My Dinner With Isaac: Remembering Author, Scientist Dr. Isaac Asimov

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A fanciful painting by Rowena Merill showing Dr. Isaac Asimov on  a throne with characters representing his literary legacy. Painting and photograph by Rowena Merill

A fanciful painting by Rowena Merill showing Dr. Isaac Asimov on a throne with characters representing his literary legacy. Painting and photograph by Rowena Merill

On a Saturday evening in October 1978, I had the rare privilege of dining with the late, award-winning science-fiction author, futurist, and biochemist Dr. Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). Jack and Lottie Robins of Allentown, Pennsylvania arranged this once-in-a-lifetime engagement.

Jack, a fellow sci-fi fan, lived a few blocks from me at the time of this, the most memorable dinner of my life. Knowing my passion for science fact and science fiction, Jack invited me, and a mutual friend and fan Dennis Kuhns, to break bread with Asimov, one of the major pillars of sci-fi’s Golden Age.

Science Fiction: Asimov and the Futurians

Jack had been a member of the Futurians with Asimov, that iconic New York City group of 1930s science-fiction fans which included Asimov, Frederick Pohl, Damon Knight, James Blish, Cyril Kornbluth—to name a few. (In those days, Jack went by his birth surname Rubinson.) So, over the years, Jack maintained his friendship with Asimov. Although some Futurians never became popular writers, like Jack, many did. Jack—who like Asimov was also an accomplished scientist (an explosives chemist)—saw his old pal once a year. In 1978, he invited Asimov to dine at his Allentown home. Then, Jack and his wife Lottie called me with an invitation.

Dinner With Asimov

Weeks passed and finally the day arrived; the great author arrived in town. There are a few details about the meeting that escape me 35 years on—such as what I was wearing, but so goes long-term memory storage. Yet many things remain sharp and fresh. For example, Asimov didn’t drive; a woman friend drove the author the 100 miles from New York City to Allentown. Lottie served roast-beef (which I remember). Jack, Lottie, Isaac, his friend, Dennis, and I exchanged pleasantries.

Asimov loved to talk and joke about himself—and why not? The great man was the author and editor of over 500 published books, from titles on physics and astronomy to science fiction and biblical history.

Asimov’s Space Science Prediction

During dinner I brought up an Asimov science article I had enjoyed reading; it was titled “How Far Will We Go in Space?” I wondered if, when the author wrote it back in 1965, he had anticipated the rise of the unmanned interplanetary Mariners, Pioneers, Vikings, and Voyagers. He hadn’t, he admitted. Asimov had been commissioned in late 1965 to write the piece by the editors of the World Book Yearbook. He had been asked to forecast, “with the facts and capabilities at hand,” to project the future accomplishments and limits of space exploration.

Asimov was beginning to see that our exploration of the planets—not with humans, as he and so many visionaries had supposed, but with robots—was happening far faster than he had imagined. “A reasonable guess,” Asimov wrote in his yearbook piece, “is that by 2100, mankind will have explored our entire solar system… He will have studied the Sun from close range… Mankind will not have made any attempt to reach or colonize planets outside our solar system.”

Space Travel: Politics, Priorities, Obstacles

At the time of our 1978 meeting, the success of Project Apollo, ending just three years earlier with the U.S.-USSR Apollo-Soyuz mission, had made crewed interplanetary flight look, well, easy. But the road to the stars was more complex than even Asimov had imagined.

Politics, national priorities, and budgets seemed to get in the way of humans moving out into space. “After 2100,” Asimov concluded, “A long pause will be enforced on mankind. He will probably have gone as far as he can go without developing technical abilities far beyond what he will possess even then.”

2013 to 2100: What’s Next for Mankind?

Asimov’s final forecast remains to be fulfilled: the year 2100 is far off. But here in 2013, we understand that humanity still has a long ladder to climb just to return astronauts to the Moon after a 41-year-long hiatus.

Resources

Boucher, Geoff.  Isaac Asimov was born 90 years ago today. (2010).  LA Times Hero Complex. Accessed October 9, 2013.

Seiler, Edward. Isaac Asimov HomepageAsimov Online. Accessed October 9, 2013.

Asimov, I. How Far Will We Go In Space? (1967.) Is Anyone There? Doubleday.

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