Jun 30, 2023

The Cataclysm Sentence

Sad news for all of us: producer Rachael Cusick, who brought us soul-stirring stories rethinking grief and solitude, as well as colorful musings on airplane farts and belly flops and Blueberry Earths, is leaving the show. So we thought it perfect timing to sit down with her and revisit another brainchild of hers, The Cataclysm Sentence, a collection of advice for The End.

To explain: 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


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 USA

Barnaby Rea, from UK

Liav Kerbel, from Belgium

Sam Crittenden, from USA

Saskia Lankhoorn, from Netherlands

Bryan Harris, from USA

Amelia Watkins, from Canada

Claire James, from USA

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.


Reported by - Rachael Cusick (https://www.rachaelcusick.com/)

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Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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