15 Facts about Isaac Asimov

M Stroud/Getty Images
M Stroud/Getty Images

Isaac Asimov is best known for writing science fiction novels like the Foundation and Robot series, but the amazingly prolific author also penned hundreds of mysteries, short stories, science guides, essays, and even a book of humor. And, of course, he consulted on Star Trek (though only after giving the show a second look). Check out these 15 facts about the famous Humanist.

1. Asimov's parents were immigrants who owned candy stores.

Born in Petrovichi (present-day Russia) in 1920 (-ish), Asimov was just 3 years old when he and his family emigrated to the U.S. After living in Brooklyn for a few years, Asimov's father, Judah, saved enough money from various odd jobs to buy a candy store. His parents worked around the clock to keep the store open 19 hours a day, and it was a success that kept them afloat through the Great Depression. Throughout the '30s, Judah Asimov purchased a series of confectionary shops in Brooklyn. During this time, the Asimov family lived in several apartments in the borough, including two above their stores. Isaac, his father, and his sister (a younger brother wasn't born yet, and his mother waited until 1938) became naturalized U.S. citizens in 1928.

2. He fell in love with science fiction at his first job.

When he was 9 years old, Asimov began working at the family candy stores. His father expected his son to work long hours, and Asimov consistently rose early and went to bed late to help run the shops. Even while employed at other part-time jobs—including one at a fabric company and as a typist for a college professor—he worked in the family business in some capacity, only leaving in his early twenties. In addition to candy, the stores sold magazines, and young Isaac devoured the science fiction stories he read in their pages and fell in love with the genre.

3. Asimov was rejected from nearly every school he applied to …

At 15 years old, Asimov applied to Columbia College but was rejected because "[the school's] quota for Jews for the coming year was already filled," he later wrote. Instead he attended Seth Low Junior College, which was affiliated with Columbia. That school closed soon after and he was transferred to Columbia, where he earned a Chemistry degree in 1939. Hoping to become a doctor, Asimov applied to five medical schools in New York, but was rejected by every one. For good measure, he applied again, and was turned down by each of them once more. He also applied to Columbia's graduate school for chemistry, but was denied entrance.

4. … but he eventually earned a doctorate.

After speaking to Columbia's faculty, Asimov managed to convince the school to accept him as a grad student for a year, on a probationary basis. His grades were up to snuff, and he earned his master's degree in chemistry in 1941. From 1942 to 1945, he worked at the Philadelphia Naval Air Experimental Station—he knew, following the Pearl Harbor attack five months earlier, that the draft was going to be coming, and he preferred to be of some service rather than try to hide behind being a Ph.D. candidate. He later wrote that he hoped that with this job "my labors might serve as directly useful for that war effort, and I knew I could do more as a reasonably capable chemist than as a panicky infantryman, and perhaps the government would think so too." When the war ended, he was drafted into a 9-month stint in the army; then he returned to Columbia, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1948.

5. Asimov had a successful career in academia.

Isaac Asimov, circa 1950s.
Phillip Leonian, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Asimov worked his way up the ladder of academia, moving from a postdoc position at Columbia—where he focused on how to combat malaria—to a job as a biochemistry instructor at Boston University's medical school. His lectures were popular, and within a few years he was promoted to associate professor. He also co-authored a biochemistry textbook called Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. In 1958, he stopped teaching and focused solely on writing science fiction. Years later, in 1979, Boston University awarded Asimov the title of full professor.

6. He used the pen name Paul French.

In the '50s, Asimov wrote a series of six science fiction novels for children using the pseudonym Paul French. The books, collectively called the Lucky Starr series, follow David "Lucky" Starr and his adventures around the solar system. Because the publisher, Doubleday, was hoping to turn the series into a TV show, Asimov used a pen name just in case the television adaptation was terrible—he didn't want to be attached to something cringeworthy, but he also hated that people began to think he was using the pseudonym in order to protect his reputation in the science community. In the end, the TV show didn't happen, and some of the books are now credited to both French and Asimov.

