Asimov on disk. (Isaac Asimov collaborated in development of Science Adventure educational software) (Column)
by Steven Anzovin
I met the late Isaac Asimov more than 20 years ago, when he came to give a talk at a local college on "The Future of the Earth." Most of the audience, including me, came to hear him because he was a famous SF writer. His film, the cult classic Fantastic Voyage, had been released only a year or so before, but he was already one of the most prolific and popular nonfiction authors of all time, with more than 100 books to his credit. (His life total was just under 500 volumes, on nearly every subject imaginable, from the Bible to biochemistry to dirty limericks.) Asimov, sporting the muttonchop whiskers that became his trademark, was witty and ebullient, though he didn't have anything particularly hopeful to say about the fate of the world. No small talk for Asimov: "If our technical civilization destroys itself, as is not unlikely," he remarked heartily to me, "the survivors will not be able to rebuild it, because most of the metal ores will already have been mined from the earth." Still, I came away with the idea that if Asimov thought it was worthwhile to keep on writing, there must be reason to hope.
His death last April at the age of 72 reminded me that Isaac Asimov, by the sheer weight and quality of his output, did more than anyone else to raise the level of science awareness in this country. Carl Sagan called him "a natural resource, a Renaissance man born out of his time--thank God." And I'll wager that most of today's computer developers were inspired to think about thinking machines by his famous robot stories. After all, it's Asimov's robots, with their deceptively simple rules of moral conduct, that today's roboticists dream of building. In fact, Joseph Engelberger, who with George Devol was the first commercial developer of robots in the U.S., was inspired to enter the field by reading Asimov's I, Robot.
Oddly enough, Asimov never wrote a book about computers. In fact, this compulsive writer apparently didn't have much use for computers at all. By his own account, Asimov drafted all his tens of millions of words not on a word processor but on a typewriter. Asimov knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he said it right the first time.
Interestingly, in his 1953 novel, Second Foundation, Asimov does describe a distinctly Mac-like portable word processor owned by the book's teenage heroine, Arkady Darell, who lives in the far future. She's thrilled because her father has bought her a model that prints in a flowery, violet-inked script that's perfect for her galactic-history term paper. Even more exciting, she doesn't need to type any longer, because this new model understands and accurately transcribes human speech. Asimov appears to have been the first to predict that practical speech recognition would require another 50,000 years of development.
While Asimov didn't write much about computers, shortly before his death he did lend his efforts to an educational software program about the history of science called Science Adventure (published by Knowledge Adventure, 4502 Dyer Street, La Crescenta, California 91214; 818-542-4200; $79.95). Science Adventure, like its popular sibling Knowledge Adventure, is an interactive multimedia reference tool and game that encourages curious students to wander through a body of knowledge by pointing and clicking. The program looks handsome, with a clever and responsive interface, many striking 256-color VGA pictures, and some cool digitized sounds, but its biggest asset is the onscreen text, adapted from the 1989 book Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery.
A couple of the good things about Asimov's science writing is that he doesn't offer perfectly neutral informational prose and that he doesn't suffer fools, even brilliant fools, gladly. In the entry for Darwin, for example, he lets us know that Darwin was "naive" for believing his work on the origin of species was so self-evident that everyone would agree with him. And he notes that the seventeenth-century battle royal between Isaac Newton and Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus "poisoned the scientific community" to the detriment of everyone. That's the kind of valuable detail we've learned to expect from Asimov.