15 Fascinating Facts About Isaac Asimov

M Stroud/Getty Images
M Stroud/Getty Images

Isaac Asimov is best known for writing science fiction novels like the Foundation and Robot series, but the amazingly prolific author also penned hundreds of mysteries, short stories, science guides, essays, and even a book of humor. And, of course, he consulted on Star Trek (though only after giving the show a second look). Check out these 15 facts about the famous Humanist.

1. Isaac Asimov's parents were immigrants who owned candy stores.

Born in Petrovichi (present-day Russia) in 1920 (-ish), Asimov was just 3 years old when he and his family emigrated to the U.S. After living in Brooklyn for a few years, Asimov's father, Judah, saved enough money from various odd jobs to buy a candy store. His parents worked around the clock to keep the store open 19 hours a day, and it was a success that kept them afloat through the Great Depression. Throughout the '30s, Judah Asimov purchased a series of confectionary shops in Brooklyn. During this time, the Asimov family lived in several apartments in the borough, including two above their stores. Isaac, his father, and his sister (a younger brother wasn't born yet, and his mother waited until 1938) became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1928.

2. Isaac Asimov fell in love with science fiction at his first job.

When he was 9 years old, Asimov began working at the family candy stores. His father expected his son to work long hours, and Asimov consistently rose early and went to bed late to help run the shops. Even while employed at other part-time jobs—including one at a fabric company and as a typist for a college professor—he worked in the family business in some capacity, only leaving in his early twenties. In addition to candy, the stores sold magazines, and young Isaac devoured the science fiction stories he read in their pages and fell in love with the genre.

3. ISaac Asimov was rejected from nearly every school to which he applied.

At 15 years old, Asimov applied to Columbia College but was rejected because "[the school's] quota for Jews for the coming year was already filled," he later wrote. Instead he attended Seth Low Junior College, which was affiliated with Columbia. That school closed soon after and he was transferred to Columbia, where he earned a Chemistry degree in 1939. Hoping to become a doctor, Asimov applied to five medical schools in New York, but was rejected by every one. For good measure, he applied again, and was turned down by each of them once more. He also applied to Columbia's graduate school for chemistry, but was denied entrance.

4. Despite the slow start, Isaac Asimov eventually earned a doctorate.

After speaking to Columbia's faculty, Asimov managed to convince the school to accept him as a grad student for a year, on a probationary basis. His grades were up to snuff, and he earned his master's degree in chemistry in 1941. From 1942 to 1945, he worked at the Philadelphia Naval Air Experimental Station—he knew, following the Pearl Harbor attack five months earlier, that the draft was going to be coming, and he preferred to be of some service rather than try to hide behind being a Ph.D. candidate. He later wrote that he hoped that with this job "my labors might serve as directly useful for that war effort, and I knew I could do more as a reasonably capable chemist than as a panicky infantryman, and perhaps the government would think so too." When the war ended, he was drafted into a 9-month stint in the army; then he returned to Columbia, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1948.

5. Isaac Asimov had a successful career in academia.

Phillip Leonian, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Asimov worked his way up the ladder of academia, moving from a postdoc position at Columbia—where he focused on how to combat malaria—to a job as a biochemistry instructor at Boston University's medical school. His lectures were popular, and within a few years he was promoted to associate professor. He also co-authored a biochemistry textbook called Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. In 1958, he stopped teaching and focused solely on writing science fiction. Years later, in 1979, Boston University awarded Asimov the title of full professor.

6. Isaac Asimov used the pen name Paul French.

In the '50s, Asimov wrote a series of six science fiction novels for children using the pseudonym Paul French. The books, collectively called the Lucky Starr series, follow David "Lucky" Starr and his adventures around the solar system. Because the publisher, Doubleday, was hoping to turn the series into a TV show, Asimov used a pen name just in case the television adaptation was terrible—he didn't want to be attached to something cringeworthy, but he also hated that people began to think he was using the pseudonym in order to protect his reputation in the science community. In the end, the TV show didn't happen, and some of the books are now credited to both French and Asimov.

