Apr 18, 2020

The Cataclysm Sentence

One day in 1961, the famous physicist Richard Feynman stepped in front of a Caltech lecture hall and posed this question to a group of undergraduate students: “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?” Now, Feynman had an answer to his own question - a good one. But his question got the entire team at Radiolab wondering, what did his sentence leave out? So we posed Feynman’s cataclysm question to some of our favorite writers, artists, historians, futurists - all kinds of great thinkers. We asked them, “What’s the one sentence you would want to pass on to the next generation that would contain the most information in the fewest words?” What came back was an explosive collage of what it means to be alive right here and now, and what we want to say before we go.

Featuring:

Richard Feynman, physicist (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out)

Caitlin Doughty, mortician (Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs)

Esperanza Spalding, musician (12 Little Spells)

Cord Jefferson, writer (Watchmen)

Merrill Garbus, musician (I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life)

Jenny Odell, writer (How to do Nothing)

Maria Popova, writer (Brainpickings)

Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist (The Gardener and the Carpenter)

Rebecca Sugar, animator (Steven Universe)

Nicholson Baker, writer (Substitute)

James Gleick, writer (Time Travel)

Lady Pink, artist (too many amazing works to pick just one)

Jenny Hollwell, writer (Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe)

Jaron Lanier, futurist (Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now)

Missy Mazzoli, composer (Proving Up)

This episode was produced by Matt Kielty and Rachael Cusick, with help from Jeremy Bloom, Zakiya Gibbons, and the entire Radiolab staff. 

 

Special Thanks to:

Ella Frances Sanders, and her book, "Eating the Sun", for inspiring this whole episode.

Caltech for letting us use original audio of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. The entirety of the lectures are available to read for free online at www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu.

 

All the musicians who helped make the Primordial Chord, including:

Siavash Kamkar, from Iran 

Koosha Pashangpour, from Iran

Curtis MacDonald, from Canada

Meade Bernard, from US

Barnaby Rea, from UK

Liav Kerbel, from Belgium

Sam Crittenden, from US

Saskia Lankhoorn, from Netherlands

Bryan Harris, from US

Amelia Watkins, from Canada

Claire James, from US

Ilario Morciano, from Italy

Matthias Kowalczyk, from Germany

Solmaz Badri, from Iran

 

All the wonderful people we interviewed for sentences but weren’t able to fit in this episode, including: Daniel Abrahm, Julia Alvarez, Aimee Bender, Sandra Cisneros, Stanley Chen, Lewis Dartnell, Ann Druyan, Rose Eveleth, Ty Frank, Julia Galef, Ross Gay, Gary Green, Cesar Harada, Dolores Huerta, Robin Hunicke, Brittany Kamai, Priya Krishna, Ken Liu, Carmen Maria Machado, James Martin, Judith Matloff, Ryan McMahon, Hasan Minhaj, Lorrie Moore, Priya Natarajan, Larry Owens, Sunni Patterson, Amy Pearl, Alison Roman, Domee Shi, Will Shortz, Sam Stein, Sohaib Sultan, Kara Swisher, Jill Tarter, Olive Watkins, Reggie Watts, Deborah Waxman, Alex Wellerstein, Caveh Zahedi.



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JAD ABUMRAD: Before we begin, just want to let you know this episode contains a couple moments of explicit language.

 

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

JAD: Hey, this is Jad Abumrad. And today we’re gonna bring you an episode that we began working on about a year ago, and as we were getting close to finishing, everything that happened happened. The pandemic, the lockdown. And for a bit, we really weren’t sure if this was the right episode to put out in this moment. I even sent out in an email to the entire staff saying I don’t think we should do this right now. But I don't know, as we’ve been working on drafts, there came a point where my thinking kind of shifted. Like oh, maybe this is something we can put out into the world right now. Like, maybe this is something we ought to do.

 

RACHAEL CUSICK: All right. Hello?

 

JAD: Okay, so this episode took the entire staff to put together, but it really began with one of our producers, Rachael Cusick.

 

JAD: What’s happening Rachael Cusick?

 

RACHAEL: Not much, Jad Abumrad. Just stretching. Watching you eat a sandwich. Living life.

 

JAD: I’m sorry. Living life?

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

JAD: All right.

 

RACHAEL: Cool.

 

JAD: All right, now that I’ve made a mess of my sitting area, so how did you -- maybe take me back to the moment you -- you -- how did you bump into this?

 

RACHAEL: Okay. So I bumped into this idea because of this book that is in my hand right now. It's called Eating the Sun. And basically, I got pulled into this book because I was like, okay, eating.

 

JAD: Eating.

 

RACHAEL: That's pretty much all I need. [laughs] Just have that title in anything and I'm like, I'm sold. Send me a copy.

 

JAD: You are the foodiest among us.

 

RACHAEL: I am the foodiest. I love food so much. And so I thought this was gonna be about food. And this book comes, and each page is a different musing on science. Wonky wonky. But I'll just read a few: Planetary Motion; What is Heat?; Milky Solar Galaxy System. So they're all kind of like universe-y reflections. Anyway, pretty early on I'm flipping these pages and on, like, page 17, I come across this thing with Richard Feynman and this prompt that he gave in this lecture series back in the 1960s. And I was like, "Wow. That is perhaps the, like, coolest question I've ever seen this year." Okay, ready? Ready? Hold on, hold on.

 

JAD: Wait, wait. Before you do that, maybe just set up, like, who Richard Feynman is?

 

RACHAEL: Okay. So Richard Feynman, this famous physicist. At the time, he was like a whippersnapper of Cal Tech. I imagine there was like a soundtrack, it's like Stayin' Alive, Stayin' Alive every time he, like, walked onto campus. He was like the hotshot. I think he had ...

 

JAD: He was pretty attractive, too.

 

RACHAEL: He was! He was a handsome guy.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: Slicked back hair. So he was famous. He had not yet won the Nobel Prize, but he was, like, on his way to do it. He had just worked on the atomic bomb. Everyone kind of knew who he was. But at the same time he was exploding on Cal Tech's campus, Cal Tech was having a problem because physics was so boring at the time. Like, they could not get anyone to, like, come into an introductory physics class and get excited about it. So they tapped Richard Feynman to redo the physics curriculum for Physics 101. And so he was like, "Fine, I'll do it once but, like, that's it. You, like, take notes because I'm done after this." And so he just, like, took at redefining what physics should be as an introductory thing. So I actually went and found audio of this lecture.

 

JAD: Oh, I think I've actually seen photos of this. Black and white. He's at the front of a classroom in front of a chalkboard.

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: For two years, I'm gonna lecture you on physics. I'm gonna lecture from the point of view that you are all going to be physicists. It's not the case of course, but that's what every professor in every subject does. So assuming that you're going to be physicists, you’re going to have a lot to study.]

 

RACHAEL: Now, typically the way that Physics 101 used to be taught ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: There's 200 years of the most rapidly-developing batch of knowledge that there is.]

