Sunday Pages: "The Last Question"
A short story by Isaac Asimov
The other night, I went out to get milk. As I began the short walk to my car, I glanced up at the sky and stopped in my tracks. The stars seemed brighter than usual, particularly arresting in their forever majesty. Orion, the autumnal constellation, was right in front of my face, the stars of his belt gleaming just above the roof of my across-the-street neighbor’s house. Off the Hunter’s right shoulder, clear as day, shone the red-orange glow of Mars, the closest planet to Earth and one our resident apartheid manchild will never set foot on.
The stellar vista was, in a word, breathtaking. And this surfeit of wonder just hung there upon the vault of the sky, free of charge, for anyone in the Northern Hemisphere to behold—another exhibit in the case for “the best things in life are free.”
I forced myself to stop, to take a minute or two to absorb all that beauty. But it was hard to do this. There was milk to buy, a car to warm up, phone apps that needed checking. I wonder: Why don’t I spend more time observing the night sky? Do I fear that great celestial expanse, and the attendant feelings of inconsequentiality? Does it hurt my neck to look up like that? Is it just not as entertaining as the Knicks game, or White Lotus? It gets dark now at five o’clock. I could easily spend half an hour stargazing, but it never even occurs to me to do so. Why is that? All the crazy, ugly, artless, dumb-ass shit that’s happened since Trump rode down the gilded escalator, all that confounding chaos, and this is the moment when NASA releases those astonishing photos from the Webb telescope. Is there a message there? Is the Universe trying to tell us something?
This week, we watched a Netflix documentary about infinity. Among those interviewed were mathematicians, philosophers, physicists of the kind Elon Musk claims to be but isn’t, cosmologists: brilliant thinkers, all. One of them speculated on what might happen if we were to seal an apple in a black box—one of those theoretical black boxes where nothing at all can get in or out. Over billions of years, he said, if I followed it right, the atoms of that apple would mutate and re-form in every way that atoms could possibly re-form. At the very end of time, untold trillions of years later, the atoms would break down, like Velcro that’s lost its stick, and all that would remain would be stray protons floating around aimlessly in an unseen, structureless soup. And then, he said, they may well reassemble to form that same apple, just as it was when it was originally put in the box!
This called to mind one of the greatest science fiction short stories ever written, “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov. Despite having a career as an academic, with advanced degrees in chemistry from Columbia University, and presumably not as much time to work on his side hustle, Asimov was incredibly prolific, producing over 300 short stories and hundreds of books. “The Last Question,” Asimov said, was his favorite. In a short foreword to a reprint of the 1956 masterpiece, he wrote: “It is a curious fact that innumerable readers have asked me if I wrote this story. They seem never to remember the title of the story or (for sure) the author, except for the vague thought it might be me. But, of course, they never forget the story itself especially the ending. The idea seems to drown out everything—and I’m satisfied that it should.”
(Spoiler Alert: I’m going to summarize the story below, so if you’d like to read the whole thing first, you can do so here.)
The action begins not so far from now, in 2061. Two technicians servicing the supercomputer that runs all the programs and stores all the world’s knowledge—the Amazon servers on steroids, I suppose—have a bit too much to drink one night and get into an argument about entropy. One of them says, “It’s amazing when you think of it. All the energy we can possibly ever use for free. Enough energy, if we wanted to draw on it, to melt all Earth into a big drop of impure liquid iron, and still never miss the energy so used. All the energy we could ever use, forever and forever and forever.”
But his friend corrects him: “Not forever. . . . It all had a beginning in the original cosmic explosion, whatever that was, and it’ll all have an end when all the stars run down. Some run down faster than others. Hell, the giants won’t last a hundred million years. The sun will last ten billion years and maybe the dwarfs will last two hundred billion for all the good they are. But just give us a trillion years and everything will be dark. Entropy has to increase to maximum, that’s all.”
And so the two tipsy tech guys decide to ask the supercomputer a question, which boils down to: Is there any way to stop that from happening? Can the entropy of the universe be reversed? And the machine slows down, does its calculations, and spits out the unsatisfying response: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
Over the next four pages, Asimov replays that scene at various points over trillions and trillions of years: humans, evolving through the ages, asking the same question to a supercomputer that gets larger and more powerful as the centuries go on. Can the entropy of the universe be reversed? Throughout countless millennia, the result is the same: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
Like the theoretical apple in the black box in the Netflix documentary, things get weird toward the end:
Man considered with himself, for in a way, Man, mentally, was one. He consisted of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies, each in its place, each resting quiet and incorruptible, each cared for by perfect automatons, equally incorruptible, while the minds of all the bodies freely melted one into the other, indistinguishable. Man said, “The Universe is dying.” Man looked about at the dimming Galaxies. The giant stars, spendthrifts, were gone long ago, back in the dimmest of the dim far past. Almost all stars were white dwarfs, fading to the end. New stars had been built of the dust between the stars, some by natural processes, some by Man himself, and those were going, too. White dwarfs might yet be crashed together and of the mighty forces so released, new stars built, but only one star for every thousand white dwarfs destroyed, and those would come to an end, too.
And that One Man, basically humanity’s Collective Consciousness—note how Asimov just sneaks in his take on “What happens when we die?”—asks the same question and is met with the same response: THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
After that, Man and Machine—the mega-computer that Asimov calls “AC”—become one. “Man’s last mind fused and only AC existed—and that in hyperspace.”
And then, the end of the story:
Matter and energy had ended and with it space and time. Even AC existed only for the sake of the one last question that it had never answered from the time a half-drunken computer technician ten trillion years before had asked the question of a computer that was to AC far less than was a man to Man.
All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also, AC might not release his consciousness.
All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected.
But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible relationships.
A timeless interval was spent in doing that.
And it came to pass that AC learned how to reverse the direction of entropy.
But there was now no man to whom AC might give the answer of the last question. No matter. The answer—by demonstration—would take care of that, too.
For another timeless interval, AC thought how best to do this. Carefully, AC organized the program.
The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.
And AC said, “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
And there was light—
Now that, my friends, is an ending. And for all the hard science the story contains, Asimov’s conclusion is as simple as can be. We end where we began. It’s all a circle. Open the box, and the apple is just as it was.
When I look at Nazis returning to Twitter, and Nazis breaking bread with a Nazi FPOTUS, and Nazis shocking Alex Jones, and Nazis assuming functional control of the GOP, and Nazis continuing to commit atrocities in Ukraine—all of them committed to introducing more chaos, more displaced rage, more horror and darkness to the world—I think, as abominable as it all is, that this is like the end of Asimov’s story, and we have arrived at the moment when the entropy of our political system will be reversed: when hope and love and honor will re-ascend, when there will be light.
On Friday’s episode of The Five 8, our guests were the psychotherapist Shavaun Scott, author of The Minds of Mass Killers, as well as tech experts Bret Pettichord and Aaron Harris, our friends and partners on the SNORKLR Mastodon instance project. (Those last four words sound like something from Asimov!)
Plus: our best-yet karaoke. If you’re inclined to support The Five 8, we’ve added membership tiers, beginning at $1.99 a month.
Photo credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, Webb’s seemingly three-dimensional picture looks like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening. In reality, it is the edge of the giant, gaseous cavity within NGC 3324, and the tallest “peaks” in this image are about 7 light-years high. The cavernous area has been carved from the nebula by the intense ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from extremely massive, hot, young stars located in the center of the bubble, above the area shown in this image.