7. Asimov wrote a movie musical for Paul McCartney.

Look in the Boston University archives, and you might find a story outline called "Five and Five and One." Asimov penned it for Paul McCartney, a long-time science fiction fan who had asked him to write a screenplay for a sci-fi musical. The former Beatles' idea centered on a band that realized it was being impersonated by aliens, and he thought Asimov would be the perfect writer for the job. Sadly, McCartney didn't like Asimov's treatment, and the movie was never made.

8. He was an on-again, off-again member of Mensa.

Asimov wasn't shy about joining clubs. Some of the groups he belonged to were the Baker Street Irregulars (an exclusive organization for Sherlock Holmes fans), the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, the Wodehouse Society, and Mensa. After joining the oldest high-IQ society in the world, Asimov participated in events and was an Honorary Vice President. But he drifted in and out of active membership due to some unpleasant members who were "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs," as he described them. "They were, as I had been in my youth, forcing their intelligence on unwilling victims. In general, too, they felt underappreciated and undersuccessful. As a result, they had soured on the Universe and tended to be disagreeable."

9. After an initial tiff, Asimov collaborated with the creator of Star Trek.

In 1966, Asimov wrote a critique for TV Guide arguing that the then-current crop of sci-fi shows—including Star Trek—were inaccurate in their depiction of science fiction. Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, wrote a letter to Asimov defending himself. After admitting that he was a big fan of the author's work, Roddenberry explained that the show hired multiple scientific consultants to ensure accuracy and struggled to produce a new show every week. Roddenberry ended his letter by stating his belief that Star Trek would turn new people—who would purchase Asimov's books—into science fiction fans.

The two men then became friends, and Asimov became a fan of the show. He served as a consultant for Star Trek, giving Roddenberry a few plot and characterization suggestions. For his part, Roddenberry attempted to make a movie based on Asimov's I, Robot, but it never happened under him (both Roddenberry and Asimov had died a decade before the 2004 Will Smith film was in the works).

10. He coined the word robotics.

Karel Čapek, a Czech writer, gave us robot when he used the word in a play in 1921. Derived from a Slavic term for a slave, the word described man-like machines that worked on a factory assembly line. But in 1941, in his own short story called "Liar!," Asimov became the first person to use the word robotics, referring to the technology that robots possess. The next year, he wrote another short story, called "Runaround," in which he introduced his three Laws of Robotics. These laws explain that a robot cannot hurt a human, must obey humans, and must protect themselves, so long as it doesn't conflict with the first two laws.

11. He had extreme acrophobia and aviophobia.

Asimov was a staunch man of reason, but he could never reason his way out of his two biggest fears: heights and flying. In his early twenties, two terrifying experiences on roller coasters made him realize he was an acrophobe—and unfortunately, both experiences happened on dates. "From what I had seen of it in movies, it seemed to me that my date would scream and would cling to me, something which, I thought, would be delightful," Asimov wrote in his memoir of taking his girlfriend on a roller coaster at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Instead, the ride had the opposite effect. "I screamed in terror and I hung on desperately to my date, who sat there stolid and unmoved."

A second similar coaster ride at Coney Island confirmed his fear, and after two early trips on planes, he never set foot on an airplane again. To travel, he took cars and trains around the U.S., and he took cruise ships on his trips to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Quite ironic for the man whose Foundation series has now flown out to deep space, thanks to SpaceX.

12. He met his second wife at an autograph signing.

Asimov married his first wife, Gertrude—she of the second roller coaster adventure—in 1942 after a six-month courtship, and they had two children together. As he described it, their marriage slowly began to deteriorate: "It's just that annoyances multiply, frictions come slowly to seem irreconcilable, forgiveness comes more reluctantly and with worse grace." Worse grace was right—later on, he partially blamed his wife's smoking habit and rheumatoid arthritis on their split, though he insisted on staying together until their children were older.

In 1956, Asimov was signing autographs at a convention when he met Janet Jeppson, a psychiatrist and fan of his writing. A few years later, they met again at a writers' banquet. They began a friendship and correspondence over the next decade, and when, in 1970, Asimov and Gertrude separated, Jeppson helped him find an apartment in New York just a few blocks from her own. They started dating soon after, and when his divorce was finalized in 1973, Asimov married Janet two weeks later.

