A prolific writer, he wrote or edited more than 500 books. He also wrote an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.[c] Best known for his hard science fiction, Asimov also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as much nonfiction.
Asimov's most famous work is the Foundation series, the first three books of which won the one-time Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series" in 1966. His other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series. The Galactic Empire novels are set in the much earlier history of the same fictional universe as the Foundation series. Later, with Foundation and Earth (1986), he linked this distant future to the Robot stories, creating a unified "future history" for his stories. He also wrote over 380 short stories, including the social science fiction novelette "Nightfall," which in 1964 was voted the best short science fiction story of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels using the pen name Paul French. Most of his popular science books explain concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. Examples include Guide to Science, the three-volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery. He wrote on numerous other scientific and non-scientific topics, such as chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, history, biblical exegesis, and literary criticism.
He was president of the American Humanist Association. Several entities have been named in his honor, including the asteroid (5020) Asimov, a crater on the planet Mars, a Brooklyn elementary school, Honda's humanoid robot, ASIMO, and four literary awards.
There are three very simple English words: 'Has,' 'him' and 'of.' Put them together like this—'has-him-of'—and say it in the ordinary fashion. Now leave out the two h's and say it again and you have Asimov.
Asimov's family name derives from the first part of ozímyj khleb (озимый хлеб), meaning the winter grain (specifically rye) in which his great-great-great-grandfather dealt, with the Russian patronymic ending -ov added. Azimov is spelled Азимов in the Cyrillic alphabet. When the family arrived in the United States in 1923 and their name had to be spelled in the Latin alphabet, Asimov's father spelled it with an S, believing this letter to be pronounced like Z (as in German), and so it became Asimov. This later inspired one of Asimov's short stories, "Spell My Name with an S".
Asimov refused early suggestions of using a more common name as a pseudonym, and believed that its recognizability helped his career. After becoming famous, he often met readers who believed that "Isaac Asimov" was a distinctive pseudonym created by an author with a common name.
I have had a good life and I have accomplished all I wanted to, and more than I had a right to expect I would.
Asimov's parents were Anna Rachel (née Berman) and Judah Asimov, a family of Russian-Jewish millers. He was named Isaac after his mother's father, Isaac Berman. 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".
In 1921, Asimov and 16 other children in Petrovichi developed double pneumonia. Only Asimov survived. He later had two younger siblings: a sister, Marcia (born Manya;  June 17, 1922 – April 2, 2011), and a brother, Stanley (July 25, 1929 – August 16, 1995), who was vice-president of the Long Island Newsday.
Asimov's family travelled to the United States via Liverpool on the RMS Baltic, arriving on February 3, 1923 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 both. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Asimov taught himself to read at the age of five (and later taught his sister to read as well, enabling her to enter school in the second grade). 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 of the date to January 2. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1928 at the age of eight.
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 presented him with an unending supply of new reading material (including pulp science fiction magazines) as a child that he could not have otherwise afforded. Asimov began reading science fiction at age nine, at the time when the genre was becoming more science-centered.
Asimov attended New York City public schools from age five, including Boys High School in Brooklyn. Graduating at 15, he attended the City College of New York for several days before accepting a scholarship at Seth Low Junior College, a branch of Columbia University in Downtown 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. Jewish and Italian-American students, even of outstanding academic caliber, were often deliberately barred from Columbia College proper because of the then-popular practice of imposing unwritten ethnic admission quotas. Originally a zoology major, Asimov switched to chemistry after his first semester because he disapproved of "dissecting an alley cat". After Seth Low Junior College closed in 1936, Asimov finished his Bachelor of Science degree at Morningside Heights campus (later the Columbia University School of General Studies) in 1939.
After two rounds of rejections by medical schools, Asimov applied to the graduate program in chemistry at Columbia in 1939; initially he was rejected and then only accepted on a probationary basis, he completed his Master of Arts degree in chemistry in 1941 and earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in chemistry in 1948.[d] During his chemistry studies, he also learned French and German.
