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Clarke's Error

Arthur Clarke, one of the great predictors of future discoveries, whose non-fiction essays contain analytical analysis of past, present and future of human achievements, seems to make an error concerning his analysis of human abilities:

There are some senses that do not exist, that can probably never be provided by living structures… On this planet, to the best of our knowledge, no creature has ever developed organs that can detect radio waves or radioactivity. Though I would hate to lay down the law and claim that nowhere in the Universe can there be organic Geiger counters or living TV sets, I think it highly improbable. There are some jobs that can be done only by transistors or magnetic fields or electron beams, and are therefore beyond the capacity of purely organic structures” (Clarke 2000).

However, some humans do possess abilities to detect radio waves. For example, a 50-year old woman with Asperger syndrome has to unplug all the electrical appliances in her flat before going to bed, otherwise she would be unable to screen out the radio programmes from the switched off transistor and buzzing sounds from a (switched off but plugged in) microwave oven, for example, which at night are very “audible and annoying”. (Her partner jokes, “If a flee sneezes, she jumps.”)

Temple Grandin writes about her student Holly, “who is severely dyslexic, [and who] has such acute auditory perception that she can hear radios that aren’t turned on. All appliances that are plugged in continue to draw power, even when they’re turned off. Holly can hear the tiny little transmissions a turned-off radio is receiving. She’ll say, “NPR is doing a show on lions, and we’ll turn the radio on and sure enough: NPR is doing a show on lions. Holly can hear it. She can hear the hum of electric wires in the wall. And she’s incredible with animals. She can tell what they’re feeling from the tiniest variations in their breathing; she can HEAR changes the rest of us can’t” (Grandin 2006).

These cases are not that rare as well. Quite a few individuals report that they can hear radio programmes when the radio is switched off but still plugged in, for example:

“If I want to get some more or less decent sleep I have to unplug all the electrical appliances in the house, especially radio and TV. During the day, with lots of noises and sounds in the environment it is relatively inaudible, but at night when everything is quiet, the interferences from the electrical equipment become intolerable: irritating buzzing sound of the microwave, bits and pieces of conversations or music from radio programmes (sometimes called ‘for those who’re awake’ – that is very ironic, because it is these very programmes that keep me awake!) Strangely enough, I don’t mind the fridge – it is always loud, anyway, so it seems very normal – a part of my auditory environment that is always here” (T. 2010).


Bogdashina O. (2013) Autism and Spirituality. JKP.

Clarke A. (2000) Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. London: Indigo.

Grandin T. (2006) Thinking in Pictures. Bloomsbury.

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