7. Isaac Asimov wrote a movie musical for Paul McCartney.

Look in the Boston University archives, and you might find a story outline called "Five and Five and One." Asimov penned it for Paul McCartney, a long-time science fiction fan who had asked him to write a screenplay for a sci-fi musical. The former Beatles' idea centered on a band that realized it was being impersonated by aliens, and he thought Asimov would be the perfect writer for the job. Sadly, McCartney didn't like Asimov's treatment, and the movie was never made.

8. Isaac Asimov was an on-again, off-again member of Mensa.

Asimov wasn't shy about joining clubs. Some of the groups he belonged to were the Baker Street Irregulars (an exclusive organization for Sherlock Holmes fans), the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, the Wodehouse Society, and Mensa. After joining the oldest high-IQ society in the world, Asimov participated in events and was an Honorary Vice President. But he drifted in and out of active membership due to some unpleasant members who were "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs," as he described them. "They were, as I had been in my youth, forcing their intelligence on unwilling victims. In general, too, they felt underappreciated and undersuccessful. As a result, they had soured on the Universe and tended to be disagreeable."

9. After an initial tiff, Isaac Asimov collaborated with the creator of Star Trek.

In 1966, Asimov wrote a critique for TV Guide arguing that the then-current crop of sci-fi shows—including Star Trek—were inaccurate in their depiction of science fiction. Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, wrote a letter to Asimov defending himself. After admitting that he was a big fan of the author's work, Roddenberry explained that the show hired multiple scientific consultants to ensure accuracy and struggled to produce a new show every week. Roddenberry ended his letter by stating his belief that Star Trek would turn new people—who would purchase Asimov's books—into science fiction fans.

The two men then became friends, and Asimov became a fan of the show. He served as a consultant for Star Trek, giving Roddenberry a few plot and characterization suggestions. For his part, Roddenberry attempted to make a movie based on Asimov's I, Robot, but it never happened under him (both Roddenberry and Asimov had died a decade before the 2004 Will Smith film was in the works).

10. Isaac Asimov coined the word robotics.

Karel Čapek, a Czech writer, gave us robot when he used the word in a play in 1921. Derived from a Slavic term for a slave, the word described man-like machines that worked on a factory assembly line. But in 1941, in his own short story called "Liar!," Asimov became the first person to use the word robotics, referring to the technology that robots possess. The next year, he wrote another short story, called "Runaround," in which he introduced his three Laws of Robotics. These laws explain that a robot cannot hurt a human, must obey humans, and must protect themselves, so long as it doesn't conflict with the first two laws.

11. Isaac Asimov had extreme acrophobia and aviophobia.

Asimov was a staunch man of reason, but he could never reason his way out of his two biggest fears: heights and flying. In his early twenties, two terrifying experiences on roller coasters made him realize he was an acrophobe—and unfortunately, both experiences happened on dates. "From what I had seen of it in movies, it seemed to me that my date would scream and would cling to me, something which, I thought, would be delightful," Asimov wrote in his memoir of taking his girlfriend on a roller coaster at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Instead, the ride had the opposite effect. "I screamed in terror and I hung on desperately to my date, who sat there stolid and unmoved."

A second similar coaster ride at Coney Island confirmed his fear, and after two early trips on planes, he never set foot on an airplane again. To travel, he took cars and trains around the U.S., and he took cruise ships on his trips to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Quite ironic for the man whose Foundation series has now flown out to deep space, thanks to SpaceX.

12. Isaac Asimov met his second wife at an autograph signing.

Asimov married his first wife, Gertrude—she of the second roller coaster adventure—in 1942 after a six-month courtship, and they had two children together. As he described it, their marriage slowly began to deteriorate: "It's just that annoyances multiply, frictions come slowly to seem irreconcilable, forgiveness comes more reluctantly and with worse grace." Worse grace was right—later on, he partially blamed his wife's smoking habit and rheumatoid arthritis on their split, though he insisted on staying together until their children were older.

