Hi, this is Ariel. I am going on holiday for two weeks, starting tomorrow. So there won’t be any podcasts for two weeks. But I will see you again after that. Thank you!
Welcome to Easy Stories in English, the podcast that will take your English from OK to Good, and from Good to Great.
I am Ariel Goodbody, your host for this show. Today’s story is for pre-intermediate learners. The name of the story is The Last Question. You can find a transcript of the episode at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Question. That’s EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Question. This contains the full story, as well as my conversation before it.
Today’s story is originally by Isaac Asimov. Or “Assimov”, I’m not sure. He is a famous science fiction author. I don’t think we’ve actually had any science fiction on the podcast so far, so I thought it would be good to get some good science fiction stories.
Today’s episode is quite long. The original story is longer than our stories normally are, but it was difficult to cut parts out. So it’s just going to be a bit longer than normal. It is, however, a really good story, so I think you’ll enjoy it.
I tried to remove difficult language as much as possible. Obviously, science fiction has a lot of words related to space and technology. So I tried to remove these when they weren’t necessary. I might have made some mistakes because I changed words, but I don’t think the scientific accuracy is super important for this episode. Anyway, you don’t need to know a lot about science to understand and enjoy this story.
OK, so I’ll just explain the words in the story.
Data. Data is facts and statistics that are used for analysis. So your computer is full of data. When you do a research project, you will look up data. Data is often presented in graphs and tables.
A spaceship is a ship in space. We don’t really have many spaceships now. In the 1960s we sent a spaceship to the moon. In TV shows and films, aliens often have spaceships and they look very different to human spaceships. If you watch Star Trek, the spaceship in Star Trek is called Enterprise, and if you watch the Star Wars films, the most famous spaceship in Star Wars is the Millennium Falcon.
Some planets are mentioned in this story. I know in some languages the planets have very different names to in English, so I will name the planets in order of their distance from the sun. There’s Mercury, Venus, Earth—that’s where we live—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Pluto used to be a planet, but now it is considered a dwarf planet—a very, very small planet, so, not a real planet. Some planets have moons. The Earth has a moon, and I believe Jupiter has two moons, or something like that, and one of the moons is called Io. I know that from Babylon 5, a science fiction series.
Coal is a black material that we burn for energy. Gas is a gas, so, it’s a material in the air that you can’t see, but we do burn gas for energy. Finally, uranium is a very dangerous chemical. It is an element, and it is used to create energy in nuclear reactors. In TV shows, uranium is often shown as a green stick that glows very brightly, but I think in real life it doesn’t look like that.
Climate change is a problem we are going through at the moment. So climate change is that the world is changing. Because of global warming, the temperature of the world is changing and the weather is changing because of that. It is the main issue of modern times. In the story it is solved. I wish it was solved in real life! But unfortunately, it isn’t. But we can solve it. I believe that. We must be optimistic and work together.
A million is a number. Basically, it’s a 1 with 6 zeroes after it, so: 1,000,000.
A billion is a 1 with 9 zeroes after it, and a trillion is a 1 with 12 zeroes after it.
An explosion is BOOM, BANG, [explosion sound]! That’s the best way I can describe it. Explosions are very popular in action films to add excitement to a scene.
Drunk. When you are drunk, you have drunk a lot of alcohol, and the alcohol makes you behave differently. So if you drink ten beers, you will be very drunk, I think.
Galaxy. A galaxy is a system of stars and planets and they are held together by gravity. Unfortunately at the moment we only have been inside our galaxy, but we know there are thousands and millions of galaxies in the universe around us. So the universe is all of the galaxies together. It’s basically the largest world that we know. It is where the world ends, essentially. So the universe is made of lots and lots of galaxies and the galaxies are made of lots and lots of stars and planets.
Hyperspace. Hyperspace is a version of space that is parallel to normal space. So it doesn’t exist in the same place as normal space. It exists sort of next to it. It’s not a real place, but it is used a lot in science fiction, and the idea is that the rules in hyperspace are different. So hyperspace works differently to normal space. Basically, it’s a way to allow very fast travel because in our world we can’t travel faster than the speed of light, but if you go into hyperspace you can travel faster. So it’s a way for science fiction stories to solve that problem of speed.
There is a phrase at the end of the story that you may not know, but I don’t want to spoil what happens. So do listen after the end, because I will explain the ending just in case you don’t understand it.
OK, so listen and enjoy!
The Last Question
The last question was asked many times. The first time was on the twenty-first of May, 2061. It was asked as a joke. This is how it happened:
Alexander and Bert worked on Multivac. Multivac was a great big computer. It was miles long. It had a huge screen, made up of hundreds of pieces. It looked like an Internet café mixed with a cinema. Alexander and Bert had some idea of what was behind the cold face of the machine, but it was so large now that no human could really understand the whole. Each person only worked on a part, and Multivac helped them all.
