The Last Question

The Last Question

Discussion
Ask a question about 'The Last Question'
Start a new discussion about 'The Last Question'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Encyclopedia
"The Last Question" is a science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

 short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000...

. It first appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly
Science Fiction Quarterly
Science Fiction Quarterly was an United States based pulp science fiction magazine that was originally published from 1940 to 1943 and then again from 1951 to 1958. While the magazine did not last long, it helped early science fiction writers reach early audiences in the genre. The magazine also...

and was reprinted in the collections Nine Tomorrows
Nine Tomorrows
Nine Tomorrows is a collection of nine short stories and two pieces of comic verse by Isaac Asimov. The pieces were all originally published in magazines between 1956 and 1958, with the exception of the closing poem, "Rejection Slips", which was original to the collection. The book was first...

(1959), The Best of Isaac Asimov
The Best of Isaac Asimov
The Best of Isaac Asimov is a collection of twelve science fiction short stories by Isaac Asimov. It begins with a short introduction giving various details on the stories, such as how they came to be written, or what significance merits their inclusion in a "best of" collection, as well as some...

(1973), Robot Dreams
Robot Dreams
Robot Dreams is a collection of science fiction short stories by Isaac Asimov, illustrated by Ralph McQuarrie. The title story is about Susan Calvin's discovery of a robot with rather disturbing dreams. It was written specifically for this volume and inspired by the McQuarrie cover illustration...

(1986), the retrospective Opus 100
Opus 100
Opus 100 is Isaac Asimov's one hundredth book. It was published by Houghton Mifflin on 16 October 1969. Asimov chose to celebrate the publication of his hundredth book by writing about his previous 99 books, including excerpts from short stories and novels, as well as nonfiction articles and books...

(1969), and in Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Vol. 1. It was Asimov's favorite short story of his own authorship, and is one of a loosely connected series of stories concerning a fictional computer
Computer
A computer is a programmable machine designed to sequentially and automatically carry out a sequence of arithmetic or logical operations. The particular sequence of operations can be changed readily, allowing the computer to solve more than one kind of problem...

 called Multivac
Multivac
Multivac is the name of a fictional supercomputer in many stories by Isaac Asimov. According to his autobiography In Memory Yet Green, Asimov coined the name in imitation of UNIVAC, an early mainframe computer...

.

History


In conceiving Multivac, Asimov was extrapolating the trend towards centralization that characterised computation technology planning in the 1950s to an ultimate centrally managed global computer. After seeing a planetarium
Planetarium
A planetarium is a theatre built primarily for presenting educational and entertaining shows about astronomy and the night sky, or for training in celestial navigation...

 adaptation, Asimov "privately" concluded that this story was his best science fiction yet written; he placed it just higher than "The Ugly Little Boy
The Ugly Little Boy
"The Ugly Little Boy" is a science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov. The story first appeared in the September 1958 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction under the title "Lastborn", and was reprinted under its current title in the 1959 collection Nine Tomorrows. The story deals with a Homo...

" and "The Bicentennial Man
The Bicentennial Man
The Bicentennial Man is a novella in the Robot Series by Isaac Asimov. It was awarded the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for best science fiction novelette of 1976....

." "The Last Question" ranks with "Nightfall" and other stories as one of Asimov's best-known and most acclaimed short stories.

The story was first adapted for the Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Michigan State University is a public research university in East Lansing, Michigan, USA. Founded in 1855, it was the pioneer land-grant institution and served as a model for future land-grant colleges in the United States under the 1862 Morrill Act.MSU pioneered the studies of packaging,...

 in 1966 featuring the voice of Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Simon Nimoy is an American actor, film director, poet, musician and photographer. Nimoy's most famous role is that of Spock in the original Star Trek series , multiple films, television and video game sequels....

, as Asimov wrote in his autobiography In Joy Still Felt. It was adapted for the Strasenburgh Planetarium
Strasenburgh Planetarium
The Strasenburgh Planetarium is a public planetarium located at 663 East Avenue in the city of Rochester, New York. It is named after its benefactors, Edwin and Clara Strasenburgh. It is a department of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. The Planetarium was dedicated on September 14, 1968....

 in Rochester, New York
Rochester, New York
Rochester is a city in Monroe County, New York, south of Lake Ontario in the United States. Known as The World's Image Centre, it was also once known as The Flour City, and more recently as The Flower City...

 in 1969, under the direction of Ian C. McLennan. The show also appeared at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco, California
San Francisco, California
San Francisco , officially the City and County of San Francisco, is the financial, cultural, and transportation center of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region of 7.15 million people which includes San Jose and Oakland...

 in the early 1980s.