In 1956, Asimov was signing autographs at a convention when he met Janet Jeppson, a psychiatrist and fan of his writing. A few years later, they met again at a writers' banquet. They began a friendship and correspondence over the next decade, and when, in 1970, Asimov and Gertrude separated, Jeppson helped him find an apartment in New York just a few blocks from her own. They started dating soon after, and when his divorce was finalized in 1973, Asimov married Janet two weeks later.

13. Isaac Asimov and Jeppson collaborated on numerous writing projects.

CHRISTO DRUMMKOPF, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Asimov collaborated with Jeppson on several sci-fi novels, including the Norby series. While she did most of the writing, he polished her manuscripts and let publishers add his name to the book covers so more copies would sell. In the '70s, Jeppson began writing science fiction novels for children, using the name J.O. Jeppson, and she took over her husband's pop-science column after his death. She also compiled and edited a few of Asimov's memoirs, collecting entries from his journals and excerpts from his letters.

14. Isaac Asimov was infected with HIV during a blood transfusion.

In 1977, Asimov had a heart attack. Six years later, in December 1983, he had a triple bypass surgery, during which he received a blood transfusion. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to doctors, the blood they gave him was infected with HIV. Asimov contracted the virus, and it developed fully into AIDS. He died of heart and kidney failure, caused by AIDS, on April 6, 1992.

15. Isaac Asimov's true cause of death wasn't revealed until 2002.

Although the family considered telling the world Asimov had AIDS, his doctors dissuaded him—the general public was still fearful of HIV and very little was understood about it. His HIV status remained a secret until 2002, a decade after his death, when Janet disclosed it in It's Been A Good Life, a posthumous collection of letters and other writings that she edited. "I argued with the doctors privately about this secrecy, but they prevailed, even after Isaac died," Janet further explained in a letter to Locus Magazine (a science fiction and fantasy publication). "The doctors are dead now, and … Isaac's daughter and I agreed to go public [about] the HIV."

11 Gifts for the Sci-Fi Fanatic in Your Life

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Science fiction has found its way into countless books, movies, TV shows, and video games over the years, making it tough to figure out which products are actually worth your time when shopping for a fan of the genre. We’re taking the thought out of it with these 11 recommendations for the sci-fi fan in your life.

1. Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series; $22

Abrams/Amazon

Topps trading cards were the essential collectible during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—so it was only right that Star Trek would have its own set for fans to obsess over (though it actually debuted seven years after the original series was canceled). In this chunky coffee-table book from Abrams, high-quality scans of the fronts and backs of all 88 standard cards are featured alongside insights and essays from Trek experts Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Star Trek Socks; $25

Bio World/Amazon

Though you might not want your loved one to walk around the house in a Starfleet uniform, you should definitely get them these Next Generation socks to make their feet feel a bit more official. And whether they relate to the command, engineering, or science division of the Enterprise, there’s a pair here for them.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga; $28

Ace/Amazon

With a new take on the Dune movie franchise hitting theaters soon, there’s no better time to make sure the sci-fi buff in your life has the first three installments—Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune—in author Frank Herbert’s landmark book series.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Sci-Fi Book Cover Postcards; $21

Penguin Books/Amazon

One of the most striking aspects of the sci-fi genre is the imaginative, if not downright weird, book covers that come along with it. This collection of postcards features reproductions of 100 covers from publisher Penguin’s past, featuring work from H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury. This set is ideal for any avid collector, especially ones that want to turn the postcards into unique crafts and decorations for the home.

Buy it: Amazon

5. and 6. The Making of Alien and The Making of Aliens; $31-$42

Titan Books/Amazon

If you ever want a comprehensive behind-the-scenes book about your favorite movie, look for the name J.W. Rinzler. He’s best known for his in-depth accounts of the original Star Wars trilogy, but he’s also dabbled in other franchises, like the first two movies in the Alien series. Packed with rare photos, unused concepts, original script drafts details, and more, these books contain all the anecdotes and details a fanatic could ever want.

