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Steve “The Woz” Wozniak: 2011 Isaac Asimov Science Award

 

by Sean Mulligan

This year at our 70th annual conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, AHA will award Steve Wozniak the Isaac Asimov Science Award. The Isaac Asimov Science Award is designed to point toward significant contributions in the realm of science, specifically to “recognize a person or team of researchers whose scientific work has contributed significantly to the advancement of humanist values. It also is to recognize those scientists and advocates of science who have increased the public awareness, understanding and appreciation of science and the scientific approach.” Previous recipients include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Robert Sapolsky, and Eugenie Scott.

It is fitting, then, that the award should go to someone like Steve Wozniak. Affectionately called “the Woz,” Wozniak is also occasionally referred to as “the other Steve.” This is in reference to his legendary partnership with Steve Jobs in the 70s and 80s, when Apple Computers revolutionized the consumer electronics market, making a personal computer not just feasible but affordable to average people everywhere. The importance of his contribution cannot be overstated: Wozniak was the chief hardware designer for the Apple I and Apple II and is credited with several revolutionary innovations in their planning and construction. These computers, built largely in garages in what would come to be called Silicon Valley, heralded the beginning of the computer age.

The personal computer needs no apology—it has completely transformed the way we work, play and plan our daily lives. Great strides in research, finance, medicine and education have been made possible by the ubiquity of the personal computer. Prior to the introduction of Apple’s first products, most people regarded computers as clunky objects, suitable only for complex scientific work and certainly not for the home. The Apple I and II changed all that, ushering in an era of unprecedented openness and delivering to the common person an unheard of amount of power. Without Wozniak’s considerable efforts, the personal computer might not exist today, and certainly without him the world would look very different than it does now.

While most people would know Wozniak from his days at Apple, he continues to exhibit his ingenuity and generosity in other settings. A noted philanthropist, Wozniak is a committed advocate for science and computer education. After his departure from Apple in the early 1980s, Wozniak paid out of pocket for cutting edge technology education at all levels of the Los Gatos school district, and in the words of some, “adopted the school.” His financial support for these classes and computer labs continues to this day. (The affordability of the early Apple computers means that a generation of kids grew up learning how to use an Apple computer in their local schools.) He generously helped fund and set up “the Woz” lab in University of Colorado-Boulder. He has also established “Camp Woz,” a special summer camp for young adults interested in technology.

Woz’s religious beliefs are famously opaque. He has an obvious familiarity with faiths of all kinds, from evangelical Christianity (introduced to him by his college roommate), to Jehovah’s Witnesses (his second wife), to even the Baha’i faith (Bill Hernandez, Apple’s third employee after Jobs and Wozniak). When solicited about his personal faith he tends to offer reticent answers, however in a letter to a fan he wrote the following: “I just felt that an intelligent person like myself could figure out good behaviors without going to a church and having to follow the thinking of a large group, all of whom follow it largely because they all do… So my God existed but was in my own head and was very important to me to this very day… I also don't like presuming that my God, my principles of life and methods to achieve eternal happiness are right for others. My methods and principles might be the way for some others to have a good life but not for all.”

The words above embody—in their tolerance, inquiry, and earnest compassion—the epitome of humanist values. Woz’s own philanthropy and his gift to the world of inexpensive, simple, powerful personal computers, have touched countless lives and transformed the future of humanity for the better.

Woz’s sense of the shared spirit of humanity extends even to his famous past time of practical jokes. I was told an amusing anecdote by Howard Katz, a friend of Wozniak and president of the Humanist Society, about one of Woz’s many practical jokes. Apparently Wozniak once went to a nearby mint and purchased a sheet of two dollar bills. He then drove to a local fast food restaurant and ordered a meal. When he pulled up and was asked to pay, he produced a pair of scissors and began to busily cut out from the sheet several individual two dollar bills. Inevitably this prank involved interactions with the police- and once, even, with the United States Secret Service- but technically he had committed no crime, as the bills were, after all, legally printed tender. This sense of whimsy and wit marks Wozniak as a humanist with a sense of humor.

Among his many honors include the National Medal of Technology Award, presented to him by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, several honorary doctorates from universities all over the country, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. To this remarkable list of achievements he will soon add our own Isaac Asimov Science Award.

Steve Wozniak will receive the Isaac Asimov Science award at the 70th Anniversary Conference of the American Humanist Association, to take place April 7-10, 2011 at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge Hotel near Boston, Massachusetts. To register, visit www.americanhumanist.org/conference.   

 Sean Mulligan is a spring intern for the American Humanist Association and a first-year Master’s candidate at American University in Washington DC. Sean would like to thank Howard Katz, president of the Humanist Society, for his assistance in the research of this article.

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