In his famous Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman presented this interesting speculation:
“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) 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.”
Fascinated by Feynman’s question, Seed put a similar one to a number of leading thinkers: “Imagine—much as Feynman asked his audience—that in a mission to change everyone’s thinking about the world, you can take only one lesson from your field as a guide. In a single statement, what would it be?” Here are their answers:
“The scale of the human socio-economic-political complex system is so large that it seriously interferes with the biospheric complex system upon which it is wholly dependant, and cultural evolution has been too slow to deal effectively with the resulting crisis.”
—Paul R. Ehrlich is president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.
“Humans have a tendency to fall prey to the illusion that their economy is at the very center of the universe, forgetting that the biosphere is what ultimately sustains all systems, both man-made and natural. In this sense, ‘environmental issues’ are not about saving the planet—it will always survive and evolve with new combinations of atom—but about the prosperous development of our own species.”
—Carl Folke is the science director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University.
“The same mathematics of networks that governs the interactions of molecules in a cell, neurons in a brain, and species in an ecosystem can be used to understand the complex interconnections between people, the emergence of group identity, and the paths along which information, norms, and behavior spread from person to person to person.”
—James Fowler is a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.
“We started human life as hunter-gatherers, where contact with others, kin and non-kin, was the center of human life, social and moral. Begin by holding hands and talking, face to face, recalling our shared evolutionary history, and the importance of human nature.”
—Marc Hauser is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University.
“The dazzling diversity of species and biological adaptations over 3.5 billion years of life on Earth owes its existence to “adaptation by natural selection,” which requires just three simple conditions to operate: variation, differential selection (the best performing traits survive and reproduce more effectively than others), and replication of successful traits by subsequent generations, via a double helix of molecules that code for proteins as biological building blocks, or among more complex animals, via imitation or cultural transmission of methods and knowledge.”
—Dominic Johnson is a reader in politics and international relations at Edinburgh University.
“The biosphere is the largest and most important asset of our planet—a vast living natural market that contains and makes our individual lives, human society, and the economy possible.”
—Enric Sala is a National Geographic Fellow and associate professor at Spain’s National Research Council.
“Frequently, the way to understand a complicated system is to understand its component parts, but that’s probably not the case for the most interesting complicated systems—like us.”
—Robert Sapolsky is a biologist and professor of neurology at Stanford University.
“You can make sense of anything that changes smoothly in space or time, no matter how wild and complicated it may appear, by reimagining it as an infinite series of infinitesimal changes, each proceeding at a constant (and hence much simpler) rate, and then adding all those simple little changes back together to reconstitute the original whole.”
—Steven Strogatz is a mathematician at Cornell University.
“Many social and natural phenomena—societies, economies, ecosystems, climate systems—are complex evolving webs of interdependent parts whose collective behavior cannot be reduced to a sum of parts; small, gradual changes in any component can trigger catastrophic and potentially irreversible changes in the entire system that can propagate, in domino fashion, even across traditional disciplinary boundaries.”
—George Sugihara is a theoretical biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
“I take the easy way out by quoting another eminent scientist. In Cosmos Carl Sagan said, ‘We are made of star stuff.’ That simple statement does not encompass the physics of the earliest moments of the universe, but it encompasses its evolutionary history, from the formation of the first stars, which enriched the universe with additional elements, to the creation of planetary systems, and life and humanity on the planet Earth. Because it emphasizes our intimate and direct connection with the cosmos, it admits the possibility that others are, or have been, or may be, likewise connected.”
—Jill Tarter is the director of the SETI Institute’s Center for SETI Research.
“Knowledge is a public good and increases in value as the number of people possessing it increases.”
—John Wilbanks is vice president of science at Creative Commons.
Originally published April 22, 2011