Buy it: Alien (Amazon), Aliens (Amazon)

7. The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women; $20

The Library of America/Amazon

Some of sci-fi’s best women writers get the spotlight in this expansive anthology collection from the Library of America. The stories themselves range from the campier pulps of the '20 and '30s through the more thoughtful and serious evolution of the genre in the ‘60s. This is a crash course in sci-fi history, told through the lens of an often-unappreciated group of authors, including James Tiptree, Jr. (real name Alice Bradley Sheldon) and Leigh Brackett, who was responsible for the first draft of 1980's Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Classic Sci-Fi Magazine 1000-Piece Puzzle; $22

Brook & Wyman/Amazon

Though sci-fi is usually exclusive to novels and blockbuster movies today, it really got its start thanks to the plethora of genre magazines on stands during the ‘30s and ‘40s. And now, you can put together those striking—and impeccably surreal—covers to Fantastic Adventures, Amazing Stories, and more in this 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Cyberpunk 2077; $60

CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077 has arguably been the most anticipated piece of sci-fi media over the last five years. CD Projekt Red already created one of this generation’s best games with The Witcher 3, and now the studio is throwing players into a Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk world, where every choice you make will shape the world around you in different ways. Plus, you’ve got an arsenal of weapons and augmentations at your disposal. This one hits shelves on December 10.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films; $113

Criterion/Amazon

Godzilla’s unique charms resides in the way the franchise seamlessly alternates between thought-provoking and schlocky. And in this handsome, 15-movie Blu-ray set from Criterion, fans can revisit the series’s most influential installments, from 1954's groundbreaking original all the way through the campier later days of Megalon and Mechagodzilla. The set also contains both the U.S. and Japanese versions of 1963’s cringe classic King Kong vs. Godzilla. In typical Criterion fashion, the whole package is accompanied by hours of extras and a gorgeous hardcover book filled with original artwork.

Buy it: Amazon

11. Moebius Library: The World of Edena; $34

Dark Horse Comics/Amazon

One of sci-fi comics’ most important artists, Moebius helped define a visual style that would influence George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and pretty much every other major force in the genre for decades to come. In this collection, Moebius’s The World of Edna stories are reprinted in beautiful hardcover format, complete with lush colors that perfectly complement the strange worlds to which he transports readers.

Buy it: Amazon

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25 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in December

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ivanastar/iStock via Getty Images

Whether you're a holiday fanatic who wants even more to celebrate, or a Scrooge with a burning desire to buck tradition, we've got plenty of offbeat observances to put on your calendar.

1. December 1: Giving Tuesday

After indulging on Thanksgiving, and shopping on Friday, Monday, and probably the whole weekend in between, Giving Tuesday—which occurs annually on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving—encourages people to engage in charitable activities.

2. December 4: National Cookie Day

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December isn’t exactly lacking in opportunities to indulge in sweet treats, but today it’s your offbeat-holiday-given right to mix, bake, and/or eat as many cookies as you can handle.

3. December 5: Bathtub Party Day

There's a lot to be done between now and the end of the year. Take a minute to breathe, relax, and take in a soak.

4. December 5: International Ninja Day

The official website of Ninja Day alleges this holiday not only honors all things stealth and nunchucks, but also combats the more nautical offbeat holiday Talk Like a Pirate Day, which takes place in September. Creep, sneak, or redirect all of your URLs to Ninja activity—as long as you forgo the “arrrr matey’s” and eye patches for ominous silence and masks, you’re correctly celebrating this international holiday.

5. December 6: National Pawnbrokers Day

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If you thought good ol' St. Nicholas was the patron saint of reindeer and stockings, think again: The actual Nikolaos of Myra was the patron of things like the falsely accused and pawnbrokers, and on this day we acknowledge the latter.

6. December 9: Weary Willie Day

Professional clown Emmett Kelly created one of the more memorable clown characters of the 20th century: “Weary Willie.” Unlike many of his clown predecessors, Weary Willie opted out of white face paint and broad slapstick for the “tramp” look popular among Depression-era derelicts. One of his signature routines involved attempting to sweep up after circus acts, and failing in spite of himself—to the delight and empathy of the audience.