 

RACHAEL: People spent, like, an entire semester of physics learning about, like, the history of physics.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: There's so much in fact, that you might think that you can't learn all of it in four years. And you can't. You have to go to graduate school, too.]

 

RACHAEL: They didn't learn anything kind of like poetic.

 

JAD: Mm-hmm.

 

RACHAEL: So Feynman, before he launches into his lecture, he's like ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: Well, what should we teach first, if we're going to teach?]

 

RACHAEL: Look, I could teach you about the history of these equations and the formulas.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: And then just showing how they work in all the various circumstances.]

 

RACHAEL: But he doesn't. Instead ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: Now ...]

 

RACHAEL: ... Feynman opens his entire lecture ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: The first lecture ...]

 

RACHAEL: ... with this question.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: If in a certain cataclysm, where all of the scientific knowledge is to be destroyed, but only sentence is to be passed down 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?]

 

RACHAEL: So that is the question.

 

JAD: So if the world ends and all information is gone?

 

RACHAEL: But we can only pass on one sentence to the next generation.

 

JAD: There's a little scrap of paper fluttering in the post-apocalyptic breeze.

 

RACHAEL: Yes, but it has to be the least amount of words with the most amount of information. So I can't give you, like, a textbook, you know?

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

RACHAEL: There has to be one thing that's concise and can unlock the universe.

 

JAD: Like, what would you write on the paper?

 

RACHAEL: Well, yeah. What would you do to, like, pass the baton to the next generation with the simplest thing that you could possibly think up?

 

JAD: Oh, that's such an interesting question. Did Feynman in that lecture have an answer?

 

RACHAEL: Yes. He said ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: Our belief ...]

 

RACHAEL: It is the atomic hypothesis ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: It is the atomic hypothesis or the atomic fact or whatever you want to call it, that all things are made out of atoms, little particles that move around, are in perpetual motion, attract each other when they're some distance apart but repel being squeezed into one another.]

 

RACHAEL: Period.

 

JAD: So this is his sentence that would be on the paper fluttering in the breeze?

 

RACHAEL: Yes.

 

JAD: That would land in the hand of a little alien child, and he would expect that to be the thing that they use to restart their civilization?

 

RACHAEL: Yes. Which if you are, like, that little child, you're like, "What the hell am I supposed to do with this piece of paper?"

 

JAD: I was like, "So what?"

 

RACHAEL: I just want to know how to build a fire, you know? [laughs] But the thing that I love about Feynman’s answer is that once you begin to pick it apart, it just begins to grow.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: You'll see.]

 

RACHAEL: And grow.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: There's an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking is applied.]

 

RACHAEL: I've talked to a lot of physicists this week to understand what the hell the atomic hypothesis is.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

RACHAEL: Come with me.

 

JAD: Yeah, please.

 

RACHAEL: Okay. So let's just take it part by part. First part ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: All things are made out of atoms.]

 

RACHAEL: Like ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ships. Shoes. A computer!]

 

RACHAEL: Everything.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The air, the trees. And sealing wax.]

 

RACHAEL: The, like, coffee/seltzer/sandwich.

 

JAD: That I just spilled all over my ...

 

RACHAEL: That you're just spilling -- yeah. You are atoms.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You, me and everything there is.]

 

RACHAEL: Atoms are the ingredients.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The building bricks of the whole universe.]

 

RACHAEL: That's part one. Part two ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: Atoms.]

 

RACHAEL: Atoms are all moving all the time.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: The continuous jiggling and bouncing, turning and twisting around one another.]

 

RACHAEL: That’s really important, because once you start to figure out that atoms are in motion, you begin to figure out things like ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Let's look at heat.]

 

RACHAEL: Temperature.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: With an atomic eye, so to speak.]

 

RACHAEL: There's also pressure.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Electricity is a source of energy.]

 

RACHAEL: Electricity. All these things have to do with how fast atoms are moving, how many atoms are moving, what parts of atoms are moving. So from there you're, like, a hop and a skip away from, like ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The power of steam.]

 

RACHAEL: Steam engines. Telephones. The electrical grid.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Gaseous pressure drives this plane forward.]

 

RACHAEL: Understanding flight.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Good evening. We had a high today ...]

 

RACHAEL: Weather patterns.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Barometric pressure, 30.04 at steady.]

 

RACHAEL: So that’s part two.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

RACHAEL: Part one tells you what matter is. Part two tells you basic things about that matter. Part three ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Richard Feynman: Atoms attract each other when they are some distance apart, but repel being squeezed into one another.]

 

RACHAEL: ... Is basically how atoms interact with each other. And once you understand that, it is huge. Because in this last part is basically all of chemistry. Once you start understanding how atoms come together to make molecules, you can start putting molecules together to make things like ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Penicillin.]

 

RACHAEL: Antibiotics.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Polio vaccine.]

 

RACHAEL: Vaccines.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Gasoline and air mixed together, form an explosive mixture.]

 

RACHAEL: You can build things like a combustion engine.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The copper-top battery.]

 

RACHAEL: Batteries. All sorts of ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Plastics.]

 

RACHAEL: Rubbers.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This new super belt tire.]

 

RACHAEL: Tires, sneakers.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Asphalt.]

 

RACHAEL: Concrete.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Steel. The nation builder.]

 

RACHAEL: But also, come on, balloons. Or ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The essence of life.]

 

RACHAEL: You can start to understand things like proteins.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Amino acids.]

 

RACHAEL: Fatty acids.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Carbohydrates.]

 

RACHAEL: Vitamins.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: DNA.]

 

RACHAEL: To me, like, this is what makes this sentence so cool. Because ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Electricity is a source of ...]

 

RACHAEL: ... everything is in there. Everything you need to know about the natural world and how to manipulate it.

 

JAD: Hmm. But do you feel like ...

 

RACHAEL: Oh, sorry. Also, chocolate chip cookies. [laughs] Think about a world without chocolate chip cookies. You would not know ...

 

JAD: Is there anything else on there because I ...

 

RACHAEL: No. Chocolate cookie -- chocolate chip cookies were the big finale. I don't think you really responded properly, but that was the finale. So ...

 

JAD: Well, you know what? I'm gonna take your chocolate chip cookie inspiration and follow it.

 

RACHAEL: Okay. Great.

 

JAD: Because what is a chocolate chip cookie? It is flavor.

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: Which I'm sure we could sort of reduce to nothing but the sparking of electrons on a certain membrane in the tongue or something. But really what chocolate chip cookies are, I hope you'll agree, is the -- that momentary, ecstatic feeling you feel.

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: And the sense of joy and well-being, and then the subsequent crash, right?

 

RACHAEL: Yes.

 

JAD: So all of these things are -- do you feel like they are reducible to atoms?

 

RACHAEL: Yes.

 

JAD: Do you feel like love is explained by the atomic hypothesis? Do you feel like the complexities of human interactions ...