In between earning these two degrees, Asimov spent three years during World War II working as a civilian chemist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Naval Air Experimental Station, living in the Walnut Hill section of West Philadelphia from 1942 to 1945. In September 1945, he was drafted into the U.S. Army; if he had not had his birth date corrected while at school, he would have been officially 26 years old and ineligible. In 1946, a bureaucratic error caused his military allotment to be stopped, and he was removed from a task force days before it sailed to participate in Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll. He served for almost nine months before receiving an honorable discharge on July 26, 1946.[e] He had been promoted to corporal on July 11.
After completing his doctorate and a postdoc year, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine in 1949, teaching biochemistry with a $5,000 salary (equivalent to $54,385 in 2020), with which he remained associated thereafter. By 1952, however, he was making more money as a writer than from the university, and he eventually stopped doing research, confining his university role to lecturing students.[f] In 1955, he was promoted to associate professor, which gave him tenure. In December 1957, Asimov was dismissed from his teaching post, with effect from June 30, 1958, because he had stopped doing research. After a struggle which lasted for two years, he kept his title, he gave the opening lecture each year for a biochemistry class, and on October 18, 1979, the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry. Asimov's personal papers from 1965 onward are archived at the university's Mugar Memorial Library, to which he donated them at the request of curator Howard Gotlieb.
In 1959, after a recommendation from Arthur Obermayer, Asimov's friend and a scientist on the U.S. missile protection project, Asimov was approached by DARPA to join Obermayer's team. Asimov declined on the grounds that his ability to write freely would be impaired should he receive classified information. However, he did submit a paper to DARPA titled "On Creativity" containing ideas on how government-based science projects could encourage team members to think more creatively.
Asimov met his first wife, Gertrude Blugerman (1917, Toronto, Canada – 1990, Boston, U.S.), on a blind date on February 14, 1942, and married her on July 26 the same year. The couple lived in an apartment in West Philadelphia while Asimov was employed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard (where two of his co-workers were L. Sprague de Camp and Robert A. Heinlein). Gertrude returned to Brooklyn while he was in the army, and they both lived there from July 1946 before moving to Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan, in July 1948. They moved to Boston in May 1949, then to nearby suburbs Somerville in July 1949, Waltham in May 1951, and, finally, West Newton in 1956. They had two children, David (born 1951) and Robyn Joan (born 1955). In 1970, they separated and Asimov moved back to New York, this time to the Upper West Side of Manhattan where he lived for the rest of his life. He immediately began seeing Janet O. Jeppson, a psychiatrist and science-fiction writer, and married her on November 30, 1973, two weeks after his divorce from Gertrude.
Asimov was a claustrophile: he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces.[g] In the third volume of his autobiography, he recalls a childhood desire to own a magazine stand in a New York City Subway station, within which he could enclose himself and listen to the rumble of passing trains while reading.
Asimov was afraid of flying, doing so only twice: once in the course of his work at the Naval Air Experimental Station and once returning home from Oahu in 1946. Consequently, he seldom traveled great distances. This phobia influenced several of his fiction works, such as the Wendell Urth mystery stories and the Robot novels featuring Elijah Baley. In his later years, Asimov found enjoyment traveling on cruise ships, beginning in 1972 when he viewed the Apollo 17 launch from a cruise ship. On several cruises, he was part of the entertainment program, giving science-themed talks aboard ships such as the RMS Queen Elizabeth II. He sailed to England in June 1974 on the SS France for a trip mostly devoted to events in London and Birmingham, though he also found time to visit Stonehenge.
Asimov was an able public speaker and was regularly paid to give talks about science. He was a frequent fixture at science fiction conventions, where he was friendly and approachable. He patiently answered tens of thousands of questions and other mail with postcards and was pleased to give autographs. He was of medium height (5 ft 9 in (1.75 m)), stocky, with—in his later years—"mutton-chop" sideburns, and a distinct New York accent. He took to wearing bolo ties after his wife Janet objected to his clip-on bow ties. His physical dexterity was very poor. He never learned to swim or ride a bicycle; however, he did learn to drive a car after he moved to Boston. In his humor book Asimov Laughs Again, he describes Boston driving as "anarchy on wheels".
