Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?TS Eliot
We are all somehow, someday and somewhere going to die. Some crossed the threshold in the distant past; others may have bought the farm (died) as you read this piece, meanwhile a good number still have a baggage of years ahead of them. Truth be told, we all will die sometime soon or later – a fact that even science bows to and is yet to overturn. Death is a fact of life we can’t escape; from the moment we were born, the process and prospects of our death got activated. If you are alive today, a simple reading will suggest that it is both a mystery and an indication of grace.
This piece is a call for us to spread that grace and gratitude by introspecting upon our entire life with the intention of finding the deepest and most meaningful sentence that is worth passing across; if this world was to end by means of a cataclysm. But before we get there, let me set this piece up, with the origin story of the most useful sentence in the world.
In the 1960s, Richard Feynman was asked to give a lecture titled: Introduction to Physics at Caltech. It is very useful for you to bear in mind that, the now very famous and highly regarded Feynman, was at that time not quite renowned. Nonetheless, the world at that time revered him for being a key and monumental brain on the building of the Atomic bomb. He had also taken the less travelled road leading to the Noble Prize and everyone knew or at least sensed he was going to get it. (I once wrote a piece on Feynman’s love letter to his 22 months death wife click on this link to read it if you haven’t already http://untolds.net/index.php/2019/11/27/love-after-death/ ).
On the first day of his lecture, unlike the first day of previous lecturers who spent a whole semester or two on the long history of physics, Feynman thought and decided otherwise. His opening line was “I could teach you about the history of these equations and formulas and how they work in different circumstances but I resolved not to”. He decided so, chiefly because that goal was unattainable, time constraining and not so useful. “Even in 40 years you can’t teach the complete history of physics” Feynman opined.
Instead, Feynman decided to start his lecture with a question, a question that his students had to contend with not just on that day but for the rest of their lives and one that hopefully, you too will have to contend with, too. That question was the following:
If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge or knowledge for that matter were to be destroyed, and only one sentence could be passed on to the next generations of creatures: what would be the best thing, the thing that contains the most information in the least number of words?
In other words, if the world were to end, and all knowledge was to be lost but we could only pass-on one sentence to the next generation; a sentence that contains the most amount of information, but which is expressed with the least possible words. What would that sentence be?
If it still isn’t, even though it should be, permit me to ask it another way. What if you were to pass by tomorrow, and all your life’s knowledge and experiences were to be lost, but you could pass-on one sentence to your immediate and/or extended family and to the world at large. Bearing in mind that the said sentence must contain the most amount of information and should be expressed in the least possible words. What would that sentence be?
Feynman being the very brilliant man we all regard him to be, and deservedly so, didn’t just pose the question. It would have seemed too conspicuous of him, even to the nerds of Caltech, so he went forward to give his response.
Feynman’s response to his own question during that opening lecture was the atomic hypothesis. He said; “I believe it is the atomic hypothesis or the atomic fact that all things are made out of atoms. Little particles in movable harmony and perpetual motion that attract each other in some distance apart but can never be squeezed into one another.”
Please go over it again.
I don’t know about you but my initial reaction to that answer was something like: Wait! What? It wasn’t clear to me that a man of Feynman’s standing will come up with such a question and provide an answer that had no deep meaning. That is what I thought until I found out that scientists for years had been tearing his sentence apart and rebuilding it from the ground up with very profound explanations. And at which point I was in complete awe.
Let’s explore Feynman’s response together, by looking at its intricate parts:
- “All things are made out of atoms” all things like cars, books, dresses, shoes, computers, Maggie, salt, rocks, watches, You, Me and everything that exist. Atoms are the building bricks of the whole universe. (it explains what matter is)
- “Little particles in movable harmony” atoms are moving all the time. They are in constant motion. What elucidates this are things like temperature, pressure, electricity, planes, trains. These explain how many atoms are moving and how fast they move. (this part explains the basic things about Matter)
- “Atoms attract each other in some distance apart but can never be squeezed into one another”. This is all of chemistry. Once you understand how atoms come together and make a molecule, you can start bringing molecules together to make things like the polio vaccine, antibiotics, engines, batteries, balloons. You can start understanding protein, DNA, RNA etc. (this explains how Matter interacts with each other)
This is what makes the sentence so cool, the fact that it contains everything. More about the natural world and how to manipulate it is contained in that sentence, but for the sake of this piece, I decided to stop there.
Unfortunately, Feynman’s response answers to almost everything in the physical world but falls short in things like emotion, love, music, taste and God.
Lately, Feynman’s question has been resurrected with the current coronavirus pandemic. With things falling apart, it became a challenge to spend quality time with the older people in one’s family with the aim of figuring out what important sentence they thought was most useful to transmit. It is dreadful to start from scratch, finding answers to questions our elders may already have. The optimal strategy is to admit you don’t yet know the answer and ask them.
Matt Kielty and Rachael Cusick emailed the Feynman question to a group of musicians, writers and top performers and received a raft of sentences. Here are a hand few of these MUS “Most useful sentence”
“You will die and that is the most important thing that will happen to you” writer Motitiol Deuti she went a little further to explain, “I think most people get that they are going to die, but what they miss is the fact that, death is the most important thing that will happen to them. We are the only creature to understand death and live our whole lives with the knowledge of our death. We live in these decaying bodies but feel special. Hence as we live, we should seek out religion and art to strengthen our strange relationship with death”
“The willingness to respond creatively to fear without trying to eradicate the source of the fear is by far the greatest of skills” Scientist Steven Pinker
“Race isn’t real until you make it real; at which point it will become the biggest problem in the whole world” Core Jefferson, TV host and television writer. He pushed it a little further by ruminating, introspecting and asking questions like “what is even bigger than racism? That should be fear – right” with which you see how his life squares neatly in that. His mom was white, his dad black and they got married. This marriage led to his maternal family disowning his mom for her entire life. Hence, Jefferson lived his life never meeting his grandparents, he sent them letters, each one of which they sent back until he stopped sending. The question is he has been asking since then is “what can someone, especially a family member do that will make you hate them permanently? Among all the answers one can conjure up, one’s skin colour is the least significant. Hence, fear is a bigger problem, a problem that prevents us from travelling, geopolitics, to people’s unwillingness to try new things and meet new people. My new and better sentence now after all this rambling is: “The only thing you are innately afraid of are falling and loud noises; the other fears are learned or largely negligible”
God is a female and she is large as a three-storied building by writer Lady Pink.
These are some out of the thousand responses to Feynman’s question. I am very much delighted to see people contending with this question. My plea is that you take the time to think what your response is and drop it in the comment section. It can be how you want it to be, but remember, once it gets torn apart by anyone of interest it might be life-changing to that person. Don’t let this chance go to waste, I am counting on you all.
Like my cousin, John Divine once said: “you’re a legend if you read this far”.
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Verberi Leslie Micheal