Richard Feynman on the One Sentence to Be Passed on to the Next Generation
By Maria Popova
The great Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) — champion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science — may have earned himself the moniker “the Great Explainer,” but when Caltech invited him to take over the introductory course in physics in 1961, they took an enormous chance on a theoretical physicist with no particular interest in students. What resulted, however, was nothing short of magic — his lectures went on to become a cultural classic, blending remarkably articulate explanations of science with poignant meditations on life’s most profound questions, and were eventually collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics (public library).
From the very beginning of his first-ever lecture comes this timeless gem (mentioned in Daniel Bor’s excellent The Ravenous Brain) that set the tone for both Feynman’s academic contribution and his broader cultural legacy:
If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that 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. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
Couple with Feynman’s ode to the wonder of life, performed by Yo-Yo Ma in a breathtaking animation, and his famed ode to a flower, then revisit Bertrand Russell on science as the key to democracy.
Published September 11, 2012