 

RACHAEL: No.

 

JAD: Morality?

 

RACHAEL: No. That is where it falls short. Everything that's physical in our world can be described by atoms. But, like, music? Like, you can't look at the atomic hypothesis and create, like, Mozart.

 

JAD: Right.

 

RACHAEL: Or you can't, like, learn how to be a good partner with the atomic hypothesis, you know?

 

JAD: Right.

 

RACHAEL: Like, there are these big gaps that you just are missing.

 

JAD: I think that -- and thus a door opens.

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. [laughs]

 

JAD: Don't you want to hear -- don’t you wanna hear the -- a musician answer -- do Feynman's exercise?

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: Or -- I suddenly want to hear, who's the sort of great philosopher of chocolate chip cookies?

 

RACHAEL: And so ...

 

JAD: Cue music.

 

RACHAEL: Yeah, what's the music for a cataclysm?

 

JAD: I don't know. I mean, it's ...

 

RACHAEL: Is it really loud? Or is it a little, like, dust bowl and it's quiet, you know?

 

JAD: I think it starts small, like a tone. And then it's two tones, and then it's more. And then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and it expands. And it feels kind of primal but also hopeful, maybe? I don't know.

 

RACHAEL: As you were talking, that did remind me of a thought that I had when I came across this in the very first place, because it does -- when I -- I think I came across it, like, a year ago when I was feeling like everyone -- like, the political conversation was just especially -- what's the word when you think, like, the sky is falling? Like, Chicken Little-esque. Where it's like everything is falling apart, like everything ...

 

JAD: Apocalyptic?

 

RACHAEL: Yes. It felt like everyone felt doomed. And I was like, if the world actually was falling apart around us, what would be the only thing that we have to show for it? Like, what is a way to, like, bring what Feynman thought back in the '60s and bring it to today when it does kind of feel like everyone thinks the sky is falling?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

JAD: I should just say quick the two of us had this conversation many months ago back when the world was a very different place.

 

JAD: How does it resonate? I mean, tell me a little bit more how does it resonate with you personally?

 

RACHAEL: I mean, this is coming from a place that I think I'm, like, pretty lucky to have this thought because I'm definitely, like, very lucky in a lot of ways. But, like, I think I'm just like a hopeful person. And I often, like, love spending time with older people in my family and, like, feeling like before they go, I need to get, like, whatever wisdom they have because, like, once they're gone, it's gone, you know? And so when I think about that, I'm like, I just want to, like, pull all the goodness out before, like, something goes wrong.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: And preserve it.

 

JAD: Whose brain -- who are you talking about? Whose brains for you personally are you trying to do that with?

 

RACHAEL: I mean, I think about it -- I was talking to my friend and they were like, "Why do you only hang out with old people?" Because I was just like -- I think most people -- like, even if -- because I’m 24. But, like, someone who’s 30, I think they have seen more of the world than I have. And I would rather spend time with someone who’s ...

 

JAD: Oh my God, your 24-year-old friends are talking about 30-year-olds as if they’re old people?

 

RACHAEL: Well I mean, a lot of my, like, young friends, like, don’t want to look towards older people because they think, like, this is a mess and, like, we are the future and we need to do this. And I totally agree with that in a lot of ways, but I also think, like, why start from scratch if there could be something pulled out of the dumpster that, like, might be helpful? And so, like, my grandma -- like, my grandma and I, she’s like the most important person to me in the world. So that’s, like, one person. But, like, every like -- like you or like Robert. Or, like, old people.

 

JAD: Old people. Thanks. That’s fine. I’ll -- I will take on that moniker. What do you -- I mean, none of my business but I’m suddenly curious to know, what kinds of questions -- do you sit with your grandma and you ask her just general questions or do you have more specific things you wonder about with someone of her age?

 

RACHAEL: Well, like it’s pretty -- like I -- so my mom died when I was six and so, like, one thing that seems to motivate I think a lot of that curiosity is, like, my older siblings -- I was the youngest of -- the youngest of five who lost her. And they all have these, like, very concrete memories that, like, when I think about it it’s like I arrived on the scene right after she left the scene. Like, when my memory finally started to kick in it’s, like, right when she left.

 

JAD: Do you remember anything about her?

 

RACHAEL: There are a few memories I know for sure are mine. And then after those few, like, I think on one hand I can count the ones I know are mine. And so a lot of the times when they talk about these things, like these birthday parties that she used to throw or, like, her laugh, or the, like, music she’d play in the minivan, I like -- I don’t actually remember any of those things for myself.

 

JAD: I mean how do you fill that then? Do you talk to your -- do you try and just ply anecdotes from your older siblings?

 

RACHAEL: I don’t know. Like, some of it I feel like a little sad that I have to ask for those things. And so sometimes I just hang back and let them talk. And then I feel a little bit jealous, but then I also do go searching for them, like, sometimes with my grandma. Like, I call my grandma once a week. And, like, she told me this one story the other day that I just thought was so funny. Like, it was this sense of humor of my mom that I, like, didn’t even know existed. And that just felt so -- it was just like meeting a different side of her that I had no idea was there.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: But it was just this, like, little angle of, like, a diamond gem, you know? Like, there’s some little surface that, like, I just felt my thumb go over, and I never knew it was there. And, like, I don’t know. I just kind of want to feel all the textures.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: And, like, memories of people because I know how easily they just go away.

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: I think I, like, walk through the world collecting things. Like, I'm like a little stick collector. Like, I want to, like, collect all the sticks I can. Because I know what it feels like to feel, like, empty-handed.

 

JAD: So what began as that conversation with Rachael about the cataclysm sentence and what could you give -- what's the simplest thing you could pass forward for the next person to hold onto, well what happened is that really as a staff we got interested in the idea. Kind of got fixated on it, actually. And so what we did ...

 

[PHONE MESSAGE: Call from private caller.]

 

JAD: We started calling people.

 

NICHOLSON BAKER: Hello?

 

MATT KIELTY: Hello is this Mr. Nick Baker?

 

NICHOLSON BAKER: This is, indeed. Hang on one second.

 

JAD: Dozens ...

 

RACHAEL: Hello, hello, can you hear me?

 

WOMAN: Yes, I can hear you.

 

JAD: ... and dozens of people.

 

MATT: Hello, Merrill?

 

MERRILL GARBUS: Yeah.

 

JAD: Artists, writers, philosophers, historians, chefs, musicians.

 

RACHAEL: So I sent you an email.

 

JAD: And we asked them ...

 

RACHAEL: That asked you a question.

 

JAD: Feynman's question. If hypothetically the world were to end and everything was lost, all our knowledge gone, what would be the most important information in the least number of words that you would convey to the next set of people? What would be your sentence? We're gonna play you a bunch of the answers that we got. We can't play all of them because that would take four hours, so we're just gonna play you a selection. Starting with ...

 

CAITLIN DOUGHTY: For me, it's something like you will die, and that's the most important thing.

