I'm looking for a short story in which a group is told that if they build a machine the world will end and they build it anyway. The world ends.

I'm almost positive it's an Isaac Asimov story.

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    It was skimpy, but it elicited some wonderful answers. – hardmath Jun 28 '14 at 3:14
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    Language/nationality of the book? Age of the book? Short story/full novel? Anything you remember about the cover, character names, more plot details? – Moogle Jun 28 '14 at 16:58
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    O Great Fox, you haven't visited this website since "Jun 27 at 4:54", the moment you asked the question (and before any of the answers came in). Any chance you might visit this question again and see if any of the answers are what you had in mind? – ShreevatsaR Jul 11 '14 at 3:14

Hmm ... I'm not coming up with any Asimov story on that, but an Arthur C. Clarke story, The Nine Billion Names of God, was published in Thinking Machines, one of Asimov's young adult anthologies and features a group of monks installing and programming a computer to calculate the permutations of God's name, something which is foretold to end the world.

It does.

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    Yeah, this was exactly the one I thought of as well. The last line of that story is amazing. – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Jun 27 '14 at 7:14
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    This became a challenge on codegolf.stackexchange. Which means that people have generated all the names according to the rules of the book (or something similar). In case anyone's interested here's the question: codegolf.stackexchange.com/questions/28838/… – slebetman Jun 27 '14 at 8:50
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    @slebetman: Those lunatics will kill us all! – James Sheridan Jun 27 '14 at 9:20
  • There is also an old math.SE answer addressing how many letters the alphabet needs to have had. – Bobson Jun 27 '14 at 15:52
  • Are you sure about the Asimov anthology? I can find nothing about that on the web. – Tom Zych Jun 29 '14 at 4:19

This does not exactly match the description (though it does feature machines being built, and the world ending, sort of), but Asimov has said multiple times that when someone can't remember the name of a story of his, the story is almost always 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.

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    What, not Nightfall? I'm disappointed. – Mr Lister Jun 27 '14 at 12:34
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    Yes, The Last Question is the one I thought it might be, though like almost everyone else I could not remember its name (though I am sure I could have googled it because I remembered the names of the computers). – RBarryYoung Jun 27 '14 at 15:27
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    @MrLister Because no one has any trouble remembering Nightfall's name, it's the most overexposed story Asimov ever wrote. The Last Question on the other hand is a story that leaves just as big an impression (bigger, IMHO), but strangely is virtually never talked about nor hyped by other writers, editors or historians, and so its name just doesn't come to mind as easily. – RBarryYoung Jun 27 '14 at 15:32
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    @RBarry It's even worse than not remembering the name I find: I've met other people and had the problem myself of not even being absolutely certain that it was an Asimov story, after reading it and trying to remember it some time later. In my opinion his best short story - I read that Asimov actually shared my opinion in that regard :-) – Voo Jun 27 '14 at 22:17
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    As a Douglas Adams fan, I believe his 42 "what was the question" to bigger and bigger computers is an hommage to that Asimov Story. I'm happy you talked about it. Thanks a lot. – Olivier Dulac Jul 10 '14 at 17:27

The only Asimov stories that come to mind, are The Gods Themselves and The End of Eternity, but neither fits your description completely.

In The Gods Themselves, descriptions to build a source of unlimited power are sent from another universe. Another faction from that universe tries to warn the humans that building that machine will alter the structure of our universe, leading to its destruction. The machine is built anyway,

but due to a lucky discovery, a way is found to cancel the negative effects of it.

The world does not come to an end.

In End of Eternity, the inventor of a time machine needs to be sent back into time to invent his machine. The protagonist becomes convinced that this time machine is a bad thing to have, so he tries to stop this, thereby altering his present.
So the world doesn't end, just his version of it. But it is seen as a good thing, at least by the protagonist.


Perhaps you're thinking of the story "Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation" by Larry Niven.

Niven borrowed the title of a mathematics paper by Frank J. Tipler for this look at the principle of "cosmic censorship," the way the universe protects itself (sometimes rather violently) from the paradoxes implied by time travel.

In the story, one faction in an interplanetary war knows how to build a time machine, but they wonder why nobody has ever build one.

As it turns out, every civilisation that has ever tried to build one, was destroyed by natural causes before they could finish it, as a result of the "cosmic censorship" mentioned above.

So they plan to "leak" the plans for building one to the enemy, so that the enemy will try to build it and be destroyed. Clever, eh? But then, before they can do so, their own world is destroyed by natural causes.


I wonder if you are thinking of "The Dead Past"? It's not a case of the world ending, but rather of the world irrevocably changing due to

permanent loss of privacy for everyone.

The machine had already been built, but was under strict government control until the protagonists publish the plans.

  • Good thought on that one, although IIRC, there was no warning not to build it namely because the government tried to convince people it was impossible due to knowing such side effects. – FuzzyBoots Jun 28 '14 at 14:21
  • No. The Government pretended that it had built one and published supposed results. It didn't know that a home version could be built until too late. – Oldcat Jul 2 '14 at 19:26

I'm looking for a short story in which a group is told that if they build a machine the world will end and they build it anyway. The world ends.

This doesn't sound like any Asimov story I've ever read - especially not that bit about "the world ends". And I've read a lot of Asimov stories! I like to think I've read all his science fiction stories.

That outcome of "the world ends" just doesn't remind me of any story of his. Asimov tended to write optimistic stories where technology and science solved problems, rather than caused them (there are some exceptions, of course). A story about a machine bringing about the end of the world, and people stubbornly building it despite a warning not to, and succeeding, just doesn't seem like his style.

I think the only story that even remotely touches on a world ending in the literal sense is 'The Last Question', which features the ultimate heat death of the universe as a main plot point. However, this wasn't caused by a machine built by anyone: it's just the inevitable outcome of the universe, which people are actually trying to prevent, rather than cause.

Unless, as some people here are assuming, you mean a metaphorical ending. As I said, there were exceptions to Asimov's pro-science pro-technology optimism. For example, the world as we know it does come to an end in the story 'The Dead Past', where people build a machine that views the past, despite the government telling everybody this can't be done. The climax of the story involves a representative from the government explaining to the people who built the machine how they've ended the world as we know it: privacy no longer exists.

But, that doesn't seem like the story you're asking about.

There's also the Electron Pump that scientists build in 'The Gods Themselves'. But, in that case, the warnings come from people in the parallel universe that the Pump is linked to. The popular view here is that the Pump is A Very Good Thing. And, even when some scientists do demonstrate that the Pump has some very long-term bad effects... they also find a solution. The world doesn't end. And, that's not a short story - it's a novel.

I can't think of any Asimov story that fits your description. Sorry.

Unfortunately, your description also doesn't sound like any other story I've ever read. Except maybe 'The Nine Billion Names of God' mentioned by Sean Duggan in this thread. It was written by Arthur C Clarke, but a lot of people confuse their stories and think Clarke's stories were written by Asimov and vice versa.


The Nine Billion Names of God by A. C. Clarke. Which is a Sci-Fi short story involving a bunch of monks who use computers to calculate all possible names of God.

  • Can you provide examples of how/why this fits the OP's requirements? What part of the story matches the OP's description? – Möoz Dec 14 '15 at 2:23

This sounds like 'The Last Question'. Maybe there's some other Asimov story out there that better fits this description but the 'The Last Question' is probably one of my favorite SF stories ever. The world ends all right in the story so maybe that is the one?

  • Hello and welcome to SFF! We appreciate your input, but could you provide more evidence of why you think it may be 'The Last Question'? Thanks – Often Right Jun 29 '14 at 3:13

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