Isaac Asimov, one of the great explainers of the age, died on 6 April, aged 72.
Born in Russia, just after the revolution, of Jewish parents (although he speculated that the name might be Islamic, meaning son of Hassim, with Uzbek roots), Asimov emigrated with his family to Brooklyn at the age of 3. His early life revolved around his father’s candy store, where he taught himself to read with the magazines on the shelves and first encountered science fiction. He received a PhD in chemistry at Columbia, became professor of biochemistry at Boston University Medical School, and was co-author of the text Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. But he became world famous for his work in science fiction and the popularization of science.
Like T.H. Huxley, Asimov was motivated by profoundly democratic impulses to communicate science to the public. “Science is too important”, he said paraphrasing Clemenceau, “to be left to the scientists.” It will never be known how many practicing scientists owe their initial inspiration to a book, article or short story by Asimov — nor how many ordinary citizens are sympathetic to the scientific enterprise for the same reason. M. Minskey, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, was first motivated by Asimov’s robot stories (conceived to illustrate human/robot partnerships and to counter the prevailing notion, going back to Frankenstein, of robots as necessarily malign). At a time when science fiction was mainly devoted to action and adventure, Asimov introduced puzzle-solving themes that taught science and thinking along the way.
A number of his phrases and ideas have insinuated themselves into the culture of science — his description of the Solar System as “four planets plus debris”, for example, and his notion of carrying icebergs from the rings of Saturn to the arid wastelands of Mars.
His output was prodigious, approaching 500 volumes, always in his characteristically straightforward and plainspeaking syntax. The Science Fiction Writers of America voted Nightfall the best science fiction short story of “all time”. He received prizes from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and over a dozen honorary degrees. His interests were not restricted to science: his legacy includes two-volume guides to Shakespeare and the Bible, and a thick commentary on Byron’s Don Juan. The Foundation series on the decline of a galactic empire was based on a close reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a principal theme being the effort to keep science alive as the Dark Ages rolled in.
Asimov spoke out in favour of science and reason and against pseudoscience and superstition. He was a founding fellow of the Committee for Scientific Claims of the Paranormal, and President of the American Humanist Association. He was not afraid to criticize the US government and was deeply committed to stabilizing world population growth.
As someone born in poverty, and possessed by a lifelong passion to write and explain, Asimov by his own standards led a successful and happy life. In one of his last books he wrote that “my life has just about run its course and I don’t really expect to live much longer”. However, he went on, his love for his wife, the psychiatrist Janet Jepson, and hers for him sustaining him. “It’s been a good life, and I’m satisfied with it. So please don’t worry about me.”
I don’t. Instead, I worry about the rest of us, with no Isaac Asimov around to inspire the young to learning and to science.