 

JAD: Writer, mortician Caitlin Doughty.

 

CAITLIN DOUGHTY: And I think most people get that. I think most people get that they're gonna die, but I don't think what most people get is that the fact that they're going to die is the most important thing that will ever happen to them. Humans are one of the few creatures that understand death, and understand -- live -- live their whole lives with the knowledge of their deaths. And so it's this conflict within us. We live in these shitty, decaying bodies, but we feel so special and we feel so important. So how do you reconcile those two things? It's hard to reconcile them, so you have to create, you have to transcend. You have to have religion, you have to have communities, you have to have art. Those are created by our -- our fear and our strange, difficult, weird relationship with death.

 

ESPERANZA SPALDING: Okay. Oh, so let's talk about fear.

 

JAD: Esperanza Spalding. Musician and wolf enthusiast.

 

ESPERANZA SPALDING: Okay, here we go. Here's your parallel from the ecosystem. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park, at first the thinking was we're just doing this because we don't fully understand yet all the ways that this species is important, but we know that it is and it's been absent and we finally have this opportunity to reintroduce them into Yellowstone. So of course, all the biologists were studying this like crazy, conservation biologists. And the first thing that happened was all the game who hadn't been subjected to any threats, they were -- they were at the top of the food chain. All of a sudden, they all became more alert and more responsive. And they stopped grazing constantly in the exact same part of the river. They had to move more because now there was this, like, threat of the wolf.

 

ESPERANZA SPALDING: So what happened is, they start moving more, they start grazing higher up in the hills where they're less likely to be just, you know, picked off in these low grasslands. So what happens is the banks of the riverbank get firmer, which means the flow of the river becomes stronger, which means beavers can come in and start to build their dams. Also because the -- the game is not grazing in the same area, trees that previously had been chewed up in their early sapling stages start growing. So songbirds return. All these species of -- of bird come back into Yellowstone that had been absent because it didn't have the right canopy cover. And because the beavers come in, that creates more pocket environments for other animals and that brings in more big predators who are eating what the beavers are attracting. So basically, this one species who had become dominant and very comfortable and at the top of their food chain, just the presence of them having to confront regularly and respond creatively to a little fear completely changed the health and the landscape and the sustainability of the ecosystem. So maybe it's like -- maybe it's like just that: The willingness to respond creatively to fear, without trying to eradicate the source of the fear.

 

CORD JEFFERSON: My name is Cord Jefferson, and I'm a television writer and producer. Okay, I wrote down a bunch of different things that I then erased, and then I sort of settled on one that I thought was definitely going to be my thing, which was about race and racism. And, I -- like, I had that sentence all prepared, which was, "Race isn't real unless you make it real, at which point it will become the biggest problem in the whole world." And then I started thinking that, you know, what's -- what's sort of even bigger than racism? And to me, like, even bigger than racism is just general fear. And my personal history is that my -- my mother is a -- a white woman who married my father, who's a black man, and they disowned her. And so I -- I never -- never met my grandparents. I would -- I would send them letters which they would return until I stopped sending them when I was -- I think when I was about 10 or 11. And I just -- and I saw how much that devastated my mother, and how much it sort of ripped her family apart and it sort of estranged her from her brother for a while. And it was -- yeah, it was just sort of in a way that I remember thinking like, this is -- this is so pointless. Like, it's just so stupid. Like, I remember -- I remember think -- thinking, like, what could anybody in my family do to -- that would make me, you know, hate them forever? And it's like, you know, the skin color was -- was just so insignificant to me.

 

CORD JEFFERSON: And I think that fear shapes everything from geopolitics to just even people's unwillingness to try new things and to go new places and to travel and to -- to ski and to go out and meet people. And it causes so much conflict and it causes so much aggression and hate that I think that, you know, I -- I believe sort of racism is wrapped up in that, but fear I think is -- is our -- our bigger problem.

 

MERRILL GARBUS: [humming]

 

CORD JEFFERSON: My sentence is ...

 

MERRILL GARBUS: [humming]

 

CORD JEFFERSON: "The only things you're innately afraid of are falling and loud noises. The rest of your fears are learned and mostly negligible."

 

MERRILL GARBUS: Merrill Garbus. I lead a band called Tune-Yards. Fear is very -- what's that word? Compelling, as a motivation. It's very essential to who we are, and it makes a lot of sense because we did have to run from things. We needed to be vigilant, and if we weren't then we died. But I do think that it's a choice. So I thought wanting to communicate as much as possible with this one sentence that it would be good to sing the sentence.

 

MERRILL GARBUS: [singing] Evolving over millennia. We learn to fly. We're nourished by the fruits of the Earth. Inspired by each other's music. But we failed as a species. Injured the very hands that fed us, when we chose fear as our ruler. When we could not grasp being mere fractals in one collective being. In the end there was no "we."

 

JENNY ODELL: It reminds me of this thing called "Do nothing farming" that a Japanese farmer named Masanobu Fukuoka came up with. And he kind of went against all of the established customs of rice farming in Japan, and decided to just kind of like pay attention to how things work without any intervention. So he said that he was inspired by an empty lot full of grasses and weeds and how productive that actually was. And so he went about farming without flooding the fields. He just threw the seeds on the ground kind of when they would naturally fall on the ground in the fall. He didn’t use fertilizer, he just grew kind of ground cover. And then he threw the stalks back on top when he was done. And he just kind of had to do everything at exactly the right time that it would happen naturally. But this farm was more productive and more sustainable than neighboring farms. All of human effort is meaningless, as he puts it. So he says humanity knows nothing at all. There’s no intrinsic value in anything and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.

 

JAD: Writer, Jenny Odell. And now ...

 

MARIA POPOVA: Here we go.

 

JAD: Writer Maria Popova.

 

MARIA POPOVA: We are each allotted a sliver of space-time wedged between not yet and no more, which we fill with the lifetime of joys and sorrows, immensities of thought and feeling, all deducible to electrical impulses coursing through us at 80 feet per second, yet responsible for every love poem that has ever been written, every symphony ever composed, every scientific breakthrough measuring out nerve conduction and mapping out space-time. I mean, it’s astonishing that we’re not, you know, spending every day in marvel at the improbability that we even exist. You know, somehow we -- we went from bacteria to Bach. We -- we learned to make fire and music and mathematics, and here we are now, these -- these walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath this overstory of 100 trillion synapses that are just coruscating with these restless questions.

 

ALISON GOPNICK: Why?

 

JAD: Professor Alison Gopnick.

 

ALISON GOPNICK: My sentence would be single word: Why?

 

REBECCA SUGAR: I'd want to show that we loved it here, you know?

 

JAD: Animator, Rebecca Sugar.

