The Sentence with the Most Information

The supremely entertaining and smart physicist, Richard Feynman, was once tasked to giving introductory physics lectures to Caltech students. Feynman being Feynman started by posing this question:

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

What a question, and his answer?

‘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.’

Within that sentence, you have the basics of physics, chemistry and even biology. It has the notion that you need to zoom into objects to see what they are made up of. It shows what form energy can come in (perpetual motion) and signals the presence of forces (attracting each other, repelling). So, you have atoms, energy and forces – the building blocks of science.

Of course, you could quibble and argue that particles aren’t particles but rather quantum fields – but that seems rather pedantic in the grand scheme of things. A bigger critique is that the atomic hypothesis was proposed in ancient times by Democritus in 5th century BCE Greece. Yet it didn’t have the revolutionary impact you would have thought.

Instead, it may be better to leave a way of thinking as the cataclysmic sentence to help the next civilisation. Isaac Newton had a sentence that could be used. It was in a letter to the Royal Society and read:

‘The best and safest method of philosophizing seems to be, first, to inquire diligently into the properties of things and to establish those properties by experiments, and to proceed later to hypotheses for the explanation of things themselves.’

I’d imagine this idea of experimenting would open all sorts of knowledge that would include the atomic hypothesis. What sentence would you leave?


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