Isaac Asimov

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Asimov, Isaac (2 Januay 1920 - 6 April 1992)

An internationally known science fiction author, Asimov was President of the American Humanist Association at the time of his death. He was on the editorial board of The Humanist, was a signer of Humanist Manifesto II, and was a Humanist Laureate of the Council for Secular Humanism's Academy of Humanism. In 1980, he signed the Secular Humanist Declaration. In 1984, the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year.

His first 100 books took him 237 months. His second took 113 months. His third 100 took only 69 months. Asimov wrote at least 467 books, typing away on an Underwood 5 and researching a wide range of subjects: pre-school material as well as college textbooks. He also wrote mysteries as well as books about the Bible, astronomy, limericks, humor, sociology, mathematics, science, Shakespeare, ancient and modern history, and philosophy.

Asimov has been quoted as saying he usually awoke at 6 a.m., sat down at the typewriter by 7:30 a.m., and worked until 10 p.m. Asked by Barbara Walters what he would do if advised by a physician that he had only six months to live, he replied, "IO'd type faster."�

To the Secular Humanist Society of New York, of which he was an honorary member, he said that he disliked traveling far from his 33rd floor apartment on Central Park West in New York City - his wife Janet, in Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing (2006), not only confirms this but details the funny as well as the meaningful trips made on the Queen Elizabeth 2 (their favorite mode of travel) and cross-country trains. At one Manhattan lecture to the humanists, he sang all the verses of a Tom Lehrer ditty.

In 1938 the teenaged Asimov left his father's Brooklyn candy store to take a story to John W. Campbell Jr., publisher of Astounding Science Fiction. Within a few days he received a rejection letter with several pages of positive criticism. A few weeks later he returned to deliver a new story, inspired by Campbell's advice if not his cigarette smoke. Again, a rejection letter arrived shortly afterwards. Asimov was later to note that acceptance letters usually just contained money but that reject letters contained something more valuable: advice. It was on one such trip to Campbell's office, Oliver Morton wrote in The New Yorker (17 May 1999), that Asimov came up with the idea of a galactic empire. The "Foundation"� stories that resulted always involved faster-than-light travel, "for an Empire that takes thousands of years to traverse will not remain an empire for long."� The best ships have to be those of the Imperial Navy "or of the smugglers and/or traders who outflank them."� Planets must play the role of the smallest administrative units "and are often oddly one-dimensional in their climate." "One finds whole worlds of glacier, of desert, of swamp. There is a metropolitan world of tall towers, vast domes, and unbridled splendor amid the close-packed suns of the core � Asimov called his Trantor. There is a government loosely based on a historical model. The Roman is most common, but the Chinese dynasties have had their influence, as has Victorian England.� Of his 467 titles, the "Foundation"� series detailed a complex future of humankind and robots, in which were detailed the three-part "law of robotics"�:

  • A robot may not injure a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by humans, except when such orders would conflict with the first law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Asimov took the somewhat scientifically inaccurate script of the movie Fantastic Voyage� and wrote a novelization. He noted, however, that the microscopic characters that were injected into the bloodstream of a dying man in the script were so small that even a molecule of oxygen would have been too big for them to breathe.

Asimov, said fellow scientist-author Carl Sagan, was "one of the master explainers of the age. I think millions of people owe their knowledge of science, their familiarity with some scientific fact, to reading either the fact or fiction of Isaac Asimov. "I've never been particularly careful about what label I placed on my beliefs," Asimov has written:

  • I believe in the scientific method and the rule of reason as a way of understanding the natural universe. I don't believe in the existence of entities that can not be reached by such a method and that are therefore "supernatural."� I certainly don't believe in the mythologies, in heaven and hell, in God and angels, in Satan and demons. I've thought of myself as an "atheist,"� but that simply described what I didn't believe, not in what I did. Gradually, though, I became aware that there was a movement called "humanism,"� which used that name because, to put it most simply, humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are not to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job.

As for morals,

  • Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right.

As to why humanists should fight with religionists when so outnumbered, Asimov observed, "Because we must. Because we have the call. Because it is nobler to fight for rationality without winning than to give up in the face of continued defeats. Because whatever true progress humanity makes is through the rationality of the occasional individual and because any one individual we may win for the cause may do more for humanity than a hundred thousand who hug superstition to their breasts."�

And did he believe in life after death? No, of course not, said the son of Judah and Anna Rachel Berman Asimov, who he wrote in In Memory Yet Green brought him up without any religious training,

  • and I was spared the great need of breaking with an Orthodox past and, after having done so, of playing the hypocrite for the benefit of pious parents, as so many of my generation had to. I was simply a freethinker from the start, a kind of second-generation atheist, and in that respect my life has always been a liberated one. I have been grateful for that always.

As a matter of fact, two months before his death he told a group of writers and artists that a recent bout with prostate problems made him, yes, wish for the end of conscious thought: This, from one whom the Guiness Book of World Records cites as being the American author with the most titles to his name. He explained, "I don't have to worry about death, because there isn't an idea I've ever had that I haven't put down on paper."�

Asimov's memorial was held in the Ethical Culture Society, his wife Janet's choice, not far from the apartment that he did not like to leave. His next-to-last book, written partly while he was hospitalized, was I, Asimov (1994). In 2002, It's Been a Good Life was published and contained some of his writing along with editing by Janet Asimov. Its epillogue contained the news that Asimov had died of AIDS complications, the result of having received blood transfusion during 1983 heart bypass surgery.

In her Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Wrting (2006), Janet provides the most intimate understanding of what their life together was all about.

(See entry for Paul Krugman, who when young liked Asimov's Foundation Novels.)

{HM2; HNS2; SHD; TYD; WAS, 1998, 1991}