 

REBECCA SUGAR: We have, you know, evidence, from Pompeii.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Pompeii's place in history is quite unique in that in one day it was completely hermetically sealed. In other words, time stood still.]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: We have all of these physical examples ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Horendeus the baker gave a party for his brother Neo, who was just elected magistrate.]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: That humans have loved being here.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Their friends came and drank all night.]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: That we’re having a great time. [laughs] So that may be the greatest message a person could leave is to just ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This is the atrium of a typical Roman house.]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: ... leave behind some record of how you were living.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The family life revolved around this area.]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: You know, leave behind your nest and evidence of how you were in it with the people that you loved.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You will find that you will have small rooms, the cubicles, the triclinium or dining room, which we find back there.]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: Maybe that will be the thing to leave is, you know, some evidence of my nest.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The father would have got up and the servants would have gone into her cubicle and done her hair.]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: And maybe the ultimate goal would be to just devote oneself fully to creating the life that feels the best on this world in the time that we have.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: August 24th. [explosion]]

 

REBECCA SUGAR: But actually, I think the greatest thing to come out of the ruins of Pompeii is that they had toilet stalls where two people could sit together next to one another so you can have a conversation. It’s a fabulous idea. Why did we not learn from this? Why are we wasting time that we could be spending with our friends? Why are we wasting that time?

 

JAD: All right, bathroom break. We'll be back in a sec.

 

JAD: Jad. Radiolab. And we're back asking people if the world were to end, what's the one sentence they would leave behind? Or the one sentence with the most amount of information, fewest number of words?

 

NICHOLSON BAKER: Tell me, what is it that Feynman says again?

 

JAD: We pick back up with writer Nicholson Baker.

 

NICHOLSON BAKER: Oh, God.

 

SIMON ADLER: Okay, yeah. Here we are. Here we are. Okay.

 

JAD: And producer Simon Adler.

 

SIMON: 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.

 

NICHOLSON BAKER: I like it. I mean, I think it’s got a certain lilt. But think if you -- there was -- the cataclysm happened, and the creature that inherited the Earth was a super-intelligent form of seal. You know, there -- there's beaches and they’re just covered with these seals and they’re still making those strange seal noises, but they’re actually intensely verbal creatures. And somehow, some particular seal gets this thing that comes zapping down from the sky, which is a -- which is a voice from the deep past or the recorded essence of brilliant scientific knowledge which is, "All things are made of little things and they -- and they push against each other and they -- sometimes they push back when they squeeze." Well, what is that very bright seal going to do? I mean, what -- what is that -- how -- it’s gonna help them more quickly invent an atomic bomb, but is that where -- is that where we want the seals to go really fast? No. We want them to -- look, they’re busy figuring out how to better get around the beach, get along with each other, maybe build some kind of nice slide so they can zoom down and fly off and have some fun. There’s a lot these bright seals can do. They have a big future ahead of them.

 

NICHOLSON BAKER: So what I would substitute is something that would maybe help them that was very helpful to me, which is that -- that you know more than you can say. It’s a -- it’s a crisp way of saying that language is great. And -- and, you know, I’m in the language business, and I try to create sentences that are momentarily diverting and all that, but language is a tiny, tiny part of the knowledge that we actually have. And not just because there’s musical knowledge and the knowledge of colors and fragrances and other things that are inarticulable, but because the knack of knowing how to put words together, the knack of knowing how to say in a condensed form a truth is something that involves a feel, a nimbleness, a sort of -- a set of dance moves that nobody, no matter how good you are at slinging sentences, nobody can articulate step by step backwards into this world the under-structure of what allowed him or her to say this thing that involved words. So look at what is around you and see who knows how to do things, and then learn from that. And the way the person describes how he does things may actually be completely inadequate. You’re gonna have to watch. We know more than we can say. That, I think, is the most useful piece of scientific helpfulness, I guess, that you could give.

 

JAMES GLEICK: The moon revolves around the Earth, which is not the center of the universe, far from it. But just one of many objects, large and small, that revolve around the sun which in turn, is one of countless stars mostly so far away that they’re invisible, even on the clearest night. All traveling through space on paths obeying simple laws of nature that can be expressed in terms of mathematics. Oh and by the way, there is no God.

 

LADY PINK: [laughter]

 

JAD: Writer James Gleick. And up next is the artist, Lady Pink.

 

LADY PINK: Okay. So, I would like to say God is a female. And I would also love to leave behind a mural, something like one of Michelangelo's awesome depictions of God coming in, and a, you know, grandiose and glorious and absolutely gigantic mural, but as a female. And I think I would like to do her as one of the gray aliens. Do you know what I mean? One of the -- the big-eyed aliens with those big, big heads and those big bug eyes like that, with real sexy lips and a little bit of eye lashes? With kind of looking like the Virgin Mary or the Virgin de Guadalupe, wearing the long gown and the blue veil thing and, you know, holding her hand up and a -- and a little bleeding heart with worshipers at her feet, and -- because she would be so gigantic, three, four stories. That’s like at least like 40 feet, 30 feet. You know, very large figure. She would be looking down at you.

 

[RADIO CLIP: You never understand hell though, until first you understand the great love, mercy, and grace of ...]

 

[RADIO CLIP, George W. Bush: They are the focus of evil in the modern world.]

 

JENNY HOLLOWELL: I would say that a lot of my childhood, I was thinking a lot about surviving the apocalypse. You know, how could I do that? How could I be good enough?

 

JAD: Writer Jenny Hollowell.

 

JENNY HOLLOWELL: I liked the texture of life. I liked the idea of being in the back of the station wagon and driving down the street and seeing my neighbors mowing their lawns or riding their bicycles. And the idea that they would all disappear or be -- not be survivors of whatever that apocalyptic event might be was just jolting. I was also selfishly along the way hoping that I could maybe get past certain thresholds so that I could experience them before they were gone, like being able to drive. Because I really wasn’t sure whether cars were gonna be around later, so -- I remember really hoping that I could make it to middle school so that I could have a locker because I thought lockers were really cool. I just thought like, "Okay, if I can have a locker and then later drive, then those two things -- like, if we can just get past those things then I’ll be a little more relieved to see the end come. Maybe." Everything is connected. To me, that feels like a sentence that contains an element of scientific truth but also inspires us to believe in it. Because I do think that whatever we leave behind needs to contain something about it that would inspire the finder of it to believe in it.

 

JAD: Okay, up next.

 

RACHAEL: Hello.

 

JEREMY BLOOM: Hello, can you hear me?

 

JARON LANIER: Yeah.

 

JEREMY: Hey!

 

JARON LANIER: Can you hear me?

 

JEREMY: Yes, I can.

 

JAD: We bring back Rachael Cusick. So you and producer Jeremy Bloom talked to someone.

 

RACHAEL: Mm-hmm.

 

JARON LANIER: Hi, Rachael.

 

RACHAEL: We talked to this guy Jaron Lanier.

 

JARON LANIER: Do you want to know anything about me, or is the name enough?

 

JEREMY: I would love to know about you. Give us -- give us a fun fact.

 

RACHAEL: So Jaron ...

 

JARON LANIER: I'm a computer scientist.