Asimov's wide interests included his participation in his later years in organizations devoted to the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and in The Wolfe Pack, a group of devotees of the Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Rex Stout. Many of his short stories mention or quote Gilbert and Sullivan. He was a prominent member of The Baker Street Irregulars, the leading Sherlock Holmes society, for whom he wrote an essay arguing that Professor Moriarty's work "The Dynamics of An Asteroid" involved the willful destruction of an ancient, civilized planet. He was also a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of his fictional group of mystery solvers, the Black Widowers. He later used his essay on Moriarty's work as the basis for a Black Widowers story, "The Ultimate Crime", which appeared in More Tales of the Black Widowers.
In 1984, the American Humanist Association (AHA) named him the Humanist of the Year. He was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto. From 1985 until his death in 1992, he served as president of the AHA, an honorary appointment. His successor was his friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut. He was also a close friend of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and earned a screen credit as "special science consultant" on Star Trek: The Motion Picture for advice he gave during production.
Asimov was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, CSICOP (now the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and is listed in its Pantheon of Skeptics. In a discussion with James Randi at CSICon 2016 regarding the founding of CSICOP, Kendrick Frazier said that Asimov was "a key figure in the Skeptical movement who is less well known and appreciated today, but was very much in the public eye back then." He said that Asimov being associated with CSICOP "gave it immense status and authority" in his eyes.: 13:00
Asimov described Carl Sagan as one of only two people he ever met whose intellect surpassed his own. The other, he claimed, was the computer scientist and artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky. Asimov was a long-time member and vice president of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs".[h]
In 1977, Asimov suffered a heart attack. In December 1983, he had triple bypass surgery at NYU Medical Center, during which he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. His HIV status was kept secret out of concern that the anti-AIDS prejudice might extend to his family members.
He died in Manhattan on April 6, 1992, and was cremated. The cause of death was reported as heart and kidney failure. Ten years following Asimov's death, Janet and Robyn Asimov agreed that the HIV story should be made public; Janet revealed it in her edition of his autobiography, It's Been a Good Life.
[T]he only thing about myself that I consider to be severe enough to warrant psychoanalytic treatment is my compulsion to write ... That means that my idea of a pleasant time is to go up to my attic, sit at my electric typewriter (as I am doing right now), and bang away, watching the words take shape like magic before my eyes.
Asimov's career can be divided into several periods. His early career, dominated by science fiction, began with short stories in 1939 and novels in 1950. This lasted until about 1958, all but ending after publication of The Naked Sun (1957). He began publishing nonfiction as co-author of a college-level textbook called Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. Following the brief orbit of the first man-made satellite Sputnik I by the USSR in 1957, his production of nonfiction, particularly popular science books, greatly increased, with a consequent drop in his science fiction output. Over the next quarter century, he wrote only four science fiction novels, while writing over 120 nonfiction books. Starting in 1982, the second half of his science fiction career began with the publication of Foundation's Edge. From then until his death, Asimov published several more sequels and prequels to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he had not originally anticipated, making a unified series. There are, however, many inconsistencies in this unification, especially in his earlier stories. Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin published about 60% of his work as of 1969, Asimov stating that "both represent a father image".
Asimov believed his most enduring contributions would be his "Three Laws of Robotics" and the Foundation series. Furthermore, the Oxford English Dictionary credits his science fiction for introducing into the English language the words "robotics", "positronic" (an entirely fictional technology), and "psychohistory" (which is also used for a different study on historical motivations). Asimov coined the term "robotics" without suspecting that it might be an original word; at the time, he believed it was simply the natural analogue of words such as mechanics and hydraulics, but for robots. Unlike his word "psychohistory", the word "robotics" continues in mainstream technical use with Asimov's original definition. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured androids with "positronic brains" and the first-season episode "Datalore" called the positronic brain "Asimov's dream".
