15 Fascinating Facts About Isaac Asimov
By Suzanne Raga
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.
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.
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."