7. December 10: Jane Addams Day

December 10 is the day that the Nobel Prize Award Ceremonies have been held every year since 1901. Consequently, there are a lot of firsts that fall on this date, like the first American woman to be honored. That would be Jane Addams, founder of our current social work industry and prominent women's suffrage leader. On the anniversary of that award, given in 1931, we remember her life and work.

8. December 11: Official Lost And Found Day

Visit a thrift store, see if you can find that book you’ve misplaced, or invest in a memory-boosting regime so you’ll be losing things less frequently.

9. December 12: Poinsettia Day

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This day doesn't just celebrate the festive flower—it also marks the death of its namesake, Joel Roberts Poinsett. The botanist (and first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico) brought clippings of Euphorbia pulcherrima back to the States from southern Mexico, and grew the plant at his South Carolina home.

10. December 12: Gingerbread Decorating Day

Whether you’re a craftsman or an eater, today is the day for you.

11. December 13: National Day Of The Horse

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In 2004, the Senate signed legislation to officially make the second Saturday of December the National Day of the Horse. We really shouldn’t have to explain the reason horses need to be celebrated—just look at them!

12. December 13: National Cocoa Day

The weather outside is starting to get frightful, but what better cure for the temperature blues than a nice cup of hot cocoa? A down coat or a wool hat simply can’t compete in the taste department.

13. December 14: Monkey Day

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Officially, Monkey Day is an “annual celebration of all things simian, a festival of primates, a chance to scream like a monkey and throw feces at whomever you choose.” The origins of the holiday are unknown, though it has been observed since at least 2003.

14. December 15: Cat Herders Day

Technically this day is for all those who work jobs that could be described as like trying to herd cats, but it’s also probably acceptable to celebrate by trying to wrangle a cute feline.

15. December 16: Barbie And Barney Backlash Day

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Doesn’t seem like a coincidence that this holiday occurs in December: It’s the one day a year when you can tell your kids that Barbie and Barney don’t exist.

16. December 17: Wright Brothers Day

Made an official holiday in 1963 by Presidential Proclamation, this holiday marks the day in 1903 when Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first ever successful (documented) controlled airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

17. December 18: Underdog Day

Observed annually on the third Friday of December since 1976, this is a reminder to honor the little guy. We’re always rooting for them, but there’s a holiday to celebrate, too.

18. December 21: Humbug Day

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Get out all your bahs and scowls and growls now: no one will tolerate them come Christmas.

19. December 21: Phileas Fogg Win A Wager Day

In Jules Verne's 1873 classic novel Around the World in 80 Days, Phileas Fogg bets that he can travel the entire globe, between 8:45 p.m. on October 2, and 8:45 p.m. on December 21. Keep an eye out for him on this day.

20. December 22: Forefathers’ Day

On December 21, 1620 (it was a Monday) the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and since that basically kick-started our country's history since then, we celebrate it.

21. December 23: Festivus!

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For those who shy away from the more traditional December holidays, there’s always Festivus for the rest of us. Created by a Seinfeld writer's father and popularized by Frank Costanza, this secular holiday that involves gathering around an aluminum pole and airing your grievances has continued to gain a following since its introduction in 1997. If you haven’t seen the episode, there’s an entire website that spells out how to celebrate Festivus from start to finish. (Test your Festivus knowledge with this quiz.)

22. December 25: A’phabet Day

A pun on noel, this offbeat ce'ebration is designed to high'ight the arbitrary nature of many of the year's si''ier ho'idays. Whi'e you're unwrapping presents and eating your Christmas feast, 'eave a'' the Ls out of written and spoken communication for a festive activity that wi'' sure'y infuriate your 'oved ones.

23. December 26: National Whiners Day

Get it all out, whiners. Today is your day.

24. December 29: Tick Tock Day

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In case you needed another reminder of the inevitable passage of time and/or an occasion to reevaluate how those 2019 resolutions are going!

25. December 31: Make Up Your Mind Day

Tomorrow’s a new year! Time to fight that indecisiveness and make a decision—maybe even a resolution, if you will.