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I have a distant memory of a story which involves a person conversing with an intelligent space probe before it's launched on a long-term mission. As I recall it, their conversation goes something vaguely like this:

  • What will you do when you return to earth and humans are extinct and the planet is covered in dust ?

  • I will measure the dust.

  • Why ? Who will ever know the results ?

  • They will be known to science.

Now the thing is, it might not be a story in it's own right (I mean, there's not much more to it than that so far as I can remember), but it might actually have been a story told by one character to another in a larger work (possibly not even science-fiction) or even a movie.

Can anyone place this for me please ? (Author, and name of the story or the work containing it).

(Background: I think the power of the sentiment expressed in those few lines is fantastic, and I find myself using "It will be known to science!" to justify all sorts of activities of dubious value but high intrinsic interest... although the most exceptionally pointless projects might get a "I will measure the dust!" instead. But I'd really like to track it back to the source and see in what spirit the original author intended it as I have no memory of that at all.)

Update: thinking some more about this, and the possibility of a movie/visual media connection, I remembered I'd read quite a lot of manga/indie comics back in the late 80s/early 90s. The classic "2001 Nights" series in particular sprung to mind, and I can imagine the rather short story fitting the format quite well. I don't have my hardcopies of "2001 Nights" any more, but the whole series is (amazingly) available online. I instantly leapt to the story "I am rocket" (which is itself a continuation of "Discovery"), but while those are related in spirit, they're definitely not the story I'm thinking of. (There are 9 volumes with 80 pages each, unfortunately not particularly rapidly browsable or text-searchable. Maybe, just maybe, it's in there somewhere... I intend to re-read the lot over the next few days, but I'm happy to be beaten to it if anyone else can locate it).

Update (18 months after question was asked): I started thinking it might not actually have been "dust", but something else: rubble?... bones??... permafrost???. Bit of searching on Google Books led to the solution; see my answer below.

  • 2
    This sounds like a good story. – Beska Feb 10 '11 at 14:15
  • I keep coming back to this question trying to answer it for the last couple of days. This question is really bugging me.... – Darius Feb 17 '11 at 23:38
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    Well I'm disappointed this has been closed. The question seems perfectly well defined to me, and any answers can clearly be checked as being right or wrong. – timday Feb 18 '11 at 10:18
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    @OpaCitiZen: No not me. This is the only SF/F forum I've ever joined on the net, 'cos it was so easy to migrate my login from SO etc. – timday Feb 28 '11 at 15:53
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    Spend the afternoon going thru my collection, reading the the books I thought would be candidates, but no luck so far. But i'm sure I've read it. Causing a real nagging feeling in a part of my brain. Wil keep looking, but it could take same time... Thinking about it again, wasn't it from a short story in some omnibus? – MarcelDevG Mar 6 '11 at 22:02
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I finally found it! Brian W Aldiss did a (very) short story "Working in the Spaceship Yards" (1969); here's the significant extract:

... We were building Q-line ships when I was in the shipyard. They were the experimental ones. The Ql, the Q2, the Q3, had each been completed, had been towed out into orbit beyond Mars, and triggered off towards Alpha Centauri. Nothing was ever heard of them again. Perhaps they are making a tour of the entire universe, and will return to the solar system when the sun is ten kilometres deep in permafrost. Anyhow, I shan't live to see the day.

It was no fun building those ships. They had no luxury, no living quarters, no furnishings, no galleys, no miles and miles of carpeting and all the other paraphernalia of a proper spaceship. There was very little we could take as supplementary income. The computers that crewed them lived very austere lives.

'The sun will be ten kilometres deep in permafrost by the time you get back to the solar system!' I told BALL, the computer on the Q3, as we walled him in. 'What will you do then?'

'I shall measure the permafrost.'

I've noticed that about the truth. You don't expect it, so it often sounds like a joke. Computers and robots sound funny quite often because they have no roles to play. They just tell the truth. I asked this BALL, 'Who will you be measuring this permafrost for?'

'I shall be measuring it for its intrinsic interest.'

'Even if there are no human beings around to be interested?'

'You misunderstand the meaning of intrinsic.'

Each of these Q ships cost more than the entire annual national income of a state like Great Britain. Zip, out into the universe they went. Never seen again! My handiwork. All those miles of beautiful seamless welding. My life's work.

I say computers tell the truth. It is only the truth as they see it. Things go on that none of us see. Should we include them in our personal truth or not? ...

Somehow I remembered it as dust instead of permafrost and reduced it to a snappier "it will be known to science!". But the sentiment is much the same; just delicious!

In the rest of the rather inconclusive story, the protagonist muses on the Human Condition, and "Universal" vs. "Personal" Truths. Seems to be included in several collections.

  • 1
    This may help. – AncientSwordRage Aug 11 '12 at 23:09
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    Glad this question is finally answered! – Jeff Aug 12 '12 at 1:20
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    I thought this one was going to remain unanswered for eternity, way to go! – Mark Rogers Aug 12 '12 at 16:35
  • And thanks for posting back here! – Wikis Aug 12 '12 at 20:40
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    I like your version better. – Beta Aug 13 '12 at 19:18
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by total random happenstance, I came across a reference to Charles Pellegrino's novel "Dust". Look here, under this entry for "Enceladus":

In Charles Pellegrino's Dust, the narrative switches periodically to a robotic probe landing on Enceladus in search of life.

Does this sound like the book you remember?

  • +1 for finally having an answer, even if I have no idea as to the correctness. – Jeff Apr 18 '11 at 20:28
  • Hmm, the Amazon page for that book doesn't mention the probe. – user1027 Apr 18 '11 at 20:56
  • Found it. The name of the probe is Darwin II. – user1027 Apr 18 '11 at 21:13
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    Using Amazon's Search inside this book feature, I don't think this is it. The probe is melting its way through the ice on the surface of Enceladus, so it can then search the oceans beneath. Not searching dust. Also the excerpts don't indicate that the probe is intelligent or talking to someone like the question describes. – user1027 Apr 18 '11 at 21:34
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    Sorry, definitely not it; never come across that book before (although it does look kind of fun). – timday Jan 15 '12 at 19:00
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Could this be Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End? In the final part of this novel, a protagonist returns to Earth when there's no humans left there for his company. He does observations.

This differs somewhat from what you're asking for both because an alien race still benefits from his results even if humans don't. Also, his motivation is different: he's not staying to do observations, but staying for sentimental reasons and does observations for without other humans he has lots of time on his hands and not much to do.

  • Hmmm interesting. I've certainly read it, many years ago. Seems unlikely that's the source but I will certainly be skimming through the end-pages next time I come across a copy to see if I actually have some mis-remembering of it. – timday Mar 26 '12 at 12:59
  • @timday Any luck? Is this the book? – AncientSwordRage May 4 '12 at 19:29
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    @Pureferret: No, see my answer. – timday Aug 11 '12 at 23:22

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