January 2, 1920

Isaac Asimov Born

On this day in 1920, Isaac Asimov was born. He grew up in New York, but it was during his two decades in Boston that he made his name as a master of science fiction. From an early age he was an avid reader of magazines such as "Amazing Stories." By his late teens, he was writing his own stories. The first one was published a month after he turned 19. Trained as a biochemist, he began an academic career at the Boston University Medical School in 1948. His first science fiction novel was published in 1950, the same year he completed the short story collection I, Robot. In his autobiography he called the years in Boston his "peak period in science fiction."

In his 1950 short story I, Robot, Isaac Asimov coined the term, "robotics."

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia and raised in New York City, but it was in Boston that he achieved his great success as a creator of science fiction and a writer of popular science.

Born in 1920, he was three years old when his family joined the wave of eastern European Jews immigrating to New York. His father ran a small store where young Isaac helped out and where he became an avid reader of science fiction magazines. By his late teens, he was writing his own stories. In October 1938 he sold the first one for $64; it was published in Amazing Stories the following January, only a month after he turned 19.

By that time he was a student at Columbia University. His father wanted him to go to medical school, but instead, Isaac entered a Ph.D. program in biochemistry at Columbia. When he started looking for work in 1948, the only position he was offered was as an instructor at the Boston University Medical School. He accepted the job but dreaded leaving New York. In spite of the fantastic adventures his fictional characters took, he had a lifelong aversion to traveling. "In my stories I travel all over the galaxy. In real life, I hate to travel," he told an interviewer in 1987. "I never go on airplanes … I'm not afraid to fly... I just hate to travel by any means. I like to stay where I am."

"In my stories I travel all over the galaxy. In real life, I hate to travel."

Asimov and his wife Gertrude moved to Boston in 1948, shortly after he completed his Ph.D. For the next 22 years, the couple called Boston home. At first, Asimov devoted his days to teaching and research at BU's medical school, while at night he produced works of science fiction. As his reputation as a writer grew, he spent less and less time doing research.

His first science fiction novel, Pebble in the Sky, was published in 1950 to excellent reviews. When Asimov received the book jacket, he was surprised to see that it listed his position on the BU faculty. He was concerned that the Medical School might not want to be associated with science fiction. He asked the dean if he should resign. Asimov later remembered, "The dean considered thoughtfully (he was a true Boston Brahmin with a long face and an easy smile) and said, 'Is it a good book?' Cautiously, I said, 'The publishers think so.' He said, 'In that case, the medical school will be glad to be identified with it.'"

That same year, he completed a short story collection called I, Robot. In this now-classic work, he coined the word "robotics" and introduced "three laws" for robots: "One, a robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Two, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws."

Although robots that have been developed so far are not complex enough to have the three laws built into them, Asimov's ideas have greatly influenced other writers and scientists working in the area of intelligent machines. And they have inspired several successful movies, including Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams as an intelligent robot, and the 2004 hit film, I, Robot, with Will Smith.

Robots that have been developed so far are not complex enough to have Asimov's three laws built into them.

Asimov maintained his affiliation with Boston University even after he became a full-time writer in 1958. During these years in Boston, Asimov produced all but one of his 15 most famous works of science fiction. In his autobiography he called the 1950s his "peak period in science fiction."

After Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, Asimov wanted to increase the American public's understanding of and interest in science. In 1959, he turned from writing science fiction to writing works of nonfiction about a range of scientific subjects, including biology, mathematics, astronomy, earth sciences, chemistry, biochemistry, and physics. An extraordinarily prolific writer, Asimov wrote or edited over 500 books in his career. He is the only author to have published titles in all but one Dewey Decimal library category (the exception is philosophy).

Although he had left New York reluctantly, Asimov warmed to his adopted home of Boston. He wrote, "As time went on, I rapidly grew to like Boston and New England generally. I found a liberal newspaper, the Boston Globe, and I discovered there was no shortage of eating places or science-fiction fans." Once he learned to drive, he "discovered that the New England countryside was delightful."

Asimov died in New York City in 1992.

In 1970, Asimov returned to New York City. A few years later, his publisher asked him to try his hand at science fiction again. Although he worried readers might consider him a "quaint hangover from a previous generation," he approached the second book in the Foundation series the same way he had the first one. Much to his amazement, this, his 262nd book, was his first to make the bestseller list. It stayed there for 25 weeks.

Asimov died in New York City in 1992. Throughout his later life, he maintained his connection to Boston University, donating his personal papers from 1965-1992 to the university's Mugar Memorial Library. The Asimov Papers fill 464 boxes on 232 feet of shelf space.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.

Sources

NNDB Isaac Asimov profile

In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov (Vol. I). (Doubleday, 1979).

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