Happy birthday Isaac Asimov! Well, sort of. Ask Google when his birthday was and it’ll say January 2nd, but the truth is, he chose that date himself so he’d have a day on which to celebrate. He was actually born sometime between October 4, 1919, and January 2, 1920, in what would become Russia, and there are no accurate records of his birth so nobody, not even his family, really knew the exact date.
The Asimovs moved to Brooklyn with young Isaac in 1923, where his father opened a candy store. There was no question Isaac was smart; he taught himself to read at 5, skipped several grades, got his high school diploma at 15, and sold his first short story at the age of 19. Over his astonishing and prolific career he wrote or edited over 500 books and over 90,000 letters, with his published work landing in nine out of the 10 major categories of the almost-outdated Dewey Decimal System.
He’s most famous for his Foundation series and I, Robot, as well as coining the term “robotics” and theorizing inventions and innovations nobody else had dreamed of. It was he who conceived of the idea of the positronic brain, brought to life in iconic pop culture shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and of course, the 2004 Will Smith blockbuster I, Robot. He had a lot to say about contemporary life on Earth as well, believing strongly that overpopulation was one of our biggest challenges, that homosexuality was a moral right, and that the survival of our species was tied to the equality of women.
He was a fascinating fellow, as evidenced by the seven fun facts below. As you can imagine, narrowing the list to just seven was no easy feat.
1. He Liked Small, Confined Spaces
Asimov was a claustrophile, meaning that he had an abnormal desire to be in small, confined spaces. He wrote about his childhood desire to own and enclose himself in a magazine stand in a New York City subway station, where he could read while listening to the rumble of passing trains. He generally preferred to write in small, windowless rooms.
When you dig deeper, it makes logical sense. His skin was so sensitive to the sun that even 10 minutes out in the open would cause it to burn, so being inside was not just a preference, but a necessity. And he was terrible at pretty much any athletic or physical activity, so spending long hours writing in a small space – his routine had him at his typewriter from 7:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. – suited him perfectly.
2. He Wrote Many Books That Featured Space Flight, But Only Flew Twice In His Life
He hated flying so much that he let it limit the places to which he’d travel, preferring to see the world by car or cruise ship. The only times he flew were connected to his military service; otherwise he avoided it completely.
He did travel some, but he much preferred to spend time with his family or write. He found that extremely satisfying, and didn’t seem to feel that he was missing out on anything.
3. He Did So Well in School That He Got Beaten Up Regularly
Like many before and after him, his academic prowess made him a bullies’ favorite, but genius that he was, he came up with a solution. He helped the biggest, dumbest kid with his homework, and got that kid to defend him.
4. His Interviewers Ranged From David Frost to Dr. Julius Strangepork
He was definitely not snobbish about who interviewed him. His conversation with Dr. Julius Strangepork in the Summer 1983 issue of “Muppets Magazine” covered diverse topics like sci-fi movies, sideburns, and weather satellites. Asimov also talked about how he didn’t think humanity had much hope of advancing into space until after we learned to cooperate with each other. All those nations “jostling and competing their way into space” just didn’t seem practical, he said.
5. He Almost Collaborated With a Beatle
In 1974, Paul McCartney approached Asimov with an idea for a movie, having just completed working on his Wings album “Venus and Mars.” McCartney’s basic idea was about a band who discovered they were being impersonated by a group of extraterrestrials, and Asimov thought it interesting enough to write up a treatment. Titled “Five and Five and One” Asimov’s story featured parasitic energy beings who crashed on Earth and had to look for suitable hosts to continue their survival. They tried lizards, then cattle, then decided humans were a better choice. As humans, they heard music for the first time, and became eagles so they could fly across the world and choose the right musicians to inhabit. You can guess what happened next, story-wise, but the treatment was both the beginning and the end of it. McCartney ended up rejecting the idea, with rumors indicating that he was disappointed Asimov hadn’t used any of the scraps of dialogue he’d already written. Asimov felt that McCartney couldn’t recognize “good stuff”, and moved on.
6. He Loved Writing Limericks, Especially Dirty Ones
He published multiple volumes of limericks, and considered himself a “limercist.” Most of his were dirty, as he felt that the rest lacked flavor, like vanilla ice cream or pound cake. His first volume, published in 1975, was called Lecherous Limericks and included gems like:
A pious young minister’s pappy
Had a sex life, diverse, hot, and snappy.
It shocked his dear son
When he had all that fun,
But it made girl parishioners happy.
He did write some clean ones, however, as he published a book of limericks for children in 1984.
7. He Was an Atheist and a Humanist
Asimov took great offense at the idea that people without religion were incapable of basic morality, particularly objecting to Ronald Reagan’s statement that, “No one who disbelieves in God and in an afterlife can possibly be trusted." He was profoundly moral, and extremely proud of his role as the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, where he was succeeded by his good friend Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.. Vonnegut spoke about Asimov in his 1992 Humanist of the Year acceptance speech.
“I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, 'Isaac is up in heaven now.' It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists...”
Asimov was also friends with another prominent atheist, Gene Roddenberry. They met during a convention in Cleveland in 1965, when Roddenberry had to shush him during a screening of the first Star Trek pilot. Asimov didn’t remember that incident, but when Roddenberry asked him about it during a recorded interview, he said, “It rings true, because I’m always talking.”
Asimov died in 1992, due to complications from HIV, which he’d gotten from a blood transfusion. During his lifetime, he wrote constantly, churning out as many as 10 books a year. He told Bill Moyers that he wrote out of sheer hedonism, for the same reason Bing Crosby or Bob Hope played so much golf.
“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.” — Isaac Asimov