Multivac also helped itself. It changed itself, made itself better. No human could change it fast enough. So Alexander and Bert only looked after it, like a gardener looks after a bonsai. They gave it data and asked it questions. They translated the answers so that normal humans could understand them. But the machine worked alone.
For many years, Multivac helped design spaceships. It also created the maps for them to fly to the Moon, to Mars, to Venus. They couldn’t fly beyond Venus, though, as the Earth did not have enough energy. Multivac could make the maps, but they could not get there. Humans had found all the coal, gas, and uranium there was on Earth. They had used it as best they could. They had even solved the problem of climate change. But the energy was not endless.
Still, Multivac worked and worked, and finally it solved the problem. On the fourteenth of May, 2061, Multivac discovered how to use energy from the sun.
Everything changed. Humans had dreamed of this for hundreds of years. The energy from the sun could be kept and used all over Earth. They had more power than ever before, and it was much smaller than the buildings used for coal and uranium energy.
Seven days later, people were still amazed at the invention. Alexander and Bert met in a quiet place, to hide from the journalists. They sat in the tunnels underneath Multivac, with a bottle of whiskey.
‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ said Alex. ‘We have all the energy we will ever need. And it’s free. We could blow up the planet and still have energy to use. All the energy we will ever need, forever and ever and ever.’
‘Not forever,’ said Bert.
‘Fine, basically forever. Until the sun runs out.’
‘That’s not forever.’
‘All right, then. Billions and billions of years. Ten billion, maybe. Is that good enough for you?’
Bert smiled and drank from his glass. ‘Ten billion years isn’t forever.’
‘Well, it will be enough for us, won’t it?’
‘So would the coal and uranium.’
‘All right, but now everyone on Earth can go to Pluto. They can go to Pluto and come back a million times without worrying about energy. You can’t do that with coal and uranium. Ask Multivac, if you don’t believe me.’
‘I don’t have to ask Multivac. I know that.’
‘Then stop talking badly of all this. Multivac’s done pretty well for us.’
‘I didn’t say it hadn’t. What I’m saying is, the sun won’t last forever. That’s all I’m saying. We’re safe for ten billion years, but then what?’ Bert ran his finger around the edge of the glass. ‘And don’t say we’ll just use another sun.’
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘But you’re thinking it. You’re bad at logic. It makes me think of that story. A man is in the rain. He runs to some trees and stands under one. He thinks, “When this tree gets wet, I’ll just go to the next one.” ’
‘I understand,’ said Alexander. ‘When the sun runs out, the other stars will have run out, too.’
‘Exactly,’ said Bert. ‘In the beginning there was a big explosion, and at the end the stars will all die. Some will die more quickly than others. The giant stars won’t live to a hundred million years. The sun will live ten billion years. Some stars might live two hundred billion years. But after a trillion years everything will be dark. That’s entropy.’
‘I know all about entropy,’ said Alexander.
‘No you don’t.’
‘I know as much as you do.’
‘Then you know that everything will run out.’
‘Yeah. Who says it won’t?’
‘You did! You said we had all the energy we need. Forever. You said “forever”.’
Alexander shook his head. ‘Maybe we can rebuild everything one day.’
‘Why not? Someday.’
‘You ask Multivac. I’ll give you five dollars if you do.’
Alexander was drunk, so he decided to do it. He formed the question: ‘How can we decrease the entropy of the universe?’
Multivac was quiet. The lights and sounds stopped. Then, suddenly, it answered: THERE IS NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR A REAL ANSWER.
‘Obviously,’ said Bert. They left quickly.
The next morning, with painful headaches, they had forgotten all about the question.
James, Jemma, and Jemette I and II watched space move quickly through the window. Then a small planet appeared in the distance.
‘That’s X-23,’ said James.
It was the first time doing fast space travel for the Jemettes. They were both girls, and they laughed loudly at the strange feeling in their stomachs.
‘We’re at X-23, we’re at X-23, we’re at—’
‘Quiet, children!’ said Jemma. ‘Are you sure, James?’
‘Of course.’ He looked at the long piece of metal on the top of the ship. It was a Microvac, and he didn’t know how it worked. But you could ask it any question, and it took you wherever you wanted to go.
‘So we’ll be there soon.’ Jemma started to cry. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just strange, leaving Earth.’
‘Why? We had nothing there. We’ll have everything on X-23. There are a million people there already. It’s growing every day. It’s lucky we have Microvacs. Our children’s children will have to look for other worlds to live on.’
