When you hear the name Isaac Asimov many of you will think of the three laws of robotics and that he only wrote about robots (Bicentennial Man and I, Robot). In his seventy-two years of life he wrote over 500 books in 9 out of 10 of the major Dewey Decimal Classifications. He wrote his set of encyclopedias, books on religion, astronomy, mathematics, animal welfare, and the environment. He even invented psychohistory, a science which combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics.
Nothing about Isaac Asimov is simple, starting from his birth. He was born sometime between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920, but he celebrated his birthday on January 2nd. He was born in Petrovichi, Soviet Russia. He was the oldest of three children. With the change in political power, his family moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1923. His name in Cyrillic was Исаак Озимов and translated was Isaak Ozimov. Due its pronunciation, it was eventually changed to Isaac Asimov. He never spoke Russian. His parents spoke Yiddish and went on to learn English in America. He was raised an Orthodox Jew but was an Atheist.
In America, his family owned a candy store where the whole family was expected to help. Their candy shop sold newspapers and magazines, which was not common. This way, the children could read books they could not afford. This influenced his life-long passion for books. He was a claustrophile and loved to the hide in the New York subway and listen to the sounds of the subway go by as he read.
He was forbidden to read pulp fiction books because his father considered them to to be trash, but he was allowed to read science fiction. His father thought that since these books had science in the title, they had to have something educational in them.
At age 11 he began to write his own stories. By the age of 19 he was writing and selling his own science fiction stories. He published his first story, ‘Marooned off Vesta’, in Amazing Stories at the age of 17. He was going to submit the story by mail but his father convinced him it was cheaper to take the subway and deliver it in person.
He graduated at the age of 15 and went to Seth Low Junior College, a branch of Columbia University. Originally, he majored in zoology but quickly changed to chemistry after he refused to dissect an alley cat. He graduated with a bachelor’s of science in 1939. He did not make it into medical school and went on to study chemistry.
He received his MA in 1941 and earned his Masters in BioChemistry in 1948. In 1942 he married his first wife, Gertrude Blugerman, and they lived together in West Philadelphia. He spent three years during World War II working as a civilian on the Naval Air Experimental Station in West Philadelphia where he worked with L. Sprague de Camp and Robert A. Heinlein.
He was drafted in 1945. Because he had his birthday officially changed to January 2nd, he was still 25 and could be drafted. If he had left it as October 4th, he would have been 26 and too old. He was in the army for 9 months and rose to the rank of corporal because of his good typing skills. Due to a mix-up in paperwork, he missed going to the atomic bomb testing in Bikini Atoll.
In 1949, he and his wife moved to Boston. They had two children: David (born 1951) and Robyn Joan (born 1955).
He joined the Faculty of Boston School of Medicine. In 1958 he was able to start writing full time because he was making more money. However, he stayed as an associate professor, and in 1979 he was promoted to full professor of biochemistry.
In 1970 he and his wife separated. He moved to Upper West Side of Manhattan where he spent the rest of his life. Two weeks after his divorce he married Janet O. Jeppson in 1973.
He had a fear of flying and only ever flew twice in his life. This influenced several of his stories. But it never stopped him from traveling.
In 1942 he invented the 3 laws of robotics. They first appeared in the short story “Runaround” The laws are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2 A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These were written to protect humans and robots from each other and help us grow together as a community.
Many also don’t know there is a fourth law also known as the Zeroth law which comes before all others:
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
He predicted that humanity would need robots to help us survive and grow but if we were not careful they would turn away from us and form their own society. This inspired the story of Battlestar Galactica By Glen Larson.
Sadly, in 1992 this great man who changed our world and minds passed away. A great prophet of science fiction, one of the smartest men of his time, died. In 1983 he had gone under for triple bypass surgery. He was contaminated with HIV through a blood transfusion. It weakened him and lead to his cause of death of kidney failure on April 6th 1992.
Once, I had just started working at the library and the head Librarian told me, “If anyone asks you a question, tell them the answer is Isaac Asimov.” At the time, I didn’t get it, but the more I learn about him the more I realise how true that statement was.
He may be gone, but he is never forgotten. And don’t forget: January 2nd is every robot’s favorite holiday: St. Asimov’s Day.