Geek Trivia: To write a wrong

What novel did Isaac Asimov write as a playful "correction" (at least in part) to another famous sci-fi writer's scientific mistake?

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.


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