Asimov was so prolific and diverse in his writing that his books span all major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification except for category 100, philosophy and psychology. Although Asimov did write several essays about psychology, and forewords for the books The Humanist Way (1988) and In Pursuit of Truth (1982), which were classified in the 100s category, none of his own books were classified in that category.
No matter how various the subject matter I write on, I was a science-fiction writer first and it is as a science-fiction writer that I want to be identified.
Asimov became a science fiction fan in 1929, when he began reading the pulp magazines sold in his family's candy store. At first his father forbade reading pulps as he considered them to be trash, until Asimov persuaded him that because the science fiction magazines had "Science" in the title, they must be educational. At age 18 he joined the Futurians science fiction fan club, where he made friends who went on to become science fiction writers or editors.
Asimov began writing at the age of 11, imitating The Rover Boys with eight chapters of The Greenville Chums at College. His father bought Asimov a used typewriter at age 16. His first published work was a humorous item on the birth of his brother for Boys High School's literary journal in 1934. In May 1937 he first thought of writing professionally, and began writing his first science fiction story, "Cosmic Corkscrew" (now lost), that year. On May 17, 1938, puzzled by a change in the schedule of Astounding Science Fiction, Asimov visited its publisher Street & Smith Publications. Inspired by the visit, he finished the story on June 19, 1938, and personally submitted it to Astounding editor John W. Campbell two days later. Campbell met with Asimov for more than an hour and promised to read the story himself. Two days later he received a rejection letter explaining why in detail. This was the first of what became almost weekly meetings with the editor while Asimov lived in New York, until moving to Boston in 1949; Campbell had a strong formative influence on Asimov and became a personal friend.
By the end of the month, Asimov completed a second story, "Stowaway". Campbell rejected it on July 22 but—in "the nicest possible letter you could imagine"—encouraged him to continue writing, promising that Asimov might sell his work after another year and a dozen stories of practice. On October 21, 1938, he sold the third story he finished, "Marooned Off Vesta", to Amazing Stories, edited by Raymond A. Palmer, and it appeared in the March 1939 issue. Asimov was paid $64 (equivalent to $1,177 in 2020), or one cent a word. Two more stories appeared that year, "The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use" in the May Amazing and "Trends" in the July Astounding, the issue fans later selected as the start of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. For 1940, ISFDB catalogs seven stories in four different pulp magazines, including one in Astounding. His earnings became enough to pay for his education, but not yet enough for him to become a full-time writer.
Asimov later said that unlike other top Golden Age writers Robert Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt—also first published in 1939, and whose talent and stardom were immediately obvious—he "(this is not false modesty) came up only gradually". Through July 29, 1940, Asimov wrote 22 stories in 25 months, of which 13 were published; he wrote in 1972 that from that date he never wrote a science fiction story that was not published (except for two "special cases"[i]). He was famous enough that Donald Wollheim told Asimov that he purchased "The Secret Sense" for a new magazine only because of his name, and the December 1940 issue of Astonishing—featuring Asimov's name in bold—was the first magazine to base cover art on his work, but Asimov later said that neither he himself nor anyone else—except perhaps Campbell—considered him better than an often published "third rater".
Based on a conversation with Campbell, Asimov wrote "Nightfall", his 32nd story, in March and April 1941, and Astounding published it in September 1941. In 1968 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" the best science fiction short story ever written. In Nightfall and Other Stories Asimov wrote, "The writing of 'Nightfall' was a watershed in my professional career ... I was suddenly taken seriously and the world of science fiction became aware that I existed. As the years passed, in fact, it became evident that I had written a 'classic'." "Nightfall" is an archetypal example of social science fiction, a term he created to describe a new trend in the 1940s, led by authors including him and Heinlein, away from gadgets and space opera and toward speculation about the human condition.
