One dark, cold Winter night, in the pine forest near the foothills of the Rockies, a small rabbit runs across a snow-littered meadow. His small feet crunch the rocks as he makes a break for his warren. In the deep silence, a sudden flash and the night becomes day for a brief moment. Seconds tick by as the light rises and slowly fades, an eerie backdrop to the silence. Minutes later, a great tidal wave of energy flattens the forest, the rocks, the warrens, the sleeping life that will continue to sleep. Forever.
In the wake of this powerful destruction, debris falls from the sky, littering the once verdant land with the detritus of its previous inhabitants. Plastic, wood, ash – all drifting in the growing silence. A single white piece of paper, seemingly untouched by the devastation, floats down, swinging wide in the light wind until it reaches the ground. It has the scratches of some writing embedded in its fibers.
What does this writing say?
This is the question that Richard Feynman posed to his physics students on the first day of his new physics curriculum at CalTech in 1961. This question is highlighted in a recent Radiolab episode, entitled “The Cataclysm Sentence” as well as in his collected lectures, called “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.” Rather than teaching his students the history of physics, he wanted them to think critically, creatively, and for themselves.
He posited this question:
If, in some cataclysm, all of the scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence was passed onto the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?
His own answer to that question is covered in both places; the twist that Radiolab put on this question was to ask writers, artists, musicians, and contemporary scientists – what would your sentence say?
Feynman’s answer is at once interesting and a cultural legacy. Here is what he said:
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.
We could take time to unpack his response, or we could delve into our own. Or, we could wander around the purpose of such a sentence, and how might a Freemason answer.
What would the purpose of such a sentence be? What sort of creatures would pick it up? I imagine that this thinking was once applied to the study of Lemuria or Atlantis, and what their civilizations had left for us. From Plato, we learn of Atlantis, which existing approximately 11,000 years ago. It is considered a myth, a metaphor, a fact, and all things in between. In truth, we have no writings existent from Atlantis, and only Plato (and his character’s word) that it existed. Lemuria, an even fainter impression of a culture and continent, is said to have existed up to 52,000 years ago, in the Indian Ocean, and fell to ruin by Nature’s hand around 16,000 B.C.E.. In this case, the Tamil’s claim that this land, Kumari Kandam, was the “cradle of civilization” and that it was, like Atlantis, a thriving civilization but to theosophists, it was the place where humanity took form. Again, we have Tamil folklore and speculation by both theosophists and 19th C.E. anthropologists but we have nothing written directly from this civilization.
In both cases, no such miracle sentence was imparted to us, no wisdom floating to us through the ages. We might imagine that Plato was telling us that Atlantis’ sentence was “Don’t get greedy.” From Lemuria, it might be “Experience everything as human,” or perhaps “Become.” As their worlds were ending, did any of them think of another race of humans? Would we?
Feynman’s question was specific in that he didn’t specify “humans,” but creatures. Creatures. This presupposes they would understand whatever language was written down or that they would understand the reference. In the Radiolab episode, the answers that artists and philosophers provided were at once strange, funny, serious, and deep. The idea here is that the sentence “jump starts” the next “human” race, or race of advanced creatures, whatever that might be.
CAITLIN DOUGHTY: For me, it’s something like you will die, and that’s the most important thing.
ESPERANZA SPALDING: …The willingness to respond creatively to fear, without trying to eradicate the source of the fear.
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: [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: 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. (Speaking of a Japanese farmer who created “Do Nothing Farming.”
ALISON GOPNICK: Why?
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.
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.
JARON LANIER: I would give them nothing….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.
Since I listened to this episode and looked into Feynman’s life, and subsequently, delved into Physics and thought experiments, and the meaning of humanity, the answer on the piece of paper that I write has to be something that would be unique to the creature reading it. In this, I think Freemasonry, and really mystery schools overall, has the far view. If we’re working to the perfecting of humanity, we know we have a long, long road ahead, and possibly many lifetimes. Freemasonry looks to the soul of humanity itself, and works to ascertain its perfection. What would we leave to the next generation of souls to inhabit the universe? Maybe we can’t even say until we’re at the end of our own existence. My hope is that is farther away than closer.
My thoughts stray to what I learned from long-dead philosophers in Greece, precursors to modernity, leftovers from Atlantis. They didn’t know me, and their civilization has perished. What did they leave me, to provide me hope to carry on? My sentence would be “nosce te ipsum.” It transcends everything.
I’m curious to know – what would your sentence be?