 

RACHAEL: He is basically, like, the godfather of virtual reality, and was pretty instrumental in getting the internet off the ground.

 

JAD: Oh!

 

JARON LANIER: I also write books and I also play music, and most notably on a large variety of very unusual musical instruments.

 

JEREMY: Do you have any instruments near you right now?

 

JARON LANIER: Oh, a couple thousand.

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

JEREMY: [laughs]

 

JARON LANIER: [laughs]

 

RACHAEL: So this -- this whole project is, like, reach out to people you find inspiring and asking them if they have any inspiring things to say.

 

JAD: Right.

 

RACHAEL: And the reason we reached out to Jaron is because he helped create these huge advances in technology. But the other reason we talked to him is because he actually knew Richard Feynman.

 

JAD: Really? How did he know him?

 

RACHAEL: Well, so ...

 

JARON LANIER: How honest do you want this to be?

 

RACHAEL: I want it to be as honest as you want it to be.

 

JARON LANIER: Well ...

 

RACHAEL: He said this was back in the late '70s.

 

JARON LANIER: I was 16 or 17.

 

RACHAEL: Living in New Mexico.

 

JARON LANIER: And what happened is my first serious girlfriend was someone I met over a summer.

 

RACHAEL: She was visiting from California.

 

JARON LANIER: And I followed her back to California where it turns out her dad was the head of the physics department at Cal Tech. And after a while she dumped me and there I was.

 

RACHAEL: Oh no!

 

JARON LANIER: What was I to do? I'm still there. And so I just hung out more and more with people in the physics department.

 

RACHAEL: Do you remember where you were when you first saw Richard Feynman?

 

JARON LANIER: Sure. I was being walked down a hallway by my friend Cynthia, and he was in there explaining something to a small class of people with his hands, primarily. He talked with his hands a lot. And -- and she said, "There's the famous Feynman." And of course, my very first thought is, "Oh, damn. He's like the smartest person alive. And he's also handsome and he's happy and he's graceful. Like, fuck him." Oh, I can't say that on the radio. I'm sorry.

 

RACHAEL: You can say it.

 

JARON LANIER: Like, I was like, "Oh my God, this guy's just -- like, it's not fair. This guy just has too much going for him."

 

RACHAEL: But Jaron says as he got to know him ...

 

JARON LANIER: He was just fun and funny.

 

RACHAEL: The two of them would talk about physics and just about life.

 

JARON LANIER: He played percussion. He played drums.

 

RACHAEL: They'd play music together.

 

JARON LANIER: Which was great. His -- his primary approach to life was to seek joy.

 

JEREMY: Do you remember him asking you about cataclysms ever?

 

JARON LANIER: I -- I definitely remember that topic and that conversation, because remember in those days we were in the thick of the Cold War.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Duck and cover.]

 

JARON LANIER: And in school, you were trained to hide under your desk in case there would be a nuclear, you know, attack, and -- which of course, everyone knew would be a futile gesture. And so this question, it was like a little glimmer of hope, like, in the face of absolute annihilation, where hiding under your desk will not help, where hiding in some basement will not help, where you won't survive, this is at least -- it's applying imagination towards what you possibly could do. Maybe you could leave a message for the future.

 

RACHAEL: We talked for a while about how much Jaron really loved this question because, like, he and Feynman and these other physicists, they'd hang out and kind of talk about this question for hours. And they would debate about what was the best thing to write down on this piece of paper. Partially because it was fun, but also because it felt important to have an answer. But then when we asked him what would he now would write down as his cataclysm sentence ...

 

JEREMY: You personally, Jaron, what would you do?

 

JARON LANIER: Wow.

 

RACHAEL: He took a deep breath. And then said ...

 

JARON LANIER: I would give them nothing.

 

JAD: Huh. Like nothing, nothing?

 

RACHAEL: Zilch.

 

JAD: Does he mean, like, the paper fluttering in the breeze that lands in the hand of the next person, it would have nothing written on it?

 

RACHAEL: He means, like, there's just no piece of paper at all.

 

JARON LANIER: Yeah.

 

RACHAEL: That seems kind of sad to me. Like, why wouldn’t you want to leave them something?

 

JARON LANIER: Well ...

 

RACHAEL: What is that?

 

JARON LANIER: Let’s see.

 

RACHAEL: Jaron's like, let’s just say you do leave behind a sentence about ...

 

JARON LANIER: The basics of math and physics.

 

RACHAEL: Or ...

 

JARON LANIER: Agriculture and medicine.

 

RACHAEL: Or some sentence about biology or public health.

 

JARON LANIER: That sort of thing. It’s redundant. Like, all of that kind of information is just the stuff that's out there waiting to be discovered in nature anyway, so we don't have to do anything. If people apply themselves they'll rediscover all that stuff. So it's not like we're special. Letting them get it in their own good time might be better for them, so what have we actually added? Perhaps we’ve only taken away.

 

RACHAEL: Taken away because giving some highly-evolved science fact kind of scared him because Jaron thinks, like, you never really know how those are gonna unfurl in another world. I mean, look at Feynman’s sentence. It gave us all of these cool things that we talked about up at the beginning, but it also gave us ...

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The atomic bomb. Don’t wait. Duck away from the windows fast. The glass may break and fly through the air and cut you.]

 

JARON LANIER: I mean, Feynman and others in his generation who’d come of age working in the Manhattan Project were put in an absolutely impossible moral puzzle where bringing the war to an end decisively was a great good, and the other side in the war had been the darkest evil. All of that was clear and yet in the big picture, it was just impossible to know if they'd done the right thing. And that cloud of doubt still hangs over science today.

 

RACHAEL: For example, Jaron says ...

 

JARON LANIER: Like, I was very involved in the birth of the internet.

 

RACHAEL: Look at the internet. That started as this amazing gift to people so that we could connect in this way that we never had before, but as we now know ...

 

JARON LANIER: It spreads disinformation. There’s every economic incentive to be terrible. And the incentives to be decent are far, far weaker. And I still have these incredible feelings of guilt and uncertainty about whether we just screwed things up terribly in a way that might take centuries or millennia to fix or something. Like, there’s just this haunting -- this feeling of like, oh my God, what have we done, was it the right thing?

 

RACHAEL: So we suggested, like, what if it wasn't a piece of science but, like, a piece of wisdom? Something you would kind of like find inside of a fortune cookie?

 

JARON LANIER: Well, that becomes a very interesting exercise. And what you realize is whatever little words of wisdom you can pass along, because the whole terms of the game is that they’ll be isolated, they’ll take on this outsized preciousness. They won’t be surrounded by context. And almost anything you can say will become distorted and somewhat useless if it’s overemphasized in that way. Which is to say nothing we could do is helpful. Let's just lay back. Let's be modest. Let's ...

 

JEREMY: What if you were on the other side of that? Like, what if you were on the other side of the cataclysm, and you discover that you're not gonna get anything at all?