After writing "Victory Unintentional" in January and February 1942, Asimov did not write another story for a year. Asimov expected to make chemistry his career, and was paid $2,600 annually at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, enough to marry his girlfriend; he did not expect to make much more from writing than the $1,788.50 he had earned from 28 stories sold over four years. Asimov left science fiction fandom and no longer read new magazines, and might have left the industry had not Heinlein and de Camp been coworkers and previously sold stories continued to appear. In 1942, Asimov published the first of his Foundation stories—later collected in the Foundation trilogy: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). The books recount the fall of a vast interstellar empire and the establishment of its eventual successor. They also feature his fictional science of psychohistory, in which the future course of the history of large populations can be predicted. The trilogy and Robot series are his most famous science fiction. In 1966 they won the Hugo Award for the all-time best series of science fiction and fantasy novels. Campbell raised his rate per word, Orson Welles purchased rights to "Evidence", and anthologies reprinted his stories. By the end of the war Asimov was earning as a writer an amount equal to half of his Navy Yard salary, even after a raise, but Asimov still did not believe that writing could support him, his wife, and future children.
His "positronic" robot stories—many of which were collected in I, Robot (1950)—were begun at about the same time. They promulgated a set of rules of ethics for robots (see Three Laws of Robotics) and intelligent machines that greatly influenced other writers and thinkers in their treatment of the subject. Asimov notes in his introduction to the short story collection The Complete Robot (1982) that he was largely inspired by the almost relentless tendency of robots up to that time to fall consistently into a Frankenstein plot in which they destroyed their creators.
The robot series has led to film adaptations. With Asimov's collaboration, in about 1977, Harlan Ellison wrote a screenplay of I, Robot that Asimov hoped would lead to "the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction film ever made". The screenplay has never been filmed and was eventually published in book form in 1994. The 2004 movie I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was based on an unrelated script by Jeff Vintar titled Hardwired, with Asimov's ideas incorporated later after the rights to Asimov's title were acquired. (The title was not original to Asimov but had previously been used for a story by Eando Binder.) Also, one of Asimov's robot short stories, "The Bicentennial Man", was expanded into a novel The Positronic Man by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, and this was adapted into the 1999 movie Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams.
Besides movies, his Foundation and Robot stories have inspired other derivative works of science fiction literature, many by well-known and established authors such as Roger MacBride Allen, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, David Brin, and Donald Kingsbury. At least some of these appear to have been done with the blessing of, or at the request of, Asimov's widow, Janet Asimov.
In 1948, he also wrote a spoof chemistry article, "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline". At the time, Asimov was preparing his own doctoral dissertation, and for the oral examination to follow that. Fearing a prejudicial reaction from his graduate school evaluation board at Columbia University, Asimov asked his editor that it be released under a pseudonym, yet it appeared under his own name. Asimov grew concerned at the scrutiny he would receive at his oral examination, in case the examiners thought he wasn't taking science seriously. At the end of the examination, one evaluator turned to him, smiling, and said, "What can you tell us, Mr. Asimov, about the thermodynamic properties of the compound known as thiotimoline". Laughing hysterically with relief, Asimov had to be led out of the room. After a five-minute wait, he was summoned back into the room and congratulated as "Dr. Asimov".
Demand for science fiction greatly increased during the 1950s. It became possible for a genre author to write full-time. In 1949, book publisher Doubleday's science fiction editor Walter I. Bradbury accepted Asimov's unpublished "Grow Old with Me" (40,000 words), but requested that it be extended to a full novel of 70,000 words. The book appeared under the Doubleday imprint in January 1950 with the title of Pebble in the Sky. Doubleday published five more original science fiction novels by Asimov in the 1950s, along with the six juvenile Lucky Starr novels, the latter under the pseudonym of "Paul French". Doubleday also published collections of Asimov's short stories, beginning with The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955. The early 1950s also saw Gnome Press publish one collection of Asimov's positronic robot stories as I, Robot and his Foundation stories and novelettes as the three books of the Foundation trilogy. More positronic robot stories were republished in book form as The Rest of the Robots.
