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.


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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