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."

The 25 Best Colleges in America

Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images
Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images

The college decision process is always a tough one, but review site Niche's annual rankings of the best colleges in America make it easier for prospective students (and their parents) to narrow down the choices to find the best fit. The 2020 list takes a variety of factors into account, including student life, admissions, finances, and student reviews. But the most important factor in their methodology, comprising 40 percent of a school's overall rating, is academics, which, according to the Niche website, looks at "acceptance rate, quality of professors, as well as student and alumni surveys regarding academics at the school."

Taking the number one spot on Niche's list for the second year in a row is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by Stanford University in the number two spot (again, for the second year in a row). Six of America's eight Ivy League schools made it into the top 10.

Here are the 25 Best Colleges in America for 2020, according to Niche's rankings.

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology // Cambridge, MA

  1. Stanford University // Stanford, CA

  1. Yale University // New Haven, CT

  1. Harvard University // Cambridge, MA

  1. Princeton University // Princeton, NJ

  1. Duke University // Durham, NC

  1. Brown University // Providence, RI

  1. Columbia University // New York, NY

  1. University of Pennsylvania // Philadelphia, PA

  1. Rice University // Houston, TX

  1. Northwestern University // Evanston, IL

  1. Vanderbilt University // Nashville, TN

  1. Pomona College // Claremont, CA

  1. Washington University in St. Louis // St. Louis, MO

  1. Dartmouth College // Hanover, NH

  1. California Institute of Technology // Pasadena, CA

  1. University of Notre Dame // Notre Dame, IN

  1. University of Chicago // Chicago, IL

  1. University of Southern California // Los Angeles, CA

  1. Cornell University // Ithaca, NY

  1. Bowdoin College // Brunswick, ME

  1. Amherst College // Amherst, MA

  1. University of Michigan // Ann Arbor, MI

  1. Georgetown University // Washington DC

  1. Tufts University // Medford, MA

12 Facts About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Two bison grazing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
scgerding/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The only U.S. national park named after a person—America's 26th presidentTheodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) was established in North Dakota by Harry S. Truman in 1947. The park honors Roosevelt, who lived as a ranchman in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and, as president, conserved 230 million acres of public land for future generations. Read on for things to do and see, plus what to know before you go camping, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

1. The plans for Theodore Roosevelt National Park began not long after Roosevelt’s death in 1919.

Medora, North Dakota, was chosen as the site of the memorial, and in 1921, the state’s legislature asked its reps in Congress to help set aside land for that purpose. One early proposal called for a park of more than 2000 acres, but that was controversial—the land was valuable to ranchers. Some believed a national monument was more appropriate than a national park.

Then, in the 1930s, drought and overgrazing led many homesteaders to abandon their land, which they sold to the federal government; some of those lands were set aside to create a park. In 1935, the land—which was in a north unit and a south unit—became the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area, and in 1946, it was taken over by the Fish and Wildlife Service and became the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge.

On April 25, 1947, President Harry Truman signed the bill that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park; at that time, the land included the South Unit and the site of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. The North Unit of the park was added the next year. Finally, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that changed the memorial park to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In 2018, it received nearly 750,000 visitors.

2. Before the land became Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Native Americans hunted in the area.

A flint spearpoint and other projectiles from the Archaic Culture (5500 BCE to 500 CE) have been found in the park, as have artifacts from the Plains Woodland Tradition (1 to 1200 CE) and pre-Columbian peoples. Though one of the pre-Columbian sites includes a bison processing camp (or what remains of it), there was no permanent occupation of the area of that time, according to the park’s website.

There are a number of sites from what the website calls the Historic Period, which lasted from 1742 to the 1880s, and included artifacts like “stone rings, a rock cairn, and four conical, timbered lodges. Two of the lodges, presumably used by men engaged in seasonal eagle trapping, are still standing today … One archaeological interpretation indicated that the use of the badlands for hunting, gathering, and spiritual pursuits, though undertaken by numerous cultures and groups over millennia, had not significantly changed over that entire time span.” The Mandan and Hidatsa, among many other Native tribes, hunted in the area, and the lands have spiritual significance for some tribes as well.

3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park contains 70,488 acres.

The park is spread over three units. The South Unit, which is located in Medora off I-94, is its most visited area. The North Unit, 50 miles off the same highway, is more remote. Both units have scenic drives—though the drive in the South Unit is currently closed due to slumping—and hiking trails. The South Unit also has a petrified forest with a 10.3-mile trail.

The third unit of the park is its smallest, and very out of the way: The roads leading to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit are unpaved and sometimes require four-wheel drive. No roads go directly to the site to preserve the solitude TR would have felt living there, so getting to the site requires a bit of a walk along a mowed pathway.

4. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can see the future president’s Maltese Cross ranch house.

Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin.
Erin McCarthy

When Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Badlands to hunt bison in 1883, he stayed with some cattle ranchers and decided to invest in a ranch himself. Before he left, he invested $14,000 into Maltese Cross Ranch. The cabin was built seven miles outside of Medora, and it was unusual for the area: While most houses were made of sod, Roosevelt’s ranch was made of ponderosa pine. It had a singled, pitched roof, which created an upper half-story where his ranch hands could sleep. There were three rooms (a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom for TR), and white-washed walls.

The cabin got new owners in 1900, and after Roosevelt became president, it went on tour: It could be seen at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, then to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. For a time, it sat in Fargo, North Dakota, and then on the state capital grounds in Bismarck. Finally, in 1959, the cabin came back to what was, by then, Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Today, it can be found in the South Unit of the Park behind the Visitor’s Center.

