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Isaac Asimov, Scientist and Science Fiction Writer, Would Have Turned 100 This Year

Isaac Asimov, Scientist and Science Fiction Writer, Would Have Turned 100 This Year

He wrote almost 200 books and thousands of articles.

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Drawing of Isaac Asimov, pointing a finger as if in conversation
Image credits:

Zakeena (Image cropped by Inside Science)

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CC BY 4.0

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 - 11:30

Joel Shurkin, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- When I was a kid I picked up a book called Foundation, written by Isaac Asimov. I had never heard of the author, but someone said the book was the best science fiction novel ever. We are talking Truman administration here; space flight was not something most serious people thought much about, but I was a kid and I wasn’t serious.

The book changed my life. I have been reading sci-fi steadily all these years, but I never forgot Hari Seldon and the robot Daneel Olivaw, who save humanity from themselves in what became the Foundation trilogy.

And of course, I never forgot Asimov, who I even met once. This year is his centennial.

The mid-20th century was a golden age of sci-fi. The modern genre was invented in the 1930s by John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. People like Robert Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, and Clifford Simak would carry it into the last half of the 20th century. Today, writers like China Miéville, Stephen Donaldson, David Brin, Margaret Atwood and Neal Stephenson continue the tradition. Still, the Foundation books themselves became a monument of the art and eventually grew into almost a dozen books, some by other authors borrowing Asimov’s universe.

I was too young when I first read Foundation to appreciate the science or the social under-thread beneath the plot. I was awed by the imagination. I still am. I have no idea where imagination comes from in the human brain, and I will be forever envious of those who have it.

I’m not alone. Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel prize in economics and a New York Times columnist had a similar response. He wrote his life too was changed by the book.

"The trilogy really is a unique masterpiece and there has never been anything quite like it," he wrote in The Guardian.

The books feature interstellar space flight and a battle, but these are background to the point: Is it possible to predict the future of humanity through mathematics, sociology and political science, and if so, is it possible to change it? It’s the science in his science fiction.

Asimov was born, or at least thought he was born, Jan. 2, 1920, in Petrovichi, Russia. No one seemed to know for sure. He chose the January date because he needed a birthday and that seemed close enough. His family was Orthodox Jewish and spoke Yiddish at home, but Asimov never embraced the religion, becoming a humanist.

The Asimovs moved to the United States in 1923, and Isaac grew up in Brooklyn.

His father opened a chain of candy stores that also stocked newspapers and magazines, a treasure trove for a child with a vast curiosity. (Asimov had taught himself to read at the age of five.)

He attended city public schools and a branch of Columbia University set up for students who were not admitted to the main campus, which had a quota for Jewish enrollment at that time.

Rejected by multiple medical schools, Asimov eventually earned degrees from Columbia, including a doctorate in chemistry in 1948. During that time, he worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Two of his colleagues at the navy yard -- L. Sprague de Camp and Robert Heinlein -- also became masters of science fiction writing.

Asimov moved to Boston University School of Medicine in 1949 as a biochemistry lecturer and eventually became a full tenured professor. He gave up research early to teach.

He loved confined spaces, yet was terrified of flying. He told me once on a train from Philadelphia to New York, that he, the grandmaster of space novels, had only been on a plane twice in his life. If he had to travel, it would be by train or ocean liner.

He read and loved mystery novels and sang in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He began writing in 1939. A polymath, he eventually covered a wide range of topics, including the Talmud, popular science and ancient Rome and Greece. He even wrote a satire on sex manuals. (In later years he was accused of inappropriate behavior toward women.)

The list of books he wrote is almost 200 items long, and that doesn’t count the short stories and essays.

He explained his sole mental health issue was that he had to write.

Hari Seldon, the hero of the Foundation universe, is part of a group of mathematical historians. Asimov invented the word "psychohistory" to describe their work. The group analyzed vast amounts of data and discovered that humanity, which now stretches across the cosmos as a Galactic Empire, is in for 30,000 years of barbarism. Seldon, aided by his robotic sidekick, tries to mitigate that. (Asimov also invented the word "robotics.")

The books then follow how that turns out.

Asimov created the famous Three Laws of Robotics to limit the danger from thinking machines.

 

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

 

The laws have influenced modern artificial intelligence researchers.

Asimov’s style flew in the face of conventional wisdom about good authors. His books contain minimal action or description.

"If you’re looking for richly nuanced character development," Krugman wrote, "you should go read Anna Karenina." Asimov’s books are mostly all dialogue.

"Asimov was brilliant at that," said Brin, the award-winning author of books like Sun Diver, The Postman and The Uplift War. "We all recall epic space battles and action that never happen onstage. They were referred to, in passing, by talk-talk characters and we filled in the rest in our minds."

Asimov kept finding holes in the plots of his books. He wrote more books to resolve the flaws, drawing in elements from other plots and scenarios. The effort merged his books into one long history of humanity and the foundations created to serve it. He then dedicated himself to closing the gaps in more books until he found flaws in those as well.

In 1995, three contemporary authors were hired by Asimov’s estate to tie up some of the loose ends. Brin, Gregory Benford and Greg Bear wrote another Foundation trilogy based on Asimov’s robot-psychohistory universe.

Asimov died in 1992, which is another story. He died of AIDS.

It was early in the appearance of the then-untreatable and then-stigmatized disease, which he caught from a blood transfusion during a triple bypass operation. At his doctors’ suggestion, he and his family kept news of the diagnosis quiet so as not to produce a negative public reaction. His daughter finally agreed to go public while editing his autobiography, which was published in 1994.

Asimov was 72 and still writing at the time he died, which meant we will never know how it all turns out.

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Author Bio & Story Archive

Joel Shurkin, photo by Abigail Dunlap

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore who has also taught journalism and science writing.