Isaac Asimov and I often argued, though seldom rancorously — it was our idea of fun — but on questions of fact I knew better than to disagree with him. He had a wonderfully retentive and accessible memory, which allowed him to speak extempore a lot more comfortably than I. From time to time we discussed the question of which of us was smarter, especially when we were speaking on the same program.
On one occasion when we had been discussing collaborating on a book about the environment. I said, “It shouldn’t be too much trouble. Between the two of us, we know everything there is to know about the environment already.”
And Isaac cut me down to size with, “And what is the one fact about it that you know and I don’t?”
With all the lecturing we both did, we wound up now and then on the same program, frequently at a science-fiction gathering, but pretty often at almost anything that inspired groups of human beings to want to listen to someone talk about possible futures. Business and management groups in particular seemed to have an unslakable appetite for what we had to say, and one of the most high-end such groups was run by a man named John Diebold.
I was always glad to take part in a Diebold event, because you met such interesting people, but there was one in particular that is particularly vivid in my mind for three reasons: 1) It occurred while the first American rocket was landing on Mars. 2) In my after-dinner talk I made two of the wrongest predictions of future events that any human being has ever made. And, 3) it was the only time in my life that I ever saw Isaac Asimov drunk. (Maybe the only time he ever was.)
That particular John Diebold event was in one of the big Boston hotels, and for once in these as-I-remember-it recountings, I can tell you exactly when it happened. That is, I can if I’m correctly remembering which flight it was. I believe it was Mars 3, and I believe the meeting took place on 12 December 1971. The first American spaceship to make a soft landing on the planet Mars was going into its landing maneuvers while we were getting ready to sit down to our dinner. No one else in the room seemed greatly worried that they were missing a historic event, but Isaac and I were yearning to get to a TV. As soon as we could we sneaked out of the conference rooms and headed for my room on an upper floor of the hotel.
Our timing was splendid. The spaceship was on its way down with its cameras pointing toward the area where our Eagle was to land. Although the ship was still high in the lunar sky it and its cameras were so close to the Martian surface that we were seeing more detail than any previous human eye, with even the greatest of modern telescopes, had ever been able to make out.
One of those previously unseen details drew a yelp from Isaac. “Look at those craters! But I didn’t ever talk about craters on the Martian surface!” Come to think about it, neither had I.
We lingered until the spacecraft was down. (It was what you’d call a partial success — made an exemplary soft landing but seconds later stopped transmitting for good. Still no other spacecraft, U.S. or U.S.S.R. had done even that well at that time, so we were cheered,)
But then I had to get back because it was my turn to be the after-dinner speaker, and that is where I made a fool of myself twice in a single talk.
John Diebold had asked me to talk about the future of business, and I was explaining how wise America’s heads of major corporations had become. As an illustration, I mentioned some planning sessions I had recently sat in on at one of General Motors’ subdivisions, perhaps the one that specialized in transmissions. I had been impressed by the free and easy discussions and by the way each executive seemed to be familiar with the problems, and solutions, of all of the others. After telling my audience about some of the things I had observed I added, “That’s why I have confidence in the future for General Motors. If something should happen so that they couldn’t make cars and trucks any more they would transition quite smoothly to some other kind of business — maybe even some kind we’ve never heard of before, like importing Martian artichokes — and they would make a great success of that, too.”
2008 conclusively demonstrated the folly of that asinine opinion, which was probably brought about by the amount of time I had been spending with B-school graduates with their pernicious doctrines. (“If you’re on a search committee to find a new president for a grocery chain, you don’t want to hire an expert grocer to run it. You want someone skilled in business management who will have expert grocers under him.”)
The other stupidity was even worse. I called it the Corporate Leisure Time scenario. When successful businesses reach a certain stage in their development, I said, they often decide to devote at least a small fraction of their corporate energy on projects that are not directed at making a profit but are good for the community — underwrite college courses; support libraries and theaters; Forbes has its open-to-the-public art galleries; AT&T allows its scientists at that jewel in the diadem of American research facilities, Bell Labs, to spend part of their time working on pure science problems, etc.
Anyway, my point was that American business was doing what it could to make the world better, and I anticipated it doing more and more. (Oh, so wrong! What actually happened was that the practice of giving enormous bonuses to top executives even if they lead their businesses right over the cliff sopped up all the money and there wasn’t any much left for making a better world. Bell Labs still exists, though in diminished form, and much of the other business generosity to the community has simply disappeared. )
That was my record for wrongness in a single evening. I’ve been even wronger now and then, but not in public.
When my talk was over, the hotel waiters brought out the wine fountains. Those were a sort of cute example of modern technology that was just becoming popular around then, and Isaac was intrigued. He watched to see how it was done, then picked up a glass and filled it under the red-wine stream. He drank it down, then got in the white-wine line and refilled his glass. He saw me standing there near the red fountain and came over. “The red wine is good,” he informed me, “but I like the yellow better.”
Then we were talking to other people and then, a while later, I saw him standing by himself, holding onto the back of a chair and looking concerned. And that was the last I saw of him that night, though someone said he’d lurched up to his room. When I saw him the next day I asked him how he’d liked the wine fountains. “Interesting,” he said, and would go no farther, and I never saw him touch an alcoholic drink again.
There was another Diebold occasion that I remember well, although I’m not sure whether Isaac was present at it or not. This one was a party at the Diebold home on East End Avenue. Among the guests was New York City’s mayor, John Lindsay. He was one of the few Republicans I admired, and he and I found ourselves chatting as the party wound down.
I had been explaining to him that a plan he had just announced for curing some of New York City’s ills was unlikely to work, because the city had become too big, and too divided, to be governable in that way. He put his watch away and frowned. Then he asked, “Did you say you were going to Penn Station? I’ll be going right past it, so why don’t you let me give you a lift?” So after we had said our good-byes and got into the mayoral limousine he politely and friendlily explained to me the numerous ways in which I was out of my cotton-pickin’ mind, with twenty or thirty minutes of statistics, polls and quotes that lasted him until we pulled up in the station — and not in any crummy old taxi rank but in the police entrance that took us right into the heart of the structure.
Lindsay had been plausible and persuasive, and he fairly nearly convinced me I was wrong. All the same, I think I may have won the argument. About ten days after that, I picked up a paper and discovered he had just announced that he wasn’t going to run for reelection after all.
Next installment coming up when I write it.