The building is mostly original; the roof and shingles were removed at one point and have been restored. Inside, visitors can see several authentic Roosevelt artifacts, including a traveling trunk with “T.R.” on the top and a hutch.

5. Visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can go out to the site where Roosevelt’s second ranch house once stood.

A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
A gate in front of the site of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site.
Erin McCarthy

In 1884, Roosevelt decided to abandon politics after the deaths of his wife and mother and settle at his ranch in the Dakotas permanently. But his Maltese Cross cabin was located on a popular route into Medora, and people were always stopping by. Grieving and seeking solitude, Roosevelt rode out to a site 35 miles north of Medora that had been recommended to him.

On the site, Roosevelt found the skulls of two elk, their horns interlocked, and named what he would come to refer to as his Home Ranch in their honor. He bought the rights to the site for $400; his nearest neighbors were at least 10 miles away.

Two friends of Roosevelt’s from Maine, Bill Sewall and Wilmont Dow, came to the Dakotas and built the 30-by-60-foot house of cottonwood pine; it had 7-foot high walls, eight rooms, and a veranda. Also on the site was a barn, a blacksmith’s shop, a cattle shed, and a chicken coop.

In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt wrote:

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand—though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and for, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

But the cattle business was not meant to be Roosevelt’s future. He eventually returned to New York, and after a hard winter where he lost 60 percent of his herd, he sold the ranch in 1898. By 1901—the year Roosevelt became president—the ranch was gone. A local said that all that remained was “a couple of half-rotted foundations."

Today, visitors to TRNP can take a scenic drive on gravel roads, then hike three-eighths of a mile to the Elkhorn site, located between the Little Missouri River and black, white, and yellow Badlands bluffs. There, they can stand on the foundation stones that mark where TR’s Home Ranch once stood, listening to the birds, insects, and low mooing of cattle, as he would have done. (They might even encounter a cow or two on the trail!)

6. More than 185 species of birds have been spotted in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The black and brown Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Spotted Towhee in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Wildnerdpix/iStock via Getty Images Plus

They include bald and golden eagles, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, turkey vultures, prairie and peregrine falcons, and the sage grouse. The park has a handy checklist [PDF] to help visitors keep track of the birds they’ve seen.

Birds aren’t the only animals you might see: TRNP is also home to elk, prairie dogs, pronghorns, feral horses, big horn sheep, coyotes, badgers, beavers, porcupines, mule deer, longhorn steers, rattlesnakes, and bison.

7. There are hundreds of bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Whether you call them bison or buffalo (though Americans use the terms interchangeably, there is a difference!), you’ll have a chance to see plenty of them at TRNP. Both the north and south units have herds—200 to 400 animals in the south and 100 to 300 in the north. Full-grown bison bulls can stand up to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 2000 pounds, so visitors should give them a wide berth or risk getting charged and possibly gored.

The American bison (Bison bison) was once critically endangered and nearly went extinct. (Roosevelt was one person who was instrumental in saving the species from extinction.) The animals were reintroduced into the park in 1956. Because all of the living bison are descended from a small number of animals, monitoring the genetic diversity of the herd is important. Every couple of years in October, park staff round up the animals in both units by using helicopters to herd them into progressively smaller enclosures. Eventually, each animal ends up in a squeeze shoot, where staff takes hair (for DNA analysis) and blood (to test for disease) samples and weighs and measures the animals. Bison born since the last roundup are given tags and microchips so they can be tracked.

8. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a few prairie dog towns.

Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground.
Two black-tailed prairie dogs coming out of a burrow in the ground in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
RONSAN4D/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Black-tailed prairie dogs are abundant in TRNP. Roosevelt himself described them as “in shape like little woodchucks,” and called them “the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable.” Visitors can see the first of many prairie dog towns in the park near the Skyline Vista trail.

9. In prehistoric times, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was home to a Champsosaurus.

Fifty-five million years ago, during the Paleocene Epoch, North Dakota—including the area of TRNP—was a swamp, and in that swamp lived a reptile called Champsosaurus. The animal looked like modern-day crocodilians called gharials and could measure nearly 10 feet long.

10. You can go camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

There are three campgrounds in TNRP, but visitors just can’t drive in and set up a tent—reservations must be made, fees must be paid, and, in some cases, permits are required to camp in the park.

Camping isn't the only thing you can do in the park: It's also possible to canoe or kayak down the Little Missouri River if the water is deep enough.

11. The colors of the rocks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park tell a story.

A rock formation in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with gray, yellow, and light colored-layers.
hartmanc10/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The massive and unusual formations in TRNP, created by erosion over millions of years, are awe-inspiring—and you can tell a lot about them from the colors of their layers [PDF]. Brown and tan layers indicate sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone, which came from the Rocky Mountains, while blue-gray is bentonite clay laid down by the ash of far-away volcanic eruptions. (The clay can absorb up to five times its weight in liquid, which is why it’s used in … kitty litter.)

Black is a layer of coal, and red is the delightfully named clinker, which is formed when coal veins catch fire and cook the rock above it. Locally, the red rock is called scoria, but clinker is its scientific name.

One coal vein located in the park caught fire in 1951 and burned for 26 years. Apparently, visitors could roast marshmallows over the fire, which finally burned out in 1977. Fires in the Badlands aren’t unusual; they can be caused by lightning strikes or even set purposefully to reduce hazards or benefit certain species.

12. There are a number of interesting historic sites near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

While you’re in the area, check out the Chateau de Mores—the mansion that was home to a French marquis who dreamed of bringing a cattle-slaughtering business to Medora—and the Von Hoffman House. And don’t miss the Medora Musical, a variety show held in an open-air amphitheater that features the history of the town’s most famous and infamous figures—plus an appearance by the president who once called the area his home.

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