Books and the magazines Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction ended Asimov's dependence on Astounding. He later described the era as his "'mature' period". Asimov's "The Last Question" (1956), on the ability of humankind to cope with and potentially reverse the process of entropy, was his personal favorite story.
In 1972, his novel The Gods Themselves (which was not part of a series) was published to general acclaim, and it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the Locus Award for Best Novel.
In December 1974, former Beatle Paul McCartney approached Asimov and asked him if he could write the screenplay for a science-fiction movie musical. McCartney had a vague idea for the plot and a small scrap of dialogue; he wished to make a film about a rock band whose members discover they are being impersonated by a group of extraterrestrials. The band and their impostors would likely be played by McCartney's group Wings, then at the height of their career. Intrigued by the idea, although he was not generally a fan of rock music, Asimov quickly produced a "treatment" or brief outline of the story. He adhered to McCartney's overall idea, producing a story he felt to be moving and dramatic. However, he did not make use of McCartney's brief scrap of dialogue. McCartney rejected the story. The treatment now exists only in the Boston University archives.
Asimov said in 1969 that he had "the happiest of all my associations with science fiction magazines" with Fantasy & Science Fiction; "I have no complaints about Astounding, Galaxy, or any of the rest, heaven knows, but F&SF has become something special to me". Beginning in 1977, Asimov lent his name to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (now Asimov's Science Fiction) and penned an editorial for each issue. There was also a short-lived Asimov's SF Adventure Magazine and a companion Asimov's Science Fiction Anthology reprint series, published as magazines (in the same manner as the stablemates Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's "anthologies").
Due to pressure by fans on Asimov to write another book in his Foundation series, he did so with Foundation's Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986), and then went back to before the original trilogy with Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1992), his last novel.
Just say I am one of the most versatile writers in the world, and the greatest popularizer of many subjects.
Asimov and two colleagues published a textbook in 1949, with two more editions by 1969. During the late 1950s and 1960s, Asimov substantially decreased his fiction output (he published only four adult novels between 1957's The Naked Sun and 1982's Foundation's Edge, two of which were mysteries). He greatly increased his nonfiction production, writing mostly on science topics; the launch of Sputnik in 1957 engendered public concern over a "science gap". Asimov explained in The Rest of the Robots that he had been unable to write substantial fiction since the summer of 1958, and observers understood him as saying that his fiction career had ended, or was permanently interrupted. Asimov recalled in 1969 that "the United States went into a kind of tizzy, and so did I. I was overcome by the ardent desire to write popular science for an America that might be in great danger through its neglect of science, and a number of publishers got an equally ardent desire to publish popular science for the same reason".
Fantasy and Science Fiction invited Asimov to continue his regular nonfiction column, begun in the now-folded bimonthly companion magazine Venture Science Fiction Magazine. The first of 399 monthly F&SF columns appeared in November 1958 and they continued until his terminal illness.[j] These columns, periodically collected into books by Doubleday, gave Asimov a reputation as a "Great Explainer" of science; he described them as his only popular science writing in which he never had to assume complete ignorance of the subjects on the part of his readers. The column was ostensibly dedicated to popular science but Asimov had complete editorial freedom, and wrote about contemporary social issues in essays such as "Thinking About Thinking" and "Knock Plastic!". In 1975 he wrote of these essays: "I get more pleasure out of them than out of any other writing assignment."
Asimov's first wide-ranging reference work, The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science (1960), was nominated for a National Book Award, and in 1963 he won a Hugo Award—his first—for his essays for F&SF. The popularity of his science books and the income he derived from them allowed him to give up most academic responsibilities and become a full-time freelance writer. He encouraged other science fiction writers to write popular science, stating in 1967 that "the knowledgeable, skillful science writer is worth his weight in contracts", with "twice as much work as he can possibly handle".