 

JARON LANIER: Well, I mean if -- if there's nothing given, how would I even know that there was nothing given? I don't think I'd even be aware that there was something to have feelings about.

 

JEREMY: That's fair.

 

RACHAEL: I don't know. I feel like sometimes when you, like, walk into, like, an empty field or something, like, you're looking for something if you're kind of feeling lost.

 

JARON LANIER: Okay, so there's people in the future and they find our ruins, and then there's some big plaque that says, "We have decided to leave you no information. You will learn nothing of us." If -- these next people might turn out to be wiser than us. Or if they don't and they extinguish themselves, then the next generation after that. At some point if some kind of cycle of cataclysm and civilization continues, at some point there'll be some civilization that's wiser than us and won't annihilate itself, and let's just not screw with these people. Let's just give them a chance to come about naturally and they will eventually.

 

RACHAEL: But that's an optimistic viewpoint too. Like, if we seem to keep, like, exploding ourselves, how do you have faith that we'll get there ever?

 

JARON LANIER: Just because of the reality of randomness.

 

RACHAEL: [laughs] What does that mean?

 

JARON LANIER: [laughs]

 

RACHAEL: I love that phrase, but I have no idea what it means.

 

JARON LANIER: It's a little bit -- it's like a version of evolution. Like, let's just assume that there's not just gonna be one cataclysm and another cycle, but we'll keep on going through these things until just through the grace of randomness, we get some civilization that comes up that's got its act together enough to not have another cataclysm. And I think there's something to be said for that. It's like some kind of faith in the far future that we'll finally get it together.

 

RACHAEL: So that was basically his answer. Like, say nothing. Have faith. Trust the math. But ...

 

RACHAEL: If you today had to go back to you as a kid ...

 

RACHAEL: We kept pushing him.

 

JARON LANIER: Uh-huh.

 

RACHAEL: Would you have a specific sentence that you would share with a younger you?

 

JARON LANIER: Oh gosh.

 

RACHAEL: And each time ...

 

JEREMY: Is there a sentence that you would say to start us in a more optimistic light?

 

RACHAEL: He pretty much didn’t budge.

 

JARON LANIER: [laughs] No, I just ...

 

RACHAEL: Except when Jeremy asked him this one question.

 

JEREMY: if you could leave music for the next society, would you?

 

JARON LANIER: Wow. That is a really interesting question. So, you know, one of the things about music is that it's an incredibly important part of our lives. It's part of every time we have a wedding or a funeral. It's incredibly important to us, and yet until very recently with the appearance of recording technologies, it was lost generation to generation. I play all these weird instruments ...

 

RACHAEL: He demonstrated for us.

 

JARON LANIER: There’s a kind of flute played by the Sami people, sort of like the Eskimos of Finland.

 

JARON LANIER: And part of it is this feeling of being able to at least move and breathe like people did in the past.

 

JARON LANIER: This is an instrument from Laos.

 

JARON LANIER: So you get a little bit of connection with them. But of course, you don't really know.

 

JARON LANIER: This is a contrabass flute.

 

JEREMY: If you could leave an instrument for the next society that maybe could say something about our society, would you?

 

JARON LANIER: That was called a tarhu.

 

JARON LANIER: I don’t know. That’s a very hard question.

 

JARON LANIER: This is a kind of Turkish clarinet.

 

JARON LANIER: I’d have to think about that one a lot. I think I’d ...

 

JARON LANIER: The oud, a Middle Eastern instrument.

 

JARON LANIER: ... possibly choose the piano, I hate to say.

RACHAEL: Why the piano?

 

JARON LANIER: The reason the piano fascinates me is it’s kind of a digital button box like a computer, but it transcends being a button box. Because on a piano you hit the key and then you send this hammer flying, and the only thing you can tell the hammer is how fast to fly. So you would think it shouldn’t be very expressive and yet different pianists sit down and have touches on it that are distinguished. I believe there's a bit of a mystery left there.

 

JAD: Okay, to round things out, it just so happened that somebody that I had really wanted to talk to for this episode ...

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Hi! Long time no see!

 

JAD: I know!

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: How are you?

 

JAD: ... is a composer who plays the piano.

 

JAD: You're, like, everywhere this month.

 

JAD: Her name is Missy Mazzouli. She is very busy at the moment. She has two operas opening pretty much at the same time. Her work's been performed by orchestras all over the world. And we asked her to come down to our station at WNYC, where we have a piano.

 

RACHAEL: Do you want water or anything?

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Yeah, you -- he was gonna get me water.

 

RACHAEL: Okay, great.

 

JAD: Also, a Rachael.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

JAD: Because, you know, going back to the whole conceit of this thing, one of the questions that I had at the very start of this was, if we gave this Feynman cataclysm sentence challenge to a musician, what would happen?

 

JAD: We can start talking just in a -- in a -- in a -- yeah, let's -- we can just start.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Ooh!

 

JAD: So -- so you -- you came up with a musical answer to this question.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Yeah. I call it the primordial chord.

 

JAD: Oh, cool!

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Is my name for it.

 

JAD: Oh, that’s cool!

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: So going along with this idea of setting, you know, Humans 2.0 or the next version of creatures up for a better existence, I wanted to create something that would point them in that direction. So I wanted -- there's a couple things about this chord that I hope will do that. So this is a chord that has to be played by three people. You cannot play this chord by yourself unless you have six arms, which maybe these creatures will have. But, you know, you need three people to play it.

 

RACHAEL: And why did you pick three people?

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: That's a good question. I think that's what I felt could fit at a piano.

 

RACHAEL: Mmm.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: And so -- and I -- and I chose the piano because it's generally the biggest instrument that we have general access to in New York City right now. And I wanted it to -- and it has the biggest range of musical instruments that we use every day. There's certain -- there is music that is maybe higher and lower, but in general, like, most music you hear in the world fits into the range of a piano. So this chord encompasses the whole range of the piano. We use the lowest note, we use the highest note, and it also has all 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale in it.

 

JAD: Oh, interesting.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: And there -- also ...

 

JAD: That's gonna sound like chaos!

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: It's not, though!

 

RACHAEL: [laughs]

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: This is -- it's ordered. It's -- I've ordered it so that -- so that it hopefully does not sound like chaos. Anything could happen. I don't know.

 

JAD: I so want to hear it now.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: I know!

 

RACHAEL: So do I!

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Should we do it?

 

RACHAEL: Can we play it?

 

JAD: Is it -- let's go do it.

 

JAD: So we had to get up and go over to the studio where the piano is.

 

JAD: Okay, so we are here in CR-5 or as -- as -- as we like to think of it, John Schaefer's studio. There's the big grand piano to our left. We're gonna follow your lead here, Missy.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Okay.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

JAD: So Missy pulled out the sheet music.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: This is the primordial chord. [laughs]

 

JAD: Oh my God. Okay.