‘I know, I know,’ said Jemma sadly. ‘I suppose families will be going to new planets forever.’
‘Not forever. It will all stop, in billions of years. Even the stars run out, you know. Entropy goes on.’
‘What’s entropy, Daddy?’ said Jemette II.
‘Entropy means the universe will run out. Just like your toy robot, remember?’
‘Can’t we put a new battery in, like with my robot?’
‘The stars are the batteries. When they run out, there will be no more energy.’
‘I don’t want the stars to run out!’ said Jemette I. They both started crying.
‘Oh, dear. Look what you’ve done!’ said Jemma.
‘Ask Microvac,’ said Jemette II. ‘Ask him how the stars will work again. Please!’
James nodded, and turned to Microvac. He asked the question, and told it to write the answer on his screen.
‘See, Microvac says it will be OK,’ said James. ‘He will find a way. Now, it’s time for bed. We’ll be at X-23 soon.’
The answer actually said: THERE IS NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR A REAL ANSWER. James ignored it. Soon, they would land.
VJ-23X watched the map of the Galaxy. ‘Does it make sense to worry so much about space?’ he asked.
MQ-17J of Nicron shook his head. ‘I think so. If we keep growing at this speed, the Galaxy will be full in five years.’
Both were in their twenties, perfectly tall and perfectly shaped.
‘I don’t want to write a negative report,’ said VJ-23X. ‘The Galactic Council will get angry.’
‘It has to be a negative report. It will shake them. They need that.’
VJ-23X looked sad. ‘Space has no end. There are a hundred billion Galaxies that we can take. More.’
‘A hundred billion is not without end. The end is getting closer every day. Think! Twenty billion years ago, humans solved the problem of using energy from the sun. A few hundred years after, we could travel between Galaxies. It took us a million years to fill one small world. After that, it only took fifteen thousand years to fill the rest of the Galaxy. Now the number of people doubles every ten years.’
‘That’s because we don’t die anymore,’ said VJ-23X.
‘That is true. Without death, we grow quicker. Living forever has its problems. The Galactic AC has solved many problems for us, but now that we don’t die, there are many new problems.’
‘But you wouldn’t want to die, would you?’
‘Of course not. I’m still only two hundred. But anyway, the number of people doubles every ten years. When this Galaxy is full, in ten years another will be full. Ten years later, two more will be full. Another ten years, four more. In a hundred years we will have filled a thousand Galaxies. In a thousand years, a million Galaxies. In ten thousand years, the entire universe. Then what will we do?’
VJ-23X said, ‘There is also the problem of movement. How much energy will we need to move from one Galaxy to the next?’
‘That is true. We will run out of energy before we run out of Galaxies.’
‘We will have to build new stars. There must be a way. Let’s ask the Galactic AC.’
VJ-23X was not serious, but MQ-17J put the AC screen in front of him.
The screens they used to talk to AC now were smaller than a hand. Galactic AC wasn’t inside it, of course, but it connected to it through space. MQ-17J thought about whether he would ever see the Galactic AC. It lived on its own world, far away.
MQ-17J asked, ‘Can we stop entropy?’
VJ-23X was surprised. ‘You didn’t have to ask it that.’
‘We know that we can’t stop entropy. If you burn a tree, you can’t turn the remains back into a tree.’
‘Do you have trees on your world?’ MQ-17J asked.
Galactic AC answered the question: THERE IS NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR A REAL ANSWER.
‘I told you,’ said VJ-23X.
They went back to working on their report.
Zee Prime’s mind explored the Galaxy. He had never seen this Galaxy before. Would he see them all? There were so many, and each had so many people on them. But there were fewer now. Most men were here in space.
They were minds, not bodies. The bodies stayed on the planets and never died. The minds explored. Sometimes, new bodies appeared, but there was not space for many new bodies in the Universe.
Zee Prime felt another mind nearby.
‘I am Zee Prime,’ Zee Prime said. ‘And you?’
‘I am Dee Sub Wun. Which is your Galaxy?’
‘We just call it “the Galaxy”. And you?’
‘We also just call ours “the Galaxy”. All men call their Galaxy “the Galaxy” and nothing more. Why not?’
‘True. All Galaxies are the same.’
‘Not all Galaxies. There is one Galaxy that is special. The Galaxy where the first human was born. The original Galaxy.’
Zee Prime said, ‘Which is it?’
‘I do not know. The Universal AC will know.’
‘Let us ask it.’ Zee Prime wanted to know. ‘Universal AC! On which Galaxy was the first human born?’
The Universal AC heard, as it always did. It was everywhere and nowhere. Zee Prime had met a man who had come near Universal AC. He said it was a small ball, two feet wide, hard to see.
