Isaac Asimov (c. January 2, 1920- April 6, 1992, was a Russian-born American Jewish author and biochemist, a highly successful and exceptionally prolific writer best known for his works of Science Fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov's most famous work is the Foundation Series, which was part of one of his two major series, the Galactic Empire Series, later merged with his other famous story arc, the Robot series. He also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as a great amount of non-fiction. Asimov wrote or edited more than 500 volumes and an estimated 90,000 letters or postcards, and he has works in every major category of the Dewey Decimal System except Philosophy. Asimov was by consensus a master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered to be one of the "Big Three" science-fiction writers during his lifetime.
Most of Asimov's popularized science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going back as far as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often gives nationalities, birth dates and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms. Examples of this style include his Guide To Science, the three-volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov's Chronology Of Science and Discovery.
Asimov was a long-time member of Mensa, albeit reluctantly; he described them as "intellectually combative". He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association. The asteroid 5020 Asimov, the magazine Asimov's Science Fiction and two different Isaac Asimov Awards are all named in his honor.
Asimov was born around January 2, 1920 (his date of birth for official purposes-the precise date is not certain) in Petrovichi shtetl of Smolensk Oblast, RSFSR (now Russia) to Anna Rachel Berman Asimov and Judah Asimov, a Jewish family of millers. They emigrated to the United States when he was three years old; since the parents always spoke Yiddish and English with their son, he never learned Russian. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he taught himself to read at the age of five, and remained fluent in Yiddish as well as English. His parents owned a small general store and everyone in the family was expected to work in it. He saw science fiction magazines in the store and began reading them. Around the age of eleven, he began to write his own stories and few years later he was selling them to pulp magazines
He graduated from Columbia University in 1939 and earned a Ph.D. in chemistry there in 1948. In between, he spent three years during World War II working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Naval Air Experimental Station. After the war ended, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving for just under nine months before receiving an honorable discharge. In the course of his brief military career, he rose to Corporal on the basis of his typing skills and narrowly avoided participating in the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
After completing his doctorate, he joined the faculty of Boston University, with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958 this was in a non-teaching capacity, as he became a full-time writer (his writing income already exceeded his academic salary). Being tenured meant that he retained the title of associate professor, and in 1979 the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor. His personal papers from 1965 onward are archived at their Mugar Memorial Library, where they fill 464 boxes on 71 metres of shelf space.
In 1985, he became President of the American Humanist Association and remained in that position until his death in 1992; his successor was his friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He was a close friend of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
He married Gertrude Blugerman (1917-1990) on July 26, 1942, and they had two children, David (b. 1951) and Robyn Joan (b. 1955). After an extended separation, they were divorced in 1973, and Asimov married Janet O. Jeppson later that year. Gertrude, born in Canada, died in Boston in 1990.
Asimov was a claustrophile; that is, he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces. In his first volume of autobiography, he recalls a childhood desire to own a magazine stand in a New York City Subway station, within which he imagined he could enclose himself and listen to the rumble of passing trains.
Asimov was afraid of flying, only doing so twice in his entire life (once in the course of his work at the Naval Air Experimental Station and once returning home from the army base in Oahu in 1946). He seldom traveled great distances, partly because his aversion to aircraft made the logistics of long-distance travel complicated; this phobia influenced several of his fiction works, such as the Wendell Urth mystery stories and The Robot Novels featuring Elijah Baley. In his later years, he found he enjoyed traveling on cruise ships, and on several occasions he became part of the cruises' "entertainment," giving science-themed talks on ships like the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.
His physical dexterity was very poor. He never learned how to swim or ride a bicycle, although he did learn to drive a car and found he enjoyed it. He did not learn to operate a car until after he moved to Boston, Massachusetts; in his jokebook Asimov Laughs Again, he describes Boston driving as "anarchy on wheels".
Asimov's wide interests included his participation in his later years in organizations devoted to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan and the Nero Wolfe mysteries of Rex Stout. He was a prominent member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the leading Sherlock Holmes society.
Asimov died on April 6, 1992. He was survived by his second wife, Janet, and his children from his first marriage. Ten years after his death, Janet Asimov's edition of Asimov's autobiography, It's Been a Good Life, revealed that his death was caused by AIDS; he had contracted HIV from an infected blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery in 1983. The specific cause of death was heart and renal failure as complications of AIDS. Janet Asimov writes in the epilogue of It's Been a Good Life that Asimov had wanted to "go public", but his doctors convinced him to remain silent, warning that anti-AIDS prejudice would extend to his family members. Asimov's family considered disclosing his AIDS infection after he died, but the controversy which erupted when Arthur Ashe announced that he had contracted AIDS convinced them otherwise. Ten years later, after Asimov's doctors had died, Janet and Robyn agreed that the AIDS story could be made public.
