Cataclysmic Feelings

A thought experiment on the value of science turns into a digression about emotional trivialities.

“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?”

This question was posed by the legendary physicist Richard Feynman. He was asked to revamp the physics curriculum for undergraduate students at Cal Tech. The goal was to explain to them why physics mattered and how it should be taught to students in the hope of inspiring them to become physicists. Here was his answer to his own question:

I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

He then goes on to explain that this one sentence would open up a world of scientific inquiry for a civilization eager to explore it. (You can read the whole lecture here.)

I learned about all of this from a recent episode of Radiolab, a podcast/radio program I enjoy a great deal. But I hated this episode. Hate is the right word. Hate. (And I am not alone.) The set-up was fascinating, as was the initial illumination of what Feynman was getting at. The idea for the show itself was great as well. They set out to ask experts from a wide swath of life what their one sentence would be.

There was some handwringing, apparently, about whether to even air this episode, which was apparently a year in the making. Host Jad Abumrad explained that the pandemic and the lockdown made it feel inappropriate to even air this episode. He sent out an email to his staff saying “I don’t think we should do this right now.” But then, he explained, his thinking shifted and he thought this is the kind of thing we “ought to do right now.”

So let me cut to the chase and tell you what I hoped for. I wanted to hear an engineer answer Feynman’s question. And a mathematician. I wanted to hear from medical doctors, political scientists, geneticists, economists, legal scholars, and historians. I wanted to know what head start they would give a society starting from scratch.

This is an amazing exercise: “Boil down the most important insight from your life’s work—and the work of everyone else in your discipline—into the most information-filled sentence possible for the purpose of giving a new civilization a head start.”

That would be fascinating. It would, in part, be a technical version of the blind men and the elephant. It would reveal how different experts weigh the utility of different forms of knowledge.

By the way, as awesome as that would be, I’m not a gross materialist or technocrat. I would love the opportunity to hear a theologian—of any denomination—offer a single sentence to guide a new civilization. What guidance would a Christian scholar give? A Buddhist? A Muslim? Philosophers might have something intriguing to say, too.

Instead, I mostly heard a lot of nonsense and preening.

Apparently they talked to a very large group of people, but only a handful made the cut. The first out of the block was Caitlin Doughty, a writer and mortician, who thought it vital to tell the sentient inheritors of the Earth, “You will die, and that’s the most important thing.” Next came Esperanza Spalding, who gave an interesting (but familiar) summary of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone in order to set up the idea that it’s important to “respond creatively to fear.”

Cord Jefferson, a Hollywood screenwriter, first offered the following: “Race isn’t real unless you make it real, at which point it will become the biggest problem in the whole world.” But then he switched to a sermonette on how fear is the root of all of our problems. “The only things you’re innately afraid of are falling and loud noises the rest of your fears are learned and mostly negligible.” (So much for the “most information-filled sentence,” singular.)

Merrill Garbus, a musician, also thinks fear is a big problem. She thought it would be most helpful to sing her sentence. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand the words.

I’ve been taking them in order, but you get the point. Other contributions included the vital importance of telling these new beings that God is dead, that God is a woman, that everything is connected. The writer Nicholson Baker came within orbit of an interesting point. He noted that if, say, a “super-intelligent form of seal” (yes, seals) inherited Feynman’s sentence it wouldn’t be particularly useful for their needs. They’d want to figure out how to get around the beach and maybe invent a slide that gets them into the water faster. If you gave them the atomic hypothesis “What is that very bright seal going to do?” Baker asks. Invent a nuclear bomb?

He then left orbit. Instead he suggested that we tell them, “You know more than you can say.” It was an interesting little disquisition on how words don’t fully capture reality. But if I wanted to build a civilization, I’d use the slip of paper this insight came on as kindling for a fire.

After all, how would the seals benefit from this insight? How would it get them closer to a beach slide? For that matter, how would telling them that they’ll die one day or that God is a woman or that she doesn’t exist be of any help in that, or any other effort? I have to assume that seals have a bunch of reasonable fears beyond falling and loud noises—killer whales and sharks come to mind—but I have no idea if they have a concept of race.

The penultimate contributor was perhaps the biggest disappointment. Futurist Jaron Lanier, who is actually friends with Fryman, rejected the whole premise. He was against helping at all. Our successors will discover all that other stuff in their own time, he explained. But if we left them the atomic hypothesis, they might invent something terrible, like the atomic bomb or, I kid you not, the internet.

One Reddit commenter hit the nail on the head when he or she said, “They destroyed an exceptional topic and made [it] into a therapy session for sad people.”

But what bothered me about this episode wasn’t just the blown opportunity to convey really interesting information, but the assumptions that went into producing this program in the first place.

There is an amazing amount of ingratitude embedded in those assumptions, made all the more appalling by the fact that Radiolab is often great at exploring the value of science. In this episode, while conceding that the Feynman hypothesis would illuminate the path to understanding genetics, biology, engineering, and, of course, physics—as well as all the material things these disciplines provide, from vaccines and electric light bulbs to spaceships and electron microscopes to the very podcast that pays their bills—they corralled a wide assortment of people to say, “Feh.” The best guidance you could give a new civilization is stuff you’d read on the bulletin board outside the office of a women’s studies professor or maybe the school therapist.

We’ve spent thousands of years clawing out of a natural environment where it was normal for humans, including babies, to die in pain. We created machines and other technology, including political technology, that made the creation of art and beauty and long fulfilled lives possible. And it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that we might owe more to the aqueduct, the cotton gin, the microchip, or the Constitution than we do to a Hollywood screenwriter who struggled with racism or an artist who thinks the one thing the next civilization needs most is a painting of God as a woman.

It is just staggering how much these people take for granted. But that doesn’t even capture their contempt. The upshot of most of their answers is that the stuff they are taking for granted doesn’t even really matter or might even be bad. What matters is their feelings and their little pet projects and grievances. It’s like they’re holding a seminar on diversity training on a ship at sea as the iceberg cuts a swath through the hull. And rather than think seriously about how to survive or help others survive, they’re desperate to make one last point about the importance of self-esteem or maybe NEA funding.

There was a time in America when practical knowledge was recognized as vital to improving the material conditions of Americans. Fighting poverty and disease was something people with knowledge of the world were supposed to be dedicated to. To the extent political or ideological considerations enter into this, there were certainly leftwing and rightwing versions of this worldview. Some were more concerned with saving the poor, others with saving souls, and many who thought you could only do the former by succeeding at the latter. Others thought getting the political conditions right—a new science of politics in the words of the founders—was essential to unleash the prosperity that would make both possible.

Marc Andreessen has written an interesting essay, “A Time to Build,” that harkens back to this broad Western, tradition. I have my disagreements with his agenda, but at least he understands that improving man’s estate, in the words of Francis Bacon, is an important civilizational goal—at least for a civilization with some confidence in it itself and its abilities. He would have been a fantastic contributor.

Meanwhile, it’s like these people, both the producers and contributors, think feelings are paramount. It’s as if they have played with their own words and feelings for so long, that things—running water, food, penicillin, etc.—are trivialities. Now, I believe words are more important than things in that words give things context and they focus the mind toward productive ends. But what was on display in this program reflected an insular and selfish love of clever affirmation as its own reward.

If a band of humans or intelligent apes or German shepherds survived Feynman’s cataclysm on some remote island, and they found slips of paper containing the wisdom-pearls on offer here, they get themselves no closer to escaping poverty, disease, or even enlightenment. Instead, they’d think the previous masters of this planet had it coming—and they’d be right.

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.