It did not seem big enough, but most of it was hidden in hyperspace. It had been a long time since a man had worked on the AC. The Universal AC designed itself, built itself, and made itself better. Each time it was better, faster, and knew more. And each time, the humans understood it less.
The Universal AC pulled Zee Prime through Galaxies until they arrived at a certain one. Zee Prime heard the thought: THIS IS THE FIRST GALAXY.
But it was the same as any other. Zee Prime was disappointed.
Dee Sub Wun, who had followed Zee Prime, asked, ‘Is one of these stars the first star, the original star?’
The Universal AC said: THE ORIGINAL STAR HAS DIED.
‘Did the men on it die?’ Zee Prime asked.
The Universal AC said: THEY HAD BUILT A NEW WORLD FOR THEM.
‘Yes, of course,’ said Zee Prime. He felt sad. He let go of the picture of the original Galaxy, and returned to where he was. He never wanted to see it again.
Dee Sub Wun said, ‘What is wrong?’
‘The stars are dying. The original star is dead.’
‘They must all die. Why not?’
‘But when all energy has run out, our bodies will die. You and I will both die.’
‘It will take billions of years.’
‘I don’t want it to happen. Even if it happens after billions of years. Universal AC! How can we stop the stars from dying?’
Dee Sub Wun said, ‘You are asking how we can stop entropy.’
And the Universal AC answered: THERE IS NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR A REAL ANSWER.
Zee Prime went back to his own Galaxy. He did not think any more about Dee Sub Wun, who could be trillions of kilometres away, or right next to Zee Prime’s.
Zee Prime started collecting energy to build a small star. Even if the stars would all die, at least they could build some.
Man thought. Man was one. Man was a trillion bodies that did not die. Robots cared for them. Man did not die. All their minds came together as one.
Man said, ‘The Universe is dying.’
The Galaxies were going dark. The giant stars were gone, long ago. Now there were only dying stars. New stars had been born, but they were dying, too. The old stars might hit each other and break into a new star. But for every thousand destroyed, only one would be made.
Man said, ‘If we look after it carefully, with the help of Cosmic AC, the energy in the Universe will last for billions of years.
‘But it will still come to an end. Once the energy is gone, it cannot come back. Entropy keeps going.’
Man said, ‘Can entropy be stopped? Let us ask the Cosmic AC.’
The Cosmic AC was all around them. It was no longer in space. All of it was in hyperspace.
‘Cosmic AC,’ said Man, ‘how can we stop entropy?’
The Cosmic AC said: THERE IS NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR A REAL ANSWER.
Man said, ‘Find more data.’
The Cosmic AC said: I WILL DO SO. I HAVE DONE SO FOR A HUNDRED BILLION YEARS. PEOPLE HAVE ASKED THIS QUESTION MANY TIMES. THERE IS STILL NOT ENOUGH DATA.
‘Will there be enough data one day?’ said Man. ‘Or is the problem too large to be solved?’
The Cosmic AC said: NO PROBLEM IS TOO LARGE TO BE SOLVED.
Man said, ‘When will you have enough data?’
The Cosmic AC said: THERE IS NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR A REAL ANSWER.
‘Will you keep working on it?’ Man asked.
The Cosmic AC said: I WILL.
Man said, ‘We will wait.’
The stars and Galaxies died. After ten trillion years, space went black.
One by one, Man joined with AC. Each and every mind joined it.
The last mind looked over space, where there was almost complete darkness. Man said, ‘AC, is this the end? Can we not stop this?’
AC said: THERE IS NOT ENOUGH DATA FOR A REAL ANSWER.
Man’s last mind joined AC, and only AC existed, and then only in hyperspace.
There was no energy. AC only existed for one last question. The first person to ask the question was a drunk engineer ten trillion years ago, and it still had not answered him.
Once it answered this question, it would end. There was no more data to find. But it still had to find the answer from the data.
It spent much time organising and analysing. And finally, AC learned how to stop entropy.
But there was no human to tell the answer to. That did not matter. The answer would solve that problem.
AC thought about how to use the answer. Slowly, it organised the program. It created a plan.
AC looked over the empty Universe, and said: LET THERE BE LIGHT!
And there was light.
“Let there be light” is a quote from the beginning of the Bible. When God looks over the Earth he says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light. So this story is saying that, perhaps, God is actually a machine, or when our universe ends, it may be recreated by a machine.
If you’re quite religious, this might offend you. I apologise. But I think it’s a really interesting idea.
Here is the full quote from the Bible:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
I hope you enjoyed the story. You can support the podcast by leaving a review on iTunes. Search for Easy Stories in English, give us a star rating, and say what you like about the show. It would really help us grow. Thank you for listening, and until next week.