Posts tagged ‘Marvin Minsky’

(This is a new feature I’ve been wanting to add to the blog, talking about some of the most memorable meetings I’ve attended — meetings about science, science fiction, world affairs, all kinds of things.. Some of them were one-off or by invitation only, so I can’t urge you to try them for yourself. Most, though, are regularly scheduled yearly functions — for example the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Future Society and (of course!) the World Science Fiction Convention. The good part of that is that I’ll try to time the columns about the open ones for a few months before their next meeting and give details of how to register, so that if one takes your fancy you can try it for yourself.)

 
The NASA Conference on Speculative Technology

Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell, failed telepath?

This first, and so far only, NASA conference on speculative technology was the brainchild of a NASA man named George Pezdirtz. If I ever wanted to put together a really fun scientific conference of my own would try to hire Mr. Pezdirtz to plan it. He did just about everything right.

To start with, the conference was held on an island off the coast of Georgia. I have come to believe that that is the very best kind of site for a conference that wants to explore new possibilities in its mandate. You see, the only way in or out for most of the participants was a single-engine propeller plane that commuted between the Atlanta airport and the island. In most conferences that feature a lot of high-profile participants, the superstars generally fly in just in time for their performances. Then they fly right out again as soon as they’re over. At Spec Tech they couldn’t do that. There weren’t enough seats on the plane. So nearly all of the conferees hung around for the duration, mingling with the others, to the great enrichment of the discussions that followed each paper.

Of course another factor that made that work so well was that so many of them were in fact superstars themselves.

Before we go any farther, let me make a confession. I had some personal reasons for particularly enjoying it. One was that, during a break in the proceedings, Arthur Clarke found some bicycles nobody was using, and attempted a spot of bicycle jousting — I pedaling, Arthur on the handlebars. (That was about the last time both Arthur and I were spry enough for that sort of juvenile delinquency.)

And then there was the question of Wernher von Braun. He and I had been aware of each other’s existence, but the only tangible connection was that he did keep inviting me to watch rocket launches at the Cape. This troubled some mutual friends, Willy Ley in particular, who thought that Von Braun and I could be good friends, but he never offered any one-on-one invitations, and I couldn’t get past the fact that he had been an officer in Hitler’s SS to take the initiative.

But then came an evening at Spec Tech when we had all been invited to a barbecue on the far side of the island. It was an automobile road away, and there weren’t enough cars to go around. So we doubled up. And for half an hour there I had Wernher Von Braun sitting in my lap. . . . Oh, it didn’t overtly change much, but after that I couldn’t help thinking of him less as a Nazi slave-labor driver and more as a human being who shared the same interplanetary ambitions as I did. I don’t think I would have done what he did to get there. But I wouldn’t have got as far as he, either.

Continue reading ‘Great Conferences I Have Attended, No. 1’ »

The continued life and loves of Isaac Asimov

Janet Jeppson and Isaac Asimov (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

Janet Jeppson and Isaac Asimov (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)

There was one woman whom Isaac met in that period when his marriage to Gertrude was crumbling but had not yet got to the stage of a divorce who became both large and permanent in Isaac’s life. She was a New York psychiatrist named Janet Jeppson, who now and then wrote science fiction.

Janet and Isaac had once or twice bumped into each other at science-fiction events in the city, but nothing much came of it until they were both present at an annual banquet of the Mystery Writers of America. They found themselves talking mostly to each other, and thereafter Isaac regarded her as a good friend — at least until he came to regard her as the woman he would wholeheartedly love until the end of his life.

I didn’t at the time know Janet, and I was pretty curious about this woman who had so smitten the normally somewhat reticent Isaac Asimov. Isaac was, also uncharacteristically, always willing to talk about her; in fact you could say that Janet was his favorite topic of conversation in the years around 1970. When, a little overloaded with Janetiana, I finally asked him why she was incontestably the most desirable woman in the world for him, he thought for a moment and then said, “Because Janet has never once failed to make me feel welcome.”

One story Isaac told me says something about the degree of Isaac’s growing devotion to her — and about some of the problems that come with a degree of public recognition. Isaac had just finished delivering a lecture to a group in Boston when he got a phone message to say that Janet had collapsed with some sort of a brain problem in New York and was now in the emergency room of a hospital. There were few details. Shocked and frightened, Isaac said a quick goodbye to his hosts, ran out of the building, jumped into his car and was off.

It is a good couple of hundred miles from Boston to New York, with good highways but highways that are exceptionally well policed. It is astonishing that Isaac wasn’t pulled over along the way because the length of time he took to make the trip was incompatible with speed limits, but he got to the hospital in one piece and managed to locate Janet’s doctor. Who said, “Yes, I’m Dr. Jeppson’s attending and I’ll take you to her, but first, Dr. Asimov, may I tell you how much I’ve always enjoyed your Foundation stories?”

