Never Trust a Physicist

Unabashedly, I’m an NPR baby. Some of my earliest childhood memories can be traced back to the passenger seat of my dad’s metallic blue Jetta: listening to Radiolab on the drive home from school. I’m antsy and sweating and hungry. My only solace is Jad Abumrad’s soothing, semi-scientific narrative. Unsurprisingly, I’m still a casual Radiolab consumer, and will never shy away from hitting my friends with a cheeky “Did you know?” mere hours after listening. Admittedly, I am also a chemistry major, and was recently seduced by a rerun sporting the title: “The Cataclysm Sentence,” an anthology of responses to Richard Feynman’s infamous open-ended undergrad lecture question,

“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?”

At once, Feynman forced me to evaluate my own importance as a scientist: what can we define as “essential” knowledge? Simultaneously, my values as a human became suspect. What merit do I invest in “knowledge” and “progress” rather than experience?

To the former point, I was immediately tempted to vest my personal answer to Feynman’s question on a chemical basis. Identifying the fundamental bedrock of chemistry was simple: the electron. The properties of the electron define practically all of chemistry, regardless of subfield. In organic chemistry, the chemical bond is of central importance. Nucleophilicity and electrophilicity, the key properties dictating reactivity of a given molecule or molecules, are determined by the distribution of electrons between and across atoms. In everyday peptide synthesis, for example, forming a single linkage involves no less than the movement of some 20 electrons. In physical chemistry, likewise, describing the distribution of electrons about a nucleus or nuclei is essential to understanding the nature of chemical bonding. The list is non-exhaustive.

Subject in hand, I set out to construct my “Cataclysm Sentence” around the electron, but again found myself at a wall.

One of the salient features of a degree in chemistry is an uncomfortable familiarity with the history of the electron and atom. Why? Because our understanding of the electron has been some two hundred years in the making. J.J. Thomson’s cathode ray tube experiments suggested the existence of the electron as an entity. Thomas Young’s double slit experiment laid the foundation for conformation of Louis deBroglie’s theory of wave particle duality. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford proposed models of the atom, both of which sought to characterize the behavior of electrons about a nucleus. Clearly, there is some pedagogical value in relentlessly recounting this narrative: students are forced to consider the evolution of competing theories about atomic structure, chemical bonding, and particle physics, while also garnering an appreciation for the scientific method and the development of our current theories. In addition, we are forced to appreciate that even the best of our models are fraught with inconsistency, error, or approximation.

This realization, ultimately, begged a question baked intrinsically into Feynman’s. What knowledge do we, as a species, feel comfortable and confident passing down to the next generation? Is it truly some scientific fact which will irreversibly alter the course of human existence to come? First hand sources report that the Cataclysm Sentence was something that Feynman and his colleagues at Caltech spent considerable time discussing and debating. Ultimately, they settled on a rather satisfying formulation:

“It is the atomic hypothesis or… fact or whatever you want to call it, that all things are made out of atoms, little particles that move around, are in perpetual motion, attract each other when they’re some distance apart but repel being squeezed into one another.”

This sentence carries an astonishing volume of complexity. The first clause, “It is the atomic hypothesis or the atomic fact or whatever you want to call it” acknowledges, though implicitly, the point illustrated earlier—there is a fine line between theory and fact, which is often poorly understood. He then proceeds to account for electrostatics, Newtonian physics, the fundamental underpinnings of chemistry and biology. But again, this begs a follow-up question: who’s to say that understanding the atomic hypothesis before understanding simpler phenomena is the catalyst for success of future generations of humans and scientists? Why must we constrain ‘significance’ to physical science? Of course, this is the point of an open-ended question.

Ultimately, and perhaps disappointingly, settling on any sort of answer to the Cataclysm Question left a poor taste in my mouth. If I’ve learned anything from some fifteen years of schooling, it’s that we usually learn better from experience. For millennia, humans have taken it upon themselves to build, experiment, standardize, and better characterize the world about them. These abstract notions, not the more explicit atomic hypothesis, nor the discovery of the electron, nor any other brief sentence, are the bedrock of discovery and progress. And, unfortunately, they are not communicable, but empirically derived.

Thus, we have reached my personal favorite answer: “I would give them nothing.”

[1] Young, D. W. (2020). Solution-phase FMOC-based peptide synthesis for DNA-encoded chemical
libraries: Reaction conditions, protecting group strategies and Pitfalls. ACS Combinatorial Science, 22(12), 833–843. https://doi.org/10.1021/acscombsci.0c00144.s001

[2] Abumrad, J. & Cusick, R. (Hosts). (2020, April 18). The Cataclysm Sentence. [Audio podcast
episode]. In Radiolab. WNYC. https://radiolab.org/podcast/cataclysm-sentence

[3] Feynman, R. P. (2006). Matter is made of atoms. In The feynman lectures on physics. essay, Pearson