Select Page



by William H. Benson

January 2, 2003

     Isaac Asimov often told the story about the day he met with one of his professors, Joseph Mayer, to discuss the low grade that the professor had given him on a lab report.  Dr. Mayer looked at the intense young graduate student and bluntly said,  “The trouble with you, Asimov, is that you can’t write.”  The professor was quite unaware of what Isaac had already achieved in writing science fiction, ever since he was a teenager.

     Isaac sat there stunned for a moment, gathered up his papers, and said, “I’ll thank you, Professor Mayer, not to repeat that slander to my publishers.”

     Wearing dark-framed glasses and sporting mutton-chop sideburns and wild hair, Isaac enjoyed life best sitting in front of a typewriter and pouring his ideas on to paper, something he did for almost 60 years, producing an incredible amount of material.  Besides science fiction, he wrote on mathematics, astronomy, geology chemistry, biochemistry, physics, biology, history, literature, and even humor.  Book after book after book rolled off his typewriter.

    Unfortunately, the typewriting ceased on April 6, 1992 when Isaac Asmiov died due to complications from AIDS, something that the general public was not told.  Two days later Arthur Ashe, the tennis star, announced that he also had AIDS, and he died the following February.

     Both Asimov and Ashe had become HIV infected with tainted blood during heart surgery in the mid-eighties, in the days before blood was screened.  It is ironic that Isaac Asimov, a scientist and a science-fiction writer, would be overcome by a scientific phenomenon–a virus that had invaded his body, quietly replicated itself, and then suddenly attacked, shutting down his auto-immune system.

       AIDS is now 21 years old and is a viral terror.  Today somewhere between 40 and 60 million people worldwide are HIV infected.  The worst of this human catastrophe is in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the virus has killed more than 12 million people.  By 2010 experts believe that the disease will orphan roughly 20 million African children.

     The global crisis is spreading into India, China, southeast Asia, and Russia.  Because the numbers keep exploding, the news in those places is bad, and the word Holocaust is cropping up.

     The good news is that in the U.S. deaths from AIDS has dropped from nearly 50,000 per year to less than 17,000, mainly due to the AIDS “triple cocktail” drug therapy, called HAART.  Unlike Asimov and Arthur, Magic Johnson is still alive, some 11 years after he was diagnosed.

     January 2 is Isaac Asimov’s birthday, and he would have been 83 years old today.  Much like the ancient Roman god Janus who was blessed with two faces, one to look back into the past and another to look forward into the future, Isaac Asimov thought and wrote equally well in both mental hemispheres.

     His best known science-fiction work was the Foundation series in which his fictional character Hari Seldon devised a new science called psychohistory and wrote complicated mathematical formulas, all designed to predict the future based upon past events.

     We begin a new year this week, and looking into 2003 we see biological terrors that could cripple the very psyche of humanity–HIV and AIDS, the West Nile Virus, and the threat of a resumption of smallpox, eradicated from the planet in 1979.  I would like to think that perhaps in 2003, scientists will discover a cure for HIV, that national leaders will seek and find a solution for the AIDS orphans, that a biological war with Iraq will be prevented, that smallpox will remain locked in laboratory freezers, and that humanity will retain its hope for a better future. 

     Shortly before dying, Isaac Asimov said, “I don’t feel self-pity because I won’t be around to see any of the possible futures.  Like Hari Seldon, I can look at my work all around me and I’m comforted.  I know that I’ve studied about, imagined, and written down many possible futures–it’s as if I’ve been there.”