May 9, 2016 9:39 pm

Isaac Asimov, Joe Rogan and the Death and Rebirth of the Universe

Cover of "Nine Tomorrows", the out-of-print collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov that includes the story, "The Last Question."

The cover of my sadly out-of-print copy of “Nine Tomorrows” by Isaac Asimov.

It’s not often that we get to put Isaac Asimov and Joe Rogan together in the same sentence, but stick with me on this one and you’ll see why it makes perfect sense.

In last week’s episode of StarTalk Radio, “Cosmic Queries: A Stellar Smorgasbord,” guest astrophysicist Charles Liu, host Neil deGrasse Tyson and co-host Chuck Nice were talking about the heat death of the universe. It’s the idea that once star formation has ceased, and all the stars that have been formed have run out of fuel, whatever’s left, like black holes and white dwarfs, will be swallowed up by the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. And once that’s happened, and even those black holes have evaporated through Hawking Radiation, all that will be left are electrons and photons, and even they will be too far apart, due to galactic expansion, to interact.

The idea of the heat death of the universe is the ultimate expression of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy always increases, meaning that eventually, our universe will decay into a state of maximum disorder.

At this point in the episode, Charles mentions one of my all-time favorite Isaac Asimov stories, “The Last Question.” In the story, a couple of computer programmers sharing a bottle, ask Multivac (a highly advanced supercomputer) whether entropy can be reversed… and the rest is history.

The story, which I highly recommend you read, appeared in the collection Nine Tomorrows, which is now out-of-print. Luckily, when I mentioned the book on Twitter today, a fan found a link to an online version of the story: “The Last Question“.

After I re-read the story today, I realized that it reminded me of something. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that it reminded me of a story that Joe Rogan told Neil deGrasse Tyson when Joe was our guest on StarTalk.

“I had a bit about a ‘Big Bang machine.’ And the idea was that, like, scientists have never figured out what started out the Big Bang. And then I think that 14 billion years ago there were some scientists, and they were probably autistic, and they were on anti-anxiety medication and drinking Red Bulls, and nobody touched them ever. And one day, they made a Big Bang machine. And one guy sat around and said, “I’ll press it” and he hit the button and the whole thing restarted. And that is the cycle of humanity: it goes from single celled organism, to multi-celled organism, to conscious entity, to autistic dude who figures out how to make a Big Bang machine, to hitting the button, and it happens every 14 billion years. And that is the birth and the death of the universe, infinity.”

Now that might give you a hint as to what “The Last Question” is about – but even if it does, that shouldn’t stop you from reading Asimov’s story.

And, if you want to hear Joe tell Neil that story in his own, inimitable way, you can listen to our episode, The Joe Rogan Experience, at about the 6 minute and 45 second mark. (Adult Language Warning!)

I will leave you with my own story about Isaac Asimov. When I was a high school student, I got to meet him when he was a guest speaker at the yearbook convention I attended. I had brought a copy of Nine Tomorrows to the convention, in the hopes that I might get to meet him and have him sign it. Sure enough, my advisor came up to me at one point and said, “Jeff, I’d like you to meet Isaac Asimov.” I stammered, reached into my bag, and pulled out my dog-eared copy and asked for his autograph. He went to the front of the book to sign it, and I said, “Excuse me. I have a favorite story of yours. Would you mind signing it there?” He asked what it was, and when I said it was “The Last Question,” he replied, “That’s my favorite story, too.”

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!
–Jeffrey Simons

Get the most out of StarTalk!

Ad-Free Audio Downloads
Ad-Free Video Episodes
Stickers & Mugs
Live Streams with Neil
Priority Cosmic Queries
Early-Access Videos
Learn the Meaning of Life
...and much more