On some level, you kind of have to hate Isaac Asimov because he was one of those guys who were so talented and intelligent that even their mistakes became accidental successes. Case in point: Asimov’s “practice article” for his doctoral dissertation in biochemistry, which has since become a legend in both scientific and science fictional circles.

Asimov, you see, started selling science fiction at the tender age of 19 and continued to do so for the rest of his life. Early on, however, Asimov’s fiction talent was strictly a sideline. He had serious academic pursuits, not the least of which was earning a PhD in biochemistry from Columbia University, which he did in 1948 at the age of 28. As a credit to his modesty, Asimov feared that his years of writing sci-fi had robbed him of the ability to write dry, formal, academic prose, so he wrote a spoof scientific article for practice.

The spoof involved research into thiotimoline, a substance so soluble that it actually dissolved into water a second before coming into contact with H2O. This implied thiotimoline actually had nascent time-travel properties that could be chemically exploited. Not exactly the kind of topic one expects to be taken seriously.

Naturally, Asimov’s goof article was still good enough for publication, and he successfully sold it to the legendary John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Asimov asked that the spoof be published under a pseudonym so that, in the unlikely event that they might find the article, his PhD examiners wouldn’t hold his mocking of academia against him. To Asimov’s dismay, the article — “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline” — appeared under his own, true byline.

To no one’s surprise, not only did Asimov’s instructors discover the spoof article, they were amused by it and actually asked Asimov a faux question about thiotimoline as the final query of his thesis defense. Asimov earned his PhD and then went on to a successful writing career that spanned a wide array of fiction and nonfiction, including three famous follow-up articles about thiotimoline.

And if you think that’s an insane capacity for turning minor effort into major success, wait until you hear about the other fictional substance that became the basis of an Asimov novel — one that the late author wrote on a lark to “correct” another sci-fi scribe’s technical mistake.


The book in question is The Gods Themselves, which Asimov wrote (in part, at least) as a playful response to an exchange with fellow science fiction icon Robert Silverberg.

Asimov was in the audience of a panel at a sci-fi convention during which Silverberg was expounding upon the importance of emotional resonance and characterization over technical accuracy or high-concept ideas. Specifically, Silverberg noted (as Asimov recalled it) thus: “If you have your motivations straight…who cares about — uh — plutonium-186.”

This amused Asimov greatly, as the isotope plutonium-186 can’t exist — it’s inherently unstable and simply couldn’t form in our universe. He noted this to Silverberg, who simply shrugged it off, probably as underscoring his original point. Asimov, meanwhile, was fascinated with the idea of a world where plutonium-186 could exist, and he devised a plot around that idea. Specifically, The Gods Themselves involves a race of extra-dimensional aliens that swap out plutonium-186 in their universe for tungsten-186 in our universe, as each is a “free” energy source in the other dimension.

Asimov was famous for rarely including aliens or sexual encounters in his fiction, though both play prominent roles in The Gods Themselves. As such, an urban legend has developed that Silverberg dared Asimov to write a novel that included aliens and sex instead of some bizarre scientific macguffin like plutonium-186, and the result was The Gods Themselves. The truth is somewhat more prosaic, but nonetheless amusing.

(Incidentally, Asimov credited the inspiration for arguably his most famous short story, “Nightfall,” on a challenge from editor John W. Campbell. Perhaps that and the Silverberg story have been conflated in the sci-fi public consciousness.)

Meanwhile, Asimov’s two most infamous fictional substances — plutonium-186 and thiotimoline — eventually intersected. Robert Silverberg wrote a short story for the Foundation’s Friends anthology, “The Asenion Solution,” which depicted the use of thiotimoline to send plutonium-186 backwards in time to cause the Big Bang. That’s not just some amusing authorial interaction; it’s an intentional implausible intersection of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the March 10, 2009 edition of Geek Trivia, “First down and three (laws of robotics).” TechRepublic member RealGem disputed which famous science fiction short story originated the term robotics:
Check out this week’s quibble.

The quibble of the week

“Wikipedia, citing the OED, says that the term robotics was first printed in Asimov’s short story ‘Liar!’ in 1941, not in ‘Runaround’ which was published in 1942.”

Asimov’s short story, “Runaround,” published in 1942 was indisputably the first printed use of the term “The Three Laws of Robotics” as Asimov formulated them. “Liar!” was published in 1941 and was the first appearance of the term robotics, irrespective of any explicit triumvirate of laws. I goofed that up in the original article. Thanks for the catch, and keep those quibbles coming.

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