The Cataclysm Sentence

Radiolab recently did a podcast on a question Richard Feynman posed to a group of undergrads: “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?” I highly recommend checking the episode out, but it got me thinking on what sentence I would pass on.

I came up with something along the lines of this:

“We have been to the moon and back, sent machines further still, have all of the world’s information in the palm of our hands, and yet we are all but dust and shadows, extinguished by the tribal sentiments inherited millennia earlier, that we were ultimately unable to overcome.”

I chose the first part of this sentence because I wanted to convey what is possible. When humans have a concrete goal, we work harder and achieve that goal faster than when we fumble around searching for the next big thing. I assume that the next generation of creatures, if they are intelligent, might work the same way, and so I want to pass the message on of what we have achieved so that they are able to use those achievements as a model to develop technologically faster than we were.

The second part of my sentence has a built in assumption that we annihilate ourselves. I made that assumption partly because the context in which Feynman asked the question was influenced heavily by the Cold War and partly because I believe that if humans were to become extinct, it would be due to either our own action or our inaction. I specifically emphasize the danger of tribal sentiments because whenever I run down the list of existential risks, it is at the center of the cause. We ignore the risks of climate change because our various countries are split as to its dangers and because we cannot come together as a globe to address the issue. Nuclear annihilation would only happen if two or more nations were at odds with one another. Human-made pandemics would be caused by reckless experimentation due to lack of proper regulations and procedures which is rooted in competition between nations. Same with the existential risks posed by AI.

And so, I want to pass on the message of the need to unite to put the interests of our world ahead of the interests of ourselves/our nation. Do I think that that is possible? Most likely not. But, it’s the best sentence that I could come up with, and given enough iterations, hopefully some future generation of creatures really can unite in a global/universal sense.