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TrueTomHarley

Isaac Asimov - He Would Have Turned 100 Today

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I once worked with a girl named Casey who positively loved science fiction. In the context of other things, I mentioned the film I, Robot.

Oh, that was terrible! she said.

But as we kept talking, it turned out she had never seen it. Um...Casey, how do know it's terrible if you've never seen it? I asked. The answer was that she was a purist. She knew the movie did not follow Isaac Asimov's storyline, and that was enough for her!

For an Asimov purist, the movie would indeed be blasphemy. Asimov, who wrote literally almost all the time, having 500 books (written or edited) and 90,000 letters to his credit, with works in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal system, penned the Foundation trilogy and the I, Robot series, both pillars among science fiction. His plotting was ingenious, and had he been able to empathetically sketch people as well as ideas, he might have gone down as one of literature's true greats. Alas, his characters are cardboard, like those TV characters who are freely interchangeable save for one or two superficial features: this one is mean, this one likes to eat, that one is a geek, etc. Too bad - for every other aspect of Asimov's writing is extraordinary.

Asimov was an atheist, but I always imagine that, if current atheists had been taught the Bible by Jehovah's Witnesses instead of the churches, they may not have turned atheist. It's probably not so but I dream it anyway. For example, in his last autobiographical book, Asimov observes that hell is "the drooling dream of a sadist" crudely affixed to an all-merciful God; if even human governments were willing to curtail cruel and unusual punishments, wondered Asimov, why would punishment in the afterlife not be restricted to a limited term.  [Wikipedia entry on Isaac Asimov] Yeah! Man, I wish he had heard first from Jehovah's Witnesses! Virtually alone among Christian faiths at the turn of the last century, Jehovah's Witnesses exposed hellfire for the vicious rubbish that it is. JW "founder" C. T. Russell was known in his lifetime as the man who "turned the hose on hell and put out the fire!"

At any rate, had he been a Witness, it would have benefited him personally. He died in 1992, of AIDS 

    Hello guest!
 from a blood transfusion nine years prior.

Still, I am grateful to Dr. Asimov, not only for the hours of intriguing science fiction he laid upon me, but also for his non-fiction works. Asimov's Guide to Science probably was my springboard to individual branches of science. If Asimov lacked in sketching fictional characters, he was gifted in sketching real ones. Not only the pillars, but also the buffoons, he succeeded in portraying the humanity of scientists. It is from him (Asimov's guide to Biology) that I first read of Ignaz Semmelweis, early advocate of antiseptic surgical practices and forerunner of germ theory. 

In the mid 1800's, Semmelweis got it in his head that fever and death following doctor-assisted childbirth could be curtailed by washing hands and equipment frequently. Doctors back then would deliver a baby, having just emerged from an autopsy, only wiping their hands on their smocks! There were some sort of tiny "particles" contaminating the women, Semmelweis proposed. Doctors howled with laughter at such nonsense. Asimov's book vividly portrays Semmelweis' presenting his ideas at seminars, with his esteemed audience mocking him, hurling catcalls! Doctors argued that, even if Semmeweis' findings were correct, washing one's hands each time before treating a pregnant woman would be too much work. Semmelweis enforced strict antiseptic practices at the hospital under his supervision, cutting deaths to under 1%, and it made no difference in their attitude! Colleagues ridiculed him his entire life, he suffered a nervous breakdown and, says Asimov, died in an insane asylum tormented by memories of women screaming in their death-agonies following hospital-acquired infections. With Semmelweis out of the way, his own hospital went back to familiar practices and the mortality rate climbed to 35%.

You can read the bare facts in many places, but Asimov's account is the most vivid I have come across, remarkable in a book that purports only to be an outline, a "guide."

Whenever those atheists start prattling on about how scientists graciously change their views at the first hint they may be off-base, whereas it's only the pig-headed religionists who "stay the course" come hell or high water, I play the 'Semmelweis' card.

Athiest or not, I miss Isaac Asimov. 

(Reprinted from www.tomsheepandgoats.com - July 16, 2007)

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