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Ideas | Aimee Ortiz

Why the FBI investigated Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov autographed books in New York City in 1984.
Isaac Asimov autographed books in New York City in 1984. (Mario Suriani/AP/file 1984)

Scientists know things. Important things. And for years, that’s terrified the FBI.

The terror isn’t entirely unjustified. Some researchers have betrayed their country. But much of the bureau’s surveillance of the country’s brightest minds has been baseless, at best.

That’s the message of a forthcoming book, “Scientists Under Surveillance,” which digs into the FBI files of some of the most famous scientific figures of the 20th Century, from Albert Einstein, to Carl Sagan, to Timothy Leary.

One local target: Isaac Asimov. Best known as a science fiction writer, he was also a biochemistry professor, starting in 1949, at the Boston University School of Medicine.

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The decision to initiate Asimov’s file began with a tip to then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. A redacted source had wrangled with Asimov over the scientist’s (accurate) claim in his 1956 book, “Inside the Atom,” that the first nuclear power plant built in the Soviet Union, not the US. Researching a rejoinder, the source learned that Asimov had been born in Russia. From these revelations, suspicion blossomed.

The FBI file, opened in 1960, consists of a dictionary definition of biochemistry and some speculation that Asimov might be ROBPROF — the codename for a known Soviet informant in America with a background in microbiology; never mind that Asimov, the would-be ROBPROF, had actually stopped teaching nearly a decade earlier.

The investigation into Asimov never revealed any grand plot against the United States, fictional or otherwise. Still, the FBI kept Asimov’s file open until his death in 1992.

Below, JPat Brown, one of the editors of “Science Under Surveillance,” walks us through a page from Asimov’s FBI file. Click on the yellow tabs to read the Q&A.


Aimee Ortiz can be reached at aimee.ortiz@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @aimee_ortiz.