The great variety of information covered in Asimov's writings prompted Kurt Vonnegut to ask, "How does it feel to know everything?" Asimov replied that he only knew how it felt to have the 'reputation' of omniscience: "Uneasy". Floyd C. Gale said that "Asimov has a rare talent. He can make your mental mouth water over dry facts", and "science fiction's loss has been science popularization's gain". Asimov said that "Of all the writing I do, fiction, non-fiction, adult, or juvenile, these F & SF articles are by far the most fun". He regretted, however, that he had less time for fiction—causing dissatisfied readers to send him letters of complaint—stating in 1969 that "In the last ten years, I've done a couple of novels, some collections, a dozen or so stories, but that's nothing".
In his essay "To Tell a Chemist" (1965), Asimov proposed a simple shibboleth for distinguishing chemists from non-chemists: ask the person to read the word "unionized". Chemists, he noted, will read the word "unionized" as un-ion-ized (pronounced "un-EYE-en-ized"), meaning "(a chemical species) being in an electrically neutral state, as opposed to being an ion", while non-chemists will read the word as union-ized (pronounced "YOU-nien-ized"), meaning "(a worker or organization) belonging to or possessing a trade union".
Asimov coined the term "robotics" in his 1941 story "Liar!", though he later remarked that he believed then that he was merely using an existing word, as he stated in Gold ("The Robot Chronicles"). While acknowledging the Oxford Dictionary reference, he incorrectly states that the word was first printed about one third of the way down the first column of page 100, Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942 printing of his short story "Runaround".
Asimov coined the term "psychohistory" in his Foundation stories to name a fictional branch of science which combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people, such as the Galactic Empire. Asimov said later that he should have called it psychosociology. It was first introduced in the five short stories (1942–1944) which would later be collected as the 1951 fix-up novel Foundation. Somewhat later, the term "psychohistory" was applied by others to research of the effects of psychology on history.
In addition to his interest in science, Asimov was interested in history. Starting in the 1960s, he wrote 14 popular history books, including The Greeks: A Great Adventure (1965), The Roman Republic (1966), The Roman Empire (1967), The Egyptians (1967) The Near East: 10,000 Years of History (1968), and Asimov's Chronology of the World (1991).
He published Asimov's Guide to the Bible in two volumes—covering the Old Testament in 1967 and the New Testament in 1969—and then combined them into one 1,300-page volume in 1981. Complete with maps and tables, the guide goes through the books of the Bible in order, explaining the history of each one and the political influences that affected it, as well as biographical information about the important characters. His interest in literature manifested itself in several annotations of literary works, including Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare (1970),[k] Asimov's Annotated Don Juan (1972), Asimov's Annotated Paradise Lost (1974), and The Annotated Gulliver's Travels (1980).
Asimov was also a noted mystery author and a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. He began by writing science fiction mysteries such as his Wendell Urth stories, but soon moved on to writing "pure" mysteries. He published two full-length mystery novels, and wrote 66 stories about the Black Widowers, a group of men who met monthly for dinner, conversation, and a puzzle. He got the idea for the Widowers from his own association in a stag group called the Trap Door Spiders, and all of the main characters (with the exception of the waiter, Henry, who he admitted resembled Wodehouse's Jeeves) were modeled after his closest friends. A parody of the Black Widowers, "An Evening with the White Divorcés," was written by author, critic, and librarian Jon L. Breen. Asimov joked, "all I can do ... is to wait until I catch him in a dark alley, someday."
Toward the end of his life, Asimov published a series of collections of limericks, mostly written by himself, starting with Lecherous Limericks, which appeared in 1975. Limericks: Too Gross, whose title displays Asimov's love of puns, contains 144 limericks by Asimov and an equal number by John Ciardi. He even created a slim volume of Sherlockian limericks. Asimov featured Yiddish humor in Azazel, The Two Centimeter Demon. The two main characters, both Jewish, talk over dinner, or lunch, or breakfast, about anecdotes of "George" and his friend Azazel. Asimov's Treasury of Humor is both a working joke book and a treatise propounding his views on humor theory. According to Asimov, the most essential element of humor is an abrupt change in point of view, one that suddenly shifts focus from the important to the trivial, or from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Particularly in his later years, Asimov to some extent cultivated an image of himself as an amiable lecher. In 1971, as a response to the popularity of sexual guidebooks such as The Sensuous Woman (by "J") and The Sensuous Man (by "M"), Asimov published The Sensuous Dirty Old Man under the byline "Dr. 'A'" (although his full name was printed on the paperback edition, first published 1972). However, by 2016, some of Asimov's behavior towards women was described as sexual harassment and cited as an example of historically problematic behavior by men in science fiction communities.
