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."

10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that in 2016 Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. To celebrated the film's 15th anniversary, here are some facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. Deb is based on Jerusha Hess.

Jared Hess’s wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.'"

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. "The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me," she told Rolling Stone. "Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before."

2. Napoleon's famous dance scene was the result of having extra film stock.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.”

Heder told HuffPost he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt "pressure" to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. Napoleon Dynamitefans still flock to Preston, Idaho to tour the movie's locations.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. Idaho adopted a resolution commending the filmmakers.

'Napoleon Dynamite' filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess
Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. Napoleon was a different kind of nerd.

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told HuffPost. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. The title sequence featured several different sets of hands..

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. Napoleon Dynamite messed up Netflix's algorithms.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. Napoleon accidentally got a bad perm.


© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LaFawnduh's real-life family starred in the film.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A short-lived animated series acted as a sequel.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

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