And now it is 16 years the good doctor is gone...

16 years ago yesterday, on April 6th, 1992, the good doctor, Isaac Asimov passed away. All of us who learned to love his writing and teachings (with Carl Sagan, Dr. Asimov was a great educator for science) were baffled at the news; like Arthur C. Clarke, I genuinely thought Isaac Asimov would live forever. Now I know I was not wrong, as he lives on in his legacy.

And what a legacy! 500 plus books! The man could write and talk on the phone at the same time and he was an accomplished typist. He used one of those old IBM electric typewriters (he died in 1992, almost pre-internet) with the letters on a sphere and he kept breaking the return spring until he had IBM equip one of the typewriters with a heavy duty return spring that would hold up to his furious typing. He did not bother feeding single sheets into the typewriter, he used a continuous paper, like the ones used later in computer printers.

Unlike Clarke and Heinlein, Asimov did not meddle with genetics in his stories. His thing was robots. Isaac Asimov created the famous three laws of robotics, to wit:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Later, one of Asimov's robots comes to the realization that there is a "zeroth" law: that a robot must protect humanity and avoid humanity to come to harm through inaction. This law would turn out to have precedence over the other three and allowed the good doctor to spin fantastic tales of human evolution arising from the heroic robot realizing the power of the "zeroth" law.

(Interestingly, the three laws of robotics are an excellent ethical guide... better than "the good book"...)

Dr. Asimov was an accomplished skeptic. In his book "The Roving Mind", he wrote:

"Don't you believe in flying saucers, they ask me? Don't you believe in telepathy? — in ancient astronauts? — in the Bermuda triangle? — in life after death?

No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out 'Don't you believe in anything?'

'Yes', I said. 'I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I'll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be."

And what a great lesson.

(Image above is from Wikipedia. In the words of the author: "I, Rowena Morrill, license this image under the GFDL, with an Invariant Section consisting of the words 'Rowena Morrill'. I am the creator of this derivative work, based on an original work of which I am the creator.")

On Arthur C. Clarke's death and the ethics of genetic engineering

One of the big three science fiction master writers (and one of my four favorite authors, the others being Isaac Asimov, of course, Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt), Arthur C. Clarke has passed away at the age of 90, in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon.

A lot was written about Clarke's life and works and I will not repeat it here. There is an excellent article in that can be looked up and it is one of the best I read before writing this post. What I want to do to honor Clarke's memory is add my recollections of how I came to know his works and add an interesting train of thought related to my first read.

I remember first reading Clarke's articles in the Reader's Digest, 40-something years ago. He wrote for the RD occasionally and I read the spanish translations. Then, when I was in school, one of my friends who also liked to read, recommended Rendezvous with Rama. I was enthralled wth the story. I even started making my own translation into spanish but I gave up... it was too much to write. I eventually got the spanish version (with a much poorer translation than my own) for my father to read. To this day, it is one of my favorite science fiction stories and I read all the sequels.

In Rama, Clarke introduced me to the concept of artificially made lifeforms. In the novel, there are beings which he names biots (obviously a contraption of biological robots) which behave as very specialized robots but are living entities, purposefully created for a specific job: surveillance, cleaning, repair and maintenance, etc. These entities appear as Rama which is a large spaceship, approaches the sun and everything inside it thaws and returns to life; the biots then perform all sort of housekeeping duties for the ship.

At that time I was 15 or 16 and the concept was fascinating. Years later I read another excellent work of science fiction, Friday, by Robert A. Heinlein and in it, Heinlein did go overboard with the idea of artificial beings. Friday, Heinlein's heroin, is an AP (artificial person): a genetically enhanced and designed human being born out of an artificial womb and raised in an institution.

Clarke and then Heinlein introduced me to the concept of the ethical challenges of creating artificial life. In Clarke's case, biots are made whenever Rama requires maintenance. As soon as their duty is completed, they are destroyed and their components recycled. One wonders if this would be an ethical treatment of living beings but at least biots appear to have very limited consciousceness and they are driven by their specific purpose. But then Heinlein brings up the ethical challenge of stepping up the bar and tinkering with human (and other species) DNA. In the novel, Friday is a stunningly fast, strong, intelligent and beautiful woman; she is also deeply traumatized by her upbringing and the fact that she is discriminated for being artificial. In the end she conquers her demons and lives out her life as a normal human being but she is also surrounded by living artifacts, which are also artificial beings made out of (mostly) human DNA but are not human in shape. While reading the novel, you get a glimpse at the bitterness one of these beings would posses, being of above average human intelligence but also being specifically built in size and shape to perform a specific function (like one of Clarke's biots): crane operator (with five arms and enhanced telescopic eyesight) or whatever else might be necessary.

Clarke, like other SF Masters, introduced us to many of the mysteries and challenges humanity faces going forward and I am thankful to him and all the others for that. By expanding our imagination, we may be able to prepare for the ethical dilemmas we will, no doubt, face in the coming years. Already there is someone marketing an hypoallergenic cat and who knows what else is on the pipeline. I am not against this type of development but the understanding of the ethics involved is crucial for our survival as a morally upstanding species.


P Z Myers is a college professor who publishes this fantastic blog Pharyngula. I don't know how I missed posting it in my favorite links

Check it out. Check out the "Expelled!" posting. It is hilarious