Isaac being a nonviolent person, he didn’t cold-cock the man. And he did get to see Janet, and she recovered from what had caused her collapse.

 
Unfortunately that was not the total of their medical problems in that period. In 1972, Isaac discovered that there was something going on in his thyroid gland that might well be malignant, requiring dietary changes and medications to take, while Janet found a lump in her breast that was definitely so, requiring surgery.

That made a problem in Isaac’s mind, because he had always admitted that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or of the visible results of surgery. (That was one of the things that had made his long-ago rejection by the medical schools quite bearable.) He was sure that the removal of one of her breasts would make Janet worry that her body would become repulsive to him.

He was also sure that that could not happen, that no imaginable change in Janet’s physiology could make him love her less. But the person he had to convince was Janet herself.

So he practiced not looking away, controlled the expression on his face and made a habit of cracking jokes about “single swingers.” It worked. Before long he had Janet herself able to laugh about the subject, as she has been ever since.

Then, as 1972 was coming to an end, something nice happened. The Holland-American cruise line put on a special event, a cruise to some lovely Caribbean islands which included a special stopover off the coast of Cape Canaveral to view the launch of the Apollo 17 Moon rocket. It was a night launch, the first one ever attempted, and the last launch scheduled to take human beings to the surface of the Moon. (And none have been added since.)

The ship’s manifest included fellow sf writers Robert A. Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Ben Bova and myself (each including a nearest and dearest, and in Ted’s case a small son who explored every part of the ship, giving all the rest of us employment in keeping him from falling overboard), along with various celebrities like Marvin Minsky, Hugh Downs, Katherine Anne Porter, Norman Mailer and Carl Sagan, among many others. Nearly all were either old friends or people one would be happy to have become so.

Isaac, of course, usually retired to his cabin between meals, and anyone who passed could hear the steady tappety-tap of his portable. This, I explained to those who didn’t know him, was because of an incurable addiction Isaac suffered: he had never seen a sheet of paper he didn’t want to write on. (Well, to be fair, I rather often did the same thing myself.)

The book Isaac was writing at the time was one of his works on humor, and before adding a joke to the collection in the manuscript it was Isaac’s practice to tell it to his companions at meals to get a reaction That added to the already impressive amount of laughing and jesting that went on at that table over the Holland-America’s quite good food, but my then wife Carol and I were excluded. We were both still dedicated cigarette smokers, and Isaac and Ben Bova, who had claimed that table early on, were even more dedicatedly not. (Though Barbara Bova still did enjoy an occasional cigar.)

That didn’t really matter, anyway. With so few passengers aboard we were all clustered in one corner of the ship’s vast dining hall. Also, with so few of us to be fed there was only one seating for meals, too, which meant we could linger over them as long as we liked, and banter between tables was the norm.

Taken all in all it was definitely a joyous cruise, although perhaps not so much so for the Holland-America line. Because of some incomprehensible mixup hardly any tickets had been sold to paying customers, so that we freebies pretty nearly had the ship to ourselves. But Janet greatly enjoyed it … and therefore so did Isaac.

 
And then, in the fullness of time, in 1973, the divorce from Gertrude was granted, and then it was less than a week before Janet and Isaac were married.

(Coming up soon, I think, the final, and mostly sad, part of my memories of Isaac.)

 
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For a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was picking up a goodly fraction of my annual earnings by talking for pay to almost any audience that cared to hear me. That included groups of all kinds, from colleges to fraternal organizations. I didn’t much care which, although I have to say that talking to, for instance, management groups had some significant advantages.

Not in terms of money, as you might have imagined, though. Some of the biggest and richest management groups were also among the thriftiest when it came time to write a check. That was all right, they explained to me, because what I was really doing was building a career. Every time I spoke to a management audience there would be two or three people among them who had just been told to organize a speaker of their own, so I would have a continuing schedule of dates. That wasn’t untrue, although my new clients knew exactly what I was being paid for my present appearance — because they’d asked their old pal the chairman during the coffee break — and saw no reason to raise it.

Management groups did have one definite advantage over other audiences, though. Management people like to have a little luxury around them when they toil, so they try to make sure their toiling is done in really neat places. My first visits to Hawaii, the Florida Keys and some interesting foreign cities — not to mention any number of pricey resort hotels and country clubs all over the U S of A — were all speaking dates.

And what did I talk about to these junior captains of industry? That took a little working out. At first I talked about things that were likely to happen in the future, but I quickly discovered that there were only two kinds of things that brought them cheering to their feet when I was through. One was the scary kind — a hit by a good-sized asteroid, an ice age, a nearby supernova — and the other was the funny.

Continue reading ‘Have Mouth, Will Travel, Part 1: The Lecture Biz’ »