Asimov published three volumes of autobiography. In Memory Yet Green (1979) and In Joy Still Felt (1980) cover his life up to 1978. The third volume, I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), covered his whole life (rather than following on from where the second volume left off). The epilogue was written by his widow Janet Asimov after his death. The book won a Hugo Award in 1995. Janet Asimov edited It's Been a Good Life (2002), a condensed version of his three autobiographies. He also published three volumes of retrospectives of his writing, Opus 100 (1969), Opus 200 (1979), and Opus 300 (1984).
In 1987, the Asimovs co-wrote How to Enjoy Writing: A Book of Aid and Comfort. In it they offer advice on how to maintain a positive attitude and stay productive when dealing with discouragement, distractions, rejection, and thick-headed editors. The book includes many quotations, essays, anecdotes, and husband-wife dialogues about the ups and downs of being an author.
Asimov and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry developed a unique relationship during Star Trek's initial launch in the late 1960s. Asimov wrote a critical essay on Star Trek's scientific accuracy for TV Guide magazine. Roddenberry retorted respectfully with a personal letter explaining the limitations of accuracy when writing a weekly series. Asimov corrected himself with a follow-up essay to TV Guide claiming that despite its inaccuracies, Star Trek was a fresh and intellectually challenging science fiction television show. The two remained friends to the point where Asimov even served as an advisor on a number of Star Trek projects.
In 1973, Asimov published a proposal for calendar reform, called the World Season Calendar. It divides the year into four seasons (named A–D) of 13 weeks (91 days) each. This allows days to be named, e.g., "D-73" instead of December 1 (due to December 1 being the 73rd day of the 4th quarter). An extra 'year day' is added for a total of 365 days.
I have an informal style, which means I tend to use short words and simple sentence structure, to say nothing of occasional colloquialisms. This grates on people who like things that are poetic, weighty, complex, and, above all, obscure. On the other hand, the informal style pleases people who enjoy the sensation of reading an essay without being aware that they are reading and of feeling that ideas are flowing from the writer's brain into their own without mental friction.
Asimov was his own secretary, typist, indexer, proofreader, and literary agent. He wrote a typed first draft composed at the keyboard at 90 words per minute; he imagined an ending first, then a beginning, then "let everything in-between work itself out as I come to it". (Asimov only used an outline once, later describing it as "like trying to play the piano from inside a straitjacket".) After correcting a draft by hand, he retyped the document as the final copy and only made one revision with minor editor-requested changes; a word processor did not save him much time, Asimov said, because 95% of the first draft was unchanged.
After disliking making multiple revisions of "Black Friar of the Flame", Asimov refused to make major, second, or non-editorial revisions ("like chewing used gum"), stating that "too large a revision, or too many revisions, indicate that the piece of writing is a failure. In the time it would take to salvage such a failure, I could write a new piece altogether and have infinitely more fun in the process". He submitted "failures" to another editor.
One of the most common impressions of Asimov's fiction work is that his writing style is extremely unornamented. In 1980, science fiction scholar James Gunn wrote of I, Robot:
Except for two stories—"Liar!" and "Evidence"—they are not stories in which character plays a significant part. Virtually all plot develops in conversation with little if any action. Nor is there a great deal of local color or description of any kind. The dialogue is, at best, functional and the style is, at best, transparent. ... . The robot stories and, as a matter of fact, almost all Asimov fiction—play themselves on a relatively bare stage.
Asimov addressed such criticism in 1989 at the beginning of Nemesis:
I made u