Isaac Asimov was a Humanist and a rationalist. He did not oppose genuine religious conviction in others but vocally opposed superstitious or unfounded beliefs. During his childhood, his family did not for the most part observe any religion, and so Asimov grew up without strong religious influences, coming to believe that the Bible represented Hebrew mythology in the same way that the Iliad recorded Greek mythology. (For a brief while his father, Judah Asimov, worked in the local synagogue to enjoy the familiar surroundings and "shine as a learned scholar" versed in the sacred writings. This experience had little effect upon his son Isaac beyond teaching him the Hebrew alphabet.) For many years, Asimov called himself an atheist, though he felt the term was somewhat inadequate, describing more about what he did not believe than about what he did. Later, he found the term "humanist" a useful substitute.
In his last autobiographical book, Asimov wrote, "If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul." The same memoir states his belief that Hell is "the drooling dream of a sadist" crudely affixed to an all-merciful God; if even human governments were willing to curtail cruel and unusual punishments, wondered Asimov, why would punishment in the afterlife not be restricted to a limited term? Asimov rejected the idea that a human belief or action could merit infinite punishment. If an afterlife of just deserts existed, he claimed, the longest and most severe punishment would be reserved for those who "slandered God by inventing Hell". As his Treasury of Humor and Asimov Laughs Again record, he was amply willing to tell jokes involving the Judeo-Christian God, Satan, the Garden of Eden and other religious topics, expressing the viewpoint that a good joke can do more to provoke thought than hours of philosophical discussion.
Asimov was a progressive on most political issues, and a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and in a television interview in the early 1970s he publicly endorsed George McGovern. He was unhappy at what he saw as an irrationalist track taken by many progressive political activists from the late 1960s onwards. In his autobiography In Joy Still Felt, he recalls meeting the counterculture figure Abbie Hoffman; Asimov's impression was that the 1960s' counterculture heroes had ridden an emotional wave which, in the end, left them stranded in a "no-man's land of the spirit" from which he wondered if they would ever return. (This attitude echoes a famous passage in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) His defense of civil applications of Nuclear Power even after the Three Mile Island incident damaged his relations with some of his fellow liberals. In a letter reprinted in Yours, Isaac Asimov, he states that though he would prefer living in "no danger whatsoever" than near a nuclear reactor, he would still prefer a home near a nuclear power plant than in a slum, on Love Canal or near "a Union Carbide plant producing methyl isocyanate" (see Bhopal disaster). He issued many appeals for population control reflecting the perspective articulated by people from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich. Asimov considered himself a feminist even before Women's Liberation became a widespread movement; he joked that he wished women to be free "because I hate it when they charge". More seriously, he argued that the issue of women's rights was closely connected to that of population control. Furthermore, he believed that homosexuality must be considered a "moral right" on population grounds, as must all consenting adult sexual activity which does not lead to reproduction (Yours, Isaac Asimov).
In the closing years of his life, Asimov blamed the deterioration of the quality of life that he perceived in New York on the shrinking tax base caused by middle class flight to the suburbs. His last non-fiction book, Our Angry Earth (1991, co-written with his long-time friend science fiction author Frederik Pohl), deals with elements of the environmental crisis such as global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.
Asimov's career can be divided into several time periods. His early career, dominated by science fiction, began with short stories in 1939 and novels in 1950. This lasted until about 1958, all but ending after publication of The Naked Sun. He began publishing nonfiction in 1952, co-authoring a college-level textbook called Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. Following the brief orbit of the first man-made satellite Sputnik I by the USSR in 1957, his production of nonfiction, particularly popular science books, greatly increased, with a consequent drop in his science fiction output. Over the next quarter century, he would write only four science fiction novels. Starting in 1982, the second half of his science fiction career began with the publication of Foundation's Edge. From then until his death, Asimov would publish several sequels and prequels to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he had not originally anticipated.
In his own view, Asimov believed that his most enduring contributions would be his "Three Laws of Robotics" and the Foundation Series (see Yours, Isaac Asimov, p. 329). Furthermore, the Oxford English Dictionary credits his science fiction for introducing the words positronic (an entirely fictional technology), psychohistory (frequently used in a different sense than the imaginary one Asimov employed) and robotics into the English language. Asimov coined the term robotics without suspecting that it might be an original word; at the time, he believed it was simply the natural analogue of mechanics, hydraulics and so forth. (The original word robot derives from the Czech word for "forced labor", robota, and was first employed by the playwright Karel Capek.) Unlike his other two coinages, the word robotics continues in mainstream and technical use with Asimov's original definition. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured androids with "positronic brains", giving Asimov full credit for inventing this (fictional) technology.
Asimov began contributing stories to science fiction magazines in 1939, "Marooned Off Vesta" being his first published story, written when he was 18. Two and a half years later, he published his 32nd short story, "Nightfall" (1941), which has been described as one of "the most famous science-fiction stories of all time". In 1968 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" the best science fiction short story ever written. In his short anthology Nightfall and Other Stories he wrote, "The writing of 'Nightfall' was a watershed in my professional career... I was suddenly taken seriously and the world of science fiction became aware that I existed. As the years passed, in fact, it became evident that I had written a 'classic'".
"Nightfall" is an archetypical example of social science fiction, a term coined by Asimov to describe a new trend in the 1940's, led by authors including Asimov and Heinlein, away from gadgets and space opera and toward speculation about the human condition.
In 1942 he began his Foundation stories-later collected in the