13. Asimov and Jeppson collaborated on numerous writing projects.

Cover of Asimov on his science fiction magazine
CHRISTO DRUMMKOPF, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Asimov collaborated with Jeppson on several sci-fi novels, including the Norby series. While she did most of the writing, he polished her manuscripts and let publishers add his name to the book covers so more copies would sell. In the '70s, Jeppson began writing science fiction novels for children, using the name J.O. Jeppson, and she took over her husband's pop-science column after his death. She also compiled and edited a few of Asimov's memoirs, collecting entries from his journals and excerpts from his letters.

14. Asimov was infected with HIV during a blood transfusion …

In 1977, Asimov had a heart attack. Six years later, in December 1983, he had a triple bypass surgery, during which he received a blood transfusion. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to doctors, the blood they gave him was infected with HIV. Asimov contracted the virus, and it developed fully into AIDS. He died of heart and kidney failure, caused by AIDS, on April 6, 1992.

15 … but his true cause of death wasn't revealed until 2002.

Although the family considered telling the world Asimov had AIDS, his doctors dissuaded him—the general public was still fearful of HIV and very little was understood about it. His HIV status remained a secret until 2002, a decade after his death, when Janet disclosed it in It's Been A Good Life, a posthumous collection of letters and other writings that she edited. "I argued with the doctors privately about this secrecy, but they prevailed, even after Isaac died," Janet further explained in a letter to Locus Magazine (a science fiction and fantasy publication). "The doctors are dead now, and … Isaac's daughter and I agreed to go public [about] the HIV."

16 Unforgettable Facts About Dumbo

The Walt Disney Co.
The Walt Disney Co.

Even though Dumbo is Disney's shortest feature-length movie, there are still plenty of secrets to share about this little elephant and his escapades. 

1. Like many Disney movies, this one started as a book.

Dumbo the Flying Elephant, written by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, started out as a 36-page "Roll-A-Book." The "book" was a series of illustrations on a scroll, and readers would turn a little wheel at the top of the "book" to read the next panel.

2. Dumbo originally had a different sidekick.

Edward Brophy in Dumbo
The Walt Disney Co.

In the original book, Timothy Q. Mouse didn't exist. Instead, Dumbo’s sidekick was Red Robin. By the end of the book, Red and Dumbo have signed a film contract and are headed to Hollywood.

3. The studio had to keep production cheap.

Due to the war efforts, the studio had instructions to keep Dumbo as inexpensive as possible. As a result, backgrounds are noticeably less detailed than in other Disney movies, and the characters are much simpler. By the end of production, Dumbo had cost just $812,000 to make.

4. Dumbo almost landed the cover of Time.

TIME magazine had plans to honor Dumbo as “Mammal of the Year.” But then Pearl Harbor happened and they opted for a more serious cover, though they still called the animated elephant “Mammal of the Year” in an inside feature.

5. An animator’s strike was parodied in the movie.

There was an extremely heated animator’s strike during production. It's said that Disney mocked his striking workers by putting a scene in where a group of clowns decide to "hit the big boss for a raise." See for yourself:

6. The movie is only 64 minutes long.

At just over an hour, Dumbo is the shortest feature-length Disney movie. Walt was advised to extend the storyline, but he resisted, saying, "You can stretch a story just so far and after that it won't hold together."

7. Harry Truman refused to try the Dumbo ride at Disneyland.

When Harry S. Truman visited Disneyland in 1957, he refused to ride the popular attraction based on the Dumbo movie. It wasn't a fear of heights that stopped him, though; Truman, a Democrat, didn't want to be seen riding in a symbol of the Republican party.

8. Dumbo was Walt Disney’s personal favorite movie.

A scene from 'Dumbo' (1941)
The Walt Disney Co.

