I’ll be back in about 11 hours. This is a personal favorite topic.

Okay… to continue.

I’ve always felt that if you reversed Clark’s law, it also expresses a profound truth.

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science.

Let take the historical Thor as an example. By the real legend, Thor could not even pick up his own hammer. Without a girdle to make his body strong enough, and a pair of gloves to protect his hands, the mythological god lacked the ability to pick Mjolnir up. He needed all three items to do all those feats he performs in the myths. Think about that. How would a primitive (to our concept) explain an exoskeleton? Would he have the concepts to even describe an exoskeleton? Would he be able to say, “And Thor put on his exoskeleton and it enabled him to pick up his hammer made of neutronium!”

Of course not, he wouldn’t have the concepts of powered armor, and be utterly unable to explain them in a manner we would understand as “technical”. He’d have no other explanation but “Magic” exactly as Clark said.

However, they’ve always had a small element of “magitek” thrown in, because the Jotun Dwarves are mechanical “Hephaestus” types, and always have been. The myth makes plain that Thor’s girdle, gloves and hammer are all “gadets”, devices engineered by mechanical, scientific processes, which illustrates exactly how long people have acknowledged that science and “magic” are actually the same thing. If you read the ancient “spell books” these are rudimentary science textbooks, detailing precise methods for casting “spells”. That these books are based on what we now know to be false beliefs about reality, they were nonetheless serious attempts to be scientific, with exacting instructions intended to produce concrete results.

So really, how is “mix one part x with one part y, stir, chant the three hour spell, and it will create z” from “mix one gram x with element y, stir, allow to sit for three hours and it will make z?”

Don’t forget that all science is based in magic. Astronomy came from Astrology, and chemistry from alchemy, and that is something we tend to overlook far too often.  We tend to dismiss “witchdoctors” and wizards, and ignore the collected empirical data embedded within the “junk data”.

And with that in mind, whenever I am writing about “magic” I always try to keep it as “scientific” as possible so that I rarely have to use the “Clark’s Law” explanation for any reason.

and that is my ramble! XP

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Anders Sandberg on Progress in Mitigating Asteroid Impact Risks

Previous entry: Transhumanism, Religion and Science