Jan 022016
 

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Today is the date that Isaac Asimov claimed as his birthday. He was a Russian-American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was born some time between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920 in Petrovichi near Klimovichi, then Gomel Governorate in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (now Smolensk Oblast, Russia) to Anna Rachel (née Berman) and Judah Asimov, a family of Jewish millers. His exact date of birth within that range is unknown, but Asimov himself celebrated it on January 2. The family name derives from a word for winter crops in which his great-grandfather dealt. This word is spelled озимые (ozimye) in Russian, and азімыя (azimiya) in Belarusian. Accordingly, his name originally was Исаак Озимов (Isaak Ozimov) in Russian, however, he was later known in Russia as Ayzek Azimov (Айзек Азимов), a Russian Cyrillic adaptation of the American English pronunciation.

Azimov’s family emigrated to the United States when he was three years old. Since his parents always spoke Yiddish and English with him, he never learned Russian, but he remained fluent in Yiddish as well as English. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Asimov taught himself to read at the age of five, and his mother got him into first grade a year early by claiming he was born on September 7, 1919. (In third grade he learned about the “error” and insisted on an official correction to January 2.) Asimov wrote of his father, “My father, for all his education as an Orthodox Jew, was not Orthodox in his heart”, noting that “he didn’t recite the myriad prayers prescribed for every action, and he never made any attempt to teach them to me”. After becoming established in the U.S. his parents owned a succession of candy stores, in which everyone in the family was expected to work. The candy stores sold newspapers and magazines, a fact that Asimov credited as a major influence in his lifelong love of the written word, as it allowed him an unending supply of new reading material as a child that he could not have otherwise afforded. These led him to a lifetime of writing.

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Asimov attended New York City public schools, including Boys High School in Brooklyn. Graduating at 15, he went on to Seth Low Junior College, a branch of Columbia University in Brooklyn, designed to absorb some of the Jewish and Italian-American students who applied to Columbia College, then the institution’s primary undergraduate school for men with quotas on the number of admissions from those ethnic groups. Originally a zoology major, Asimov changed his subject to chemistry after his first semester as he disapproved of “dissecting an alley cat”. After Seth Low Junior College closed in 1938, Asimov finished his BS degree at University Extension (later the Columbia University School of General Studies) in 1939. When he failed to secure admission to medical school, he applied to the graduate program in chemistry at Columbia; initially rejected and then only accepted on a probationary basis, Asimov completed his MA in chemistry in 1941 and earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1948. In between, he spent three years during World War II working as a civilian at the Philadelphia Navy Yard’s Naval Air Experimental Station, living in the Walnut Hill section of West Philadelphia from 1942-1945. In September 1945 he was drafted into the U.S. Army; if he had not had his birth date corrected, he would have been officially 26 years old and ineligible. He served for almost nine months before receiving an honorable discharge.

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After completing his doctorate, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine, with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958, this was in a non-teaching capacity, as he turned to writing full-time (his writing income had already exceeded his academic salary). Being tenured, he retained the title of associate professor, and in 1979, the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry.

Asimov wrote a mountain of stuff, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve not read much of his work apart from the science fiction. I started reading his science fiction in the 1960s beginning with The Foundation Series and I, Robot and then, as I do with authors I like, moving on to read everything I could get my hands on. So, as he started to write novels that merged the Foundation stuff with the Robot stuff I was right there with him. In sum, I have to say that his ideas, inherent in his science fiction, make me think, but are usually flawed. On the plus side, his command of physics and chemistry makes his stories compelling. Nowhere is this better seen than in the three-part work, The Gods Themselves. You can’t even imagine such a tale unless you understand how radioactive isotopes work. My big problem with The Foundation Series is its assumption that social behavior can, like natural science, be reduced to mathematical formulae. Some social scientists believe this to be possible; I don’t.

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As do many of his fans, I prefer his short stories to his novels. Two of his enduring pieces, “The Last Question” and “The Immortal Bard” are justly famous. The former is simply amusing. It doesn’t get me thinking about God or theology. The latter has always troubled me. The story entails the work of a physicist who is able to bring people from the past to the present day. He brings Shakespeare to the present where he enrolls him in a college course on Shakespeare, which he ends up failing. When I first read it, I was annoyed by the premise. Asimov seemed to be saying that Shakespeare knew better than his commentators what his works meant – an obvious fallacy. However, in reading Asimov’s own comments on the story I now realize that this was not his point at all: just the opposite. Asimov was saying that trying to plumb the mind of an author or artist won’t necessarily lead to anything useful. On that I concur.

Asimov is well known for not having more than the baldest of writing styles. His tales are plot driven, moved forward by dialog. This is fine with me. When I want a sophisticated stylist I’ll read Oscar Wilde. I like fast-paced action that delves the complexities of an intriguing premise. It’s exactly the same fascination that leads me to work through complex puzzles. In a nutshell, I think Asimov’s writing is fun. He and a few others, such as Poul Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke, set the stage for most of the science fiction that was to come after. I find his work much more imaginative and original than that of his followers, particularly because he relied on the plain written word and not on splashy movie effects.

Here is an excerpt from a 1988 interview with Slawek Wojtowicz:

SW: And what is your favorite kind of cooking?

IA: Well, let’s see now… I’m in a constant struggle to keep my weight down and one of the reasons is that I love virtually all food. I like Chinese, French and Italian cooking, as well as Polish sausages… I don’t know what a typical Polish meal is but if someone feed me one, I’d probably love it! So there you are. Oh, I also eat in Russian restaurants – we have here in New York all kinds of different ethnic restaurants and my wife and I, we know a large number of them.

SW: What about the “junk food”?

IA: She won’t let me. I love hamburgers, hot dogs, all that stuff – I’d gladly eat it – but she won’t let me.

SW: Why is that?

IA: Well, she wants to keep me alive.

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From what I have read, Asimov was a decent cook, specializing in breakfast dishes because he was an early riser and got hungry well before others in the household were up. I found a recipe he gave a magazine for something he calls “egg-celery delight.” I don’t know why the silly name. It’s just a soufflé with celery. Here’s the recipe, which I have edited for clarity. The original is here:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/spike55151/2913200228/in/photostream/lightbox/

Isaac Asimov’s Egg-Celery Delight

Ingredients

5 eggs, separated
1 cup celery, finely diced and sautéed in butter
3 tbsp butter
5 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet and make a white roux by whisking in the flour. Whilst whisking well, pour in the milk slowly to form a béchamel. Simmer gently, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens and cooks. Add salt and pepper to taste. (White pepper is preferable for aesthetic purposes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

Beat the egg yolks well and then whisk them into the béchamel. Add the celery and stir.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold them into the béchamel-yolk mixture.

Turn the soufflé into a greased baking dish, and bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden.

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