When the movie later aired on the Disneyland TV show, Disney admitted to the audience that Dumbo held a special place in his heart. “From the very start, Dumbo was a happy picture," he said. "We weren’t restricted by any set storyline so we could give our imaginations full play. In other words, if a good idea came to us, we’d put it in the story. It was really a happy picture from beginning to end.”

9. Dumbo II almost happened.

After being named chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, one of John Lasseter’s first acts was to quash a proposed sequel that was in the works. The premise: Dumbo and his circus buddies have to figure their way out of the big city after the circus train accidentally leaves them there.

10. A live-action remake is in the works.

Though it was originally announced in 2015, bringing a live-action version of Dumbo to the big screen took a little longer than anticipated. The Tim Burton-directed movie won't be out until later this month, and film execs have hinted that the story will take viewers beyond the original tale. 

11. Cels from Dumbo are extremely valuable.

Not knowing that original animation cels would someday be worth a lot of money, artists weren’t too careful with preserving their art. In fact, it was just the opposite: while animators were working on movies like Fantasia and Dumbo, they’d take the finished slippery cels and use them to skate down hallways. Between that and the fact that the earth-toned paints used in the Dumbo color palette were particularly prone to flaking, any remaining cels from the film are among the most valuable of any Disney movie.

12. The song “Baby Mine” was nominated for an Academy Award.

Get your hankies out! The heartbreaking tune, sung while Jumbo the elephant uses her trunk to rock baby Dumbo through the bars of her cage, was nominated for an Oscar but lost to “The Last Time I Saw Paris” from Lady Be Good. The film did win an Oscar for Best Score, however.

13. The “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment is a bit controversial.

Of course it is! It features candy-colored pachyderm hallucinations that are the result of an underage drinker imbibing too much champagne. Though the scene passed muster in 1941, it doesn’t always today. When Dumbo is reformatted for publication, the “Pink Elephant” scene is often replaced with Dumbo dreaming of flying.

14. Dumbo has an octopus named after him.

Thanks to the ear-like fins that protrude from the sides of their heads, these Grimpoteuthis octopods have been dubbed the “Dumbo” octopus. The fins help them swim, of course, not fly.

15. Dumbo did speak—eventually.

Dumbo didn’t utter a single word during the 1941 movie, but by the 1980s the little elephant had grown up and found his voice. When the live-action show Dumbo’s Circus debuted on The Disney Channel more than 40 years after the original movie, Dumbo was suddenly pretty chatty.

16. A tune called "Sing a Song of Cheese" was cut from the film.

Timothy Q. Mouse was once slated to sing an ode to his favorite dairy product. It was axed from the final film, presumably because it didn't actually have anything to do with the plot of the movie.

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

The 10 Most Popular Puppy Names of 2019

iStock.com/Lakshmi3
iStock.com/Lakshmi3

If you brought home a new dog or puppy recently and named it Luna, you’re far from the only one. The name, which means moon in Latin, is the most popular puppy name for 2019.

This analysis of cute canine monikers comes from Trupanion, a provider of medical insurance for pets. The company looked at its database of 500,000 dogs and crunched the numbers to identify the names that are currently having a moment. (Although some of the names that cracked the top 10 list, like Daisy and Max, have been around for quite some time.)

Interestingly, Luna wasn’t always popular. As Trupanion points out, “Looking back 10 years, Luna was barely a blip on the name game chart … not even cracking the list of top 20 names.” Nor did it appear on ​Banfield Pet Hospital's list of the 10 most popular dog names of 2018.

Often, there's some overlap between popular pet names and baby names. Luna was the 31st most popular baby name for girls in 2018. This is perhaps linked to the popularity of the Harry Potter character Luna Lovegood, as well as the publicity the name has received in recent years from celebrities like John Legend and Chrissy Teigen and Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, as both couples named their daughters Luna.

Second on the list of popular puppy names is Bella (its longer form, Isabella, was the fifth most popular baby name for girls last year). Check out the top 10 list below to see if your pooch’s name is trending right now.

1. Luna
2. Bella
3. Charlie
4. Bailey
5. Lucy
6. Cooper
7. Max
8. Daisy
9. Bear
10. Oliver

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