A reading of the story can also be periodically heard on BBC 7 radio in the United Kingdom.

Asimov wrote of it in 1973:
Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of thing endears any story to any writer.

Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably "The Last Question". This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, 'Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember – ' at which point I interrupted to tell him it was "The Last Question" and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.

Plot summary


The story deals with the development of computers called Multivacs and their relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historic settings, beginning in 2061. In each of the first six scenes a different character presents the computer with the same question; namely, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe
Heat death of the universe
The heat death of the universe is a suggested ultimate fate of the universe, in which the universe has diminished to a state of no thermodynamic free energy and therefore can no longer sustain motion or life. Heat death does not imply any particular absolute temperature; it only requires that...

 can be averted. The question was: "How can the net amount of entropy
Entropy
Entropy is a thermodynamic property that can be used to determine the energy available for useful work in a thermodynamic process, such as in energy conversion devices, engines, or machines. Such devices can only be driven by convertible energy, and have a theoretical maximum efficiency when...

 of the universe be massively decreased?" This is equivalent to asking: "Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics
Second law of thermodynamics
The second law of thermodynamics is an expression of the tendency that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential equilibrate in an isolated physical system. From the state of thermodynamic equilibrium, the law deduced the principle of the increase of entropy and...

 (used in the story as the increase of the entropy of the universe), be reversed?" Multivac's only response after much "thinking" is: "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

The story jumps forward in time into newer and newer eras of human and scientific development. In each of these eras someone decides to ask the ultimate "last question" regarding the reversal and decrease of entropy. Each time, in each new era, Multivac's descendant is asked this question, and finds itself unable to solve the problem. Each time all it can answer is an (increasingly sophisticated, linguistically): "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER."

In the last scene, the god-like descendant of humanity (the unified mental process of over a trillion, trillion, trillion humans that have spread throughout the universe) watches the stars flicker out, one by one, as the universe finally approaches the state of heat death. Humanity asks AC, Multivac's ultimate descendant, which exists in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time, the entropy question one last time, before humanity merges with AC and disappears. AC is still unable to answer, but continues to ponder the question even after space and time cease to exist. Eventually AC discovers the answer, but has nobody to report it to; the universe is already dead. It therefore decides to show the answer by demonstrating the reversal of entropy, creating the universe anew. The story ends with AC's pronouncement,
Answers from Multivac

Throughout the story, the answer given by Multivac changes, albeit slightly, yet refined after each iteration. The first answer was simply 5 words, "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER".

When Jerrodd, Jerrodine, and Jerrodette 1 and 2 asked in the second section, the answer refined to "INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.", increasing to 6 words.

VJ-23X and MQ-17J contemplating the similar, Multivac stated: "THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER", totaling to 8 words.

With Zee Prime and Dee Sub Wun asking the same, the response was "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.", expanding to 10 words.

Humans asked as separate beings, and again as an entire consciousness, and were given the same response of "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER." The last time it was asked, it was the last question it needed to answer, and thus, Multivac spent its remainder of time solving the question.

See also


  • Technological singularity
    Technological singularity
    Technological singularity refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human intelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such an intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as...

  • Omega Point
    Omega point
    Omega Point is a term coined by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to describe a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving....

  • Cyclic model
    Cyclic model
    A cyclic model is any of several cosmological models in which the universe follows infinite, self-sustaining cycles. For example, the oscillating universe theory briefly considered by Albert Einstein in 1930 theorized a universe following an eternal series of oscillations, each beginning with a...

  • Entropy
    Entropy
    Entropy is a thermodynamic property that can be used to determine the energy available for useful work in a thermodynamic process, such as in energy conversion devices, engines, or machines. Such devices can only be driven by convertible energy, and have a theoretical maximum efficiency when...

  • Transhumanism
    Transhumanism
    Transhumanism, often abbreviated as H+ or h+, is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human...

  • The Last Answer
    The Last Answer
    The Last Answer is a science-fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov. It was first published in the January 1980 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and reprinted in the collections The Winds of Change and Other Stories , The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov and Robot Dreams...

  • Heat death of the universe
    Heat death of the universe
    The heat death of the universe is a suggested ultimate fate of the universe, in which the universe has diminished to a state of no thermodynamic free energy and therefore can no longer sustain motion or life. Heat death does not imply any particular absolute temperature; it only requires that...


External links