 

JAD: So if you imagine a page of orchestral score, we've all probably seen one at some point. You've got the lines running horizontally across the page. The page was mostly blank except for ...

 

JAD: One, two, three four ...

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: And it looks insane.

 

JAD: ... five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen notes.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Yes.

 

JAD: You got 13 little circles all stacked up in a vertical line looking kind of like a rocket about to take off.

 

JAD: And you have three clefs. So it's -- each one is one -- one human.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Yes. So each -- each grand staff is one human being playing one piano.

 

RACHAEL: Ooh!

 

JAD: Okay. Ho long did it take you to come up with this?

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: It took me a shockingly long time. [laughs]

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Because I kept fiddling around with it, playing with the resonance. You know, sometimes I would come up with something and feel -- I felt that it was too dissonant.

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: It's also a challenge to come up with a chord that includes all 12 of these notes, you know? So, like [plays notes on piano] -- so all 12 of those spread out over this huge range that still has a sort of, you know, consonant feeling to it.

 

JAD: It's interesting. When you look at the chord, this giant chord which contains all the notes in a scale, she's arranged it so that you can see in the chord all of these kind of musical molecules. Like oh, those three notes in hand number four, that's a major triad. And these two notes in the bass, that's a tritone interval. And then, okay, ooh look at that! In the upper register that is a diminished chord. And if these words don't mean anything to you it's fine. The point is is if you zoom into this chord, you see all of these harmonic universes ready to spill out. That's why she calls it the primordial chord.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Should we do it?

 

JAD: Let's do it.

 

RACHAEL: Yeah.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: We can sit down, maybe.

 

RACHAEL: Okay.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Is that okay?

 

JAD: Yeah. Well, you sit and then -- and then maybe Rachael and I will get, like, half a cheek.

 

RACHAEL: A half buttock, yeah. Together we'll be a whole butt. [laughs]

 

JAD: So Missy sat in the center of the piano bench, I was sort of hanging off the left side, half a cheek. Rachael was hanging off the right side, half a cheek.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Okay.

 

RACHAEL: Cool.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Perfect. So far so good. Okay, so Jad ...

 

JAD: Yes.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: I'm gonna set you up. So I'm gonna just play it for you. These are your four notes.

 

JAD: Love it. Okay.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Okay? Perfect. Perfect. And then these are your -- you have five notes.

 

RACHAEL: Okay.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: One, two, three, four, five.

 

RACHAEL: Okay. I'm gonna have to, like ...

 

JAD: He -- is he rolling over there? Okay.

 

JEREMY: It sounds pretty good here.

 

RACHAEL: Okay. Yeah.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: So we'll just build it low to high.

 

JAD: Okay. Should we build it sequentially or do we want to try, like, a ...

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Oh, let's try all together first.

 

RACHAEL: Okay.

 

JAD: Try all together first, and then we'll build low to high.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: So let's see if we can ...

 

JAD: Okay.

 

RACHAEL: So there's, like, an upbeat and then there's one, two, three, four ...

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Hit.

 

RACHAEL: Okay?

 

JAD: [whispering] One, two, three, four.

 

[piano ringing]

 

JAD: [whispering] Isn't that -- I don't know. It just keeps going.

 

RACHAEL: [whispering] Yeah.

 

JAD: It never stops.

 

RACHAEL: Maybe forever. [laughs]

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

RACHAEL: What if we have to go to the bathroom? [laughs]

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: God, this is it. This is -- welcome to the rest of your life. Just stuck here holding this chord on the piano.

 

JAD: [laughs] I'm afraid to let go now.

 

RACHAEL: This is a big responsibility. The weight of the world is on that pinkie.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: Alrighty, and ... [sigh]

 

[APPLAUSE]

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: That was awesome, guys!

 

RACHAEL: So cool!

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: That was so good!

 

RACHAEL: Oh my God!

 

JAD: That was so great.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: I'm so proud of you.

 

RACHAEL: It feels like the end of a movie, that -- that feeling.

 

JAD: It really does. I feel like I got the best part. I got the bass, it just like -- everything I do sounds good down here.

 

RACHAEL: See, I like mine up here. It's really nice.

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: See, I feel totally safe between the two of you just, like, hanging out in the middle.

 

JAD: I feel like I'm the foundation of this new society.

 

RACHAEL: Yeah, but I give us hope. [laughs]

 

MISSY MAZZOLI: I'm the glue. See? We all need each other. That's the point.

 

RACHAEL: It is. It's like a full human being.

 

JAD: What if we can play it as quiet as possible? [whispers] Because we're humble. Our next humans are humble. Ready? One, two, three.

 

[MUSIC]

 

JAD: This episode was assembled by the entire Radiolab team. It was borne out of the wondrous brain of Rachael Cusick, and it was produced by -- I'm just gonna let him read the credits with me, by Mr. Matt Kielty.

 

MATT: We had original music in this episode from Alex Overington. Our fact-checker was Diane Kelly. Special thanks, and there's a few, our friends over at Nancy, producers Zakia Gibbons and Jeremy Bloom. Also Ella Frances Sanders and her book Eating the Sun for kicking this whole episode off. Cal Tech for letting us use original audio of the Feynman Lectures on Physics. The entirety of the lectures are available to read for free online at www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu.

 

JAD: I also want to thank -- this is Jad again -- all of the musicians from all over the world who, after the pandemic set in, they recorded themselves in their homes, sent us the audio, and Alex used that to make the giant primordial chord you just heard. Their names are ...

 

KOOSHA PASHANPOUR: Koosha Pashangpour from Iran.

 

CLAIRE JAMES: Claire James, Boston, Massachusetts.

 

SOLMAZ BADRI: Solmaz Badri, Iran.

 

LIAV KERBEL: Liav Kerbel, and I'm currently living in Belgium.

 

AMELIA WATKINS: Amelia Watkins, Saint-Sauveur, Quebec.

 

MATTHIAS KOWALCZYK: Matthias Marcus Kowalczyk, Germany.

 

CURTIS MACDONALD: Hi, I'm Curtis MacDonald and I'm from Canada.

 

ILARIO MORCIANO: Ilario Morciano, Northeast Italy.

 

BRYAN HARRIS: Bryan Harris, Richmond, Virginia.

 

SASKIA LANKHOORN: Saskia Lankhoorn, The Hague, The Netherlands.

 

MEADE BERNARD: This is Meade Bernard from Brooklyn, New York.

 

JAD: Also thanks to three musicians who didn't ID themselves: Sam Crittenden in Brooklyn, Barnaby Rea in the UK, and Siavash Kamkar in Iran.

 

JAD: Before we go, one more thing. Next week we have a kind of part two to this episode. It's reported by Simon Adler, kind of in the same spirit. Less about what you would pass on, and more about what you would cling to. That's next week. 'Til then, I'm Jad Abumrad. This has been Radiolab. Thank you for listening.

 

[MASAKO: Hi, I'm Masako, calling from Tokyo, Japan. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad, with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]

 

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