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A Great Mind Who Made Both Science & Science Fiction Read Plausible

Painting by Rowena Morrill depicting Isaac Asimov enthroned 

with symbols of his life's work.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)

Isaac Asimov was born Isaak Judah Ozimov, on January 2, 1920, in Petrovichi shtetl, near Smolensk, Russia.His father and mother were Orthodox Jews. His family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old and he grew up in Brooklyn New York. 

He is best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.

 Asimov began reading science fiction pulp magazines at a young age in the confectionary his family owned. His father, as a matter of principle, forbade him reading the pulps, as he considered them to be trash, but Isaac persuaded him that the science fiction magazines had "Science" in the title, so they were educational.

Asimov was a claustrophile:... he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces. In the third volume of his autobiography, he recalls a childhood desire to own a magazine stand in a New York City subway station, within which he could enclose himself and listen to the rumble of passing trains while reading. At some point, he obviously rationalized writing was more his calling. 

Isaac graduated from high school at 15 to enter Columbia University. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1939 and went on to get his M.A. and Ph.D. from the same institution. In 1949, Asimov began a stint at Boston University School of Medicine, where he was hired as an associate professor of biochemistry in 1955. He eventually became a professor at the university by the late 1970s. Yet even with his impeccable academic credentials, writing for general readers was to be the professor's passion.

Asimov was also known for writing books on a wide variety of subjects outside of science fiction, taking on topics like astronomy, biology, math, religion and literary biography.

Asimov suffered a heart attack in 1977, and had triple bypass surgery in December 1983. When he died in New York City on April 6, 1992, his brother Stanley reported heart and kidney failure as the cause of death. Ten years after his death, his widow, Janet Asimov's edition of Asimov's autobiography, It’s Been A Good Life,  revealed that the myocardial and renal complications were the result of an infection by HIV, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion received during his bypass operation. He had stated during a televised interview that he hoped his ideas would live on past his death; his wish has come to fruition. 

Asimov won more than a dozen annual awards for particular works of science fiction and a half dozen lifetime awards. He also received 14 honorary doctorate degrees from universities. Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs". He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association.

Asimov was an intriguing genius...below are some of his quotes.

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers
 knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” 
“Never let your sense of morals prevent 
you from doing what is right.” 
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, 
I wouldn't brood, I'd type a little faster.” 

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but, "That's funny...” 
“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.”
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” 
“Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force 
for atheism ever conceived.” 

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” 
“I write for the same reason I breathe ... 
because if I didn't, I would die.” 
“Those people who think they know everything 
are a great annoyance to those of us who do.” 
“Self-education is, I firmly believe, 
the only kind of education there is.” 

“While he lives, he must think; 
while he thinks, he must dream.” 
“If knowledge can create problems, 
it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” 
“If I am right, then religious fundamentalists will not go to Heaven, because there is no Heaven. If they are right, then they will not go to Heaven, because they are hypocrites.” 

“I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don't have to waste your time in either attacking or defending.”
"The true delight is in the finding out rather than in the knowing."

"Suppose that we are wise enough to learn and know-and yet not wise enough to control our learning and knowlege, so that we use it to destroy ourselves? Even if that is so, knowledge remains better than ignorance."

“Once, when a religionist denounced me in unmeasured terms, I sent him a card saying, "I am sure you believe that I will go to hell when I die, and that once there I will suffer all the pains and tortures the sadistic ingenuity of your deity can devise and that this torture will continue forever. Isn't that enough for you? Do you have to call me bad names in addition?”

"I am not a Zionist, because I don't believe in nations, and because Zionism merely sets up one more nation to trouble the world. It sets up one more nation to have "rights" and "demands" and "national security" and to feel it must guard itself against its neighbors."


"There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don't come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, 
because there will be no humanity."


Hausdorff said...

I love Asimov. I've read I Robot and the Foundation trilogy, they were both awesome. I need to go read more of his stuff.

These are some great quotes. I think my favorite one is this

If I am right, then religious fundamentalists will not go to Heaven, because there is no Heaven. If they are right, then they will not go to Heaven, because they are hypocrites.

Seems like it might be a fun way to respond to pascals wager.

Anna Maria said...

Hausdorff...I like that quote also. Science Fiction has never been a favorite genre, but back after a son tested in the "genius" range in highschool, I wondered why he was so into reading it, claiming it had merit...and me thinking how could suspending reality have merit.

I finally picked up one of his Asimov's books to critique and realized, indeed it did. I just needed to get a little more educated. :)

c emerson said...

Nice. Since we are picking quotes, here is my current pick: "“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”

It has the right amount of skepticism and objectivity. Good post.

Anna Maria said...

Thanks c emerson! Asimov is so widely quoted it was difficult to pick out just a few quotes so I went with those that grabbed me I did the book covers.Your "current" pick is a great one.

Jill Paterson said...

Asimov is one of my husband's favourite writers so your post is particularly interesting, Anna. I don't know how he fit all that in in one lifetime!

Anna Maria said...

Thanks Jill! I imagine his books do appeal more to men than to women but his ideals can be appreciated by everyone.

He was a prolific writer, it truly is hard to imagine how he accomplished so much during his lifetime.

DMS said...

I have heard of Asimov, but never read any of his works. After reading this post I know that I must pick up one of his books asap. The quotes were excellent and the post was such a wonderful tribute. Thanks for sharing.:)

Anna Maria said...

Thanks Jess...I haven't read one of his novels in decades but I did read "I, Asimov", his autobiography published posthumously a few years back. I did enjoy that, he wrote his memoirs with a rakish sense of humor about his "high powered" brain I liked.