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Science Writing: The Translator

4 minute read

Well aware of the gap between the scientific and nonscientific communities —the “two cultures,” as British Physicist and Author C. P. Snow calls them —politicians, educators, TV producers and scientists themselves have been trying to bridge it. No emissary to the nonscientific world has been more successful than a highly articulate biochemist named Isaac Asimov.

Driven by a compulsion to make science understandable to the intelligent layman, Asimov has written 96 books and hundreds of magazine articles dealing with nearly every scientific specialty, from The Genetic Code to The Neutrino. Stories such as I, Robot and The Martian Way have placed him in the top rank of U.S. science-fiction writers. And a recent magazine poll showed that a way-out Asimov trilogy written in the 1950s about the universe of the future is still rated first in popularity among science-fiction fans. Asimov has also been published in periodicals ranging from Playboy to Atomic Energy Commission pamphlets, and has appeared several times on CBS’s 21st Century TV series. To reach those who have somehow escaped his barrage of writing, he lectures to students, women’s groups and NASA conventions.

Picking Up Bio. Asimov’s scientific credentials are impeccable. After earning his masters degree in chemistry at Columbia University, he worked as a research chemist for the Navy during World War II, then returned to Columbia to receive his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1948. His thesis—which was definitely not written for the layman—was entitled “The Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of Tyroserose During Its Catalyzing of the Aerobic Oxidation of Catechol.” Says Asimov: “It was the definitive work.”

After earning his degree, Asimov did research on the nucleic acids, then was invited to teach biochemistry at Boston University Medical School. “I had never had a course in biochemistry in my life,” he recalls, “but I was a pretty good chemist and figured that the bio wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up.” His immodesty was more than justified. Before long, he had co-authored Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, a book that is still a well-regarded text on the subject.

But Asimov yearned for an audience larger than classroom size and recognized his limitations as a research scientist. “My scientific papers were respectable but insignificant,” he admits. ‘They dropped into the huge ocean of science without making a ripple.” To make a bigger splash—and more cash —he decided “to read what other sci entists write and translate it into English.” He has been a high-speed translator ever since.

In His Head. Typing 90 words per minute and producing as many as 30 pages per day, Asimov began to mass produce science books, one of them—a highly understandable tour of mathematics called The Realm of Numbers —in just 13 days. “I knew it all in my head,” he explains. “It was just a matter of getting it down.” Yet the quality of Asimov’s writing seems seldom to suffer from his pounding haste. His New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science (1965) and his three-volume Understanding Physics (1966) were praised by lay critics for both lucidity and style.

Although Asimov still holds the title of associate professor of biochemistry at Boston University Medical School, his teaching duties are now confined to occasional lectures. He spends his remaining working hours in the finished attic of his West Newton, Mass., home, batting out books on a new electric typewriter, emerging only occasionally to watch Star Trek (his favorite TV show) and make an infrequent out-of-town trip to deliver a lecture or visit a publisher. Asimov dislikes traveling. “When you have been to other galaxies in your mind,” he says, “there’s nothing so exciting about visiting Peoria.”

But Asimov has lately ventured far afield in his writing, completing books on the Bible and on Greek and Roman history. He also has ambitious plans for books on the Goths and Franks, Constantinople, and histories of England, Germany and France that will somehow be wedged in between volumes on such subjects as “the moon” and “environments out there.” Currently, he is in the midst of a first draft of a book on photosynthesis, a complex subject about which he is familiar enough to write entire chapters without the aid of reference books.

At 47, Asimov feels that he must work even faster. He has been haunted ever since boyhood by the fact that the human brain reaches the peak of physiological development by the age of 16, after which it can only deteriorate. “My memory is not what it used to be,” he says, “and some day the atrophy of the brain cells will overtake the benefits of my experience.”

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