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Restarting Civilisation Episode 3


Richard Feynman once 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 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.’

So we asked the people featured in this app what scientific idea they would like in their back pocket in the event we had to restart civilisation.

I’m reluctant to disagree with Feynman.

So, Feynman said the one thing, if we had to remember it to build a civilization, would be the atom.  The idea that material, the universe, is building blocks, and I’m reluctant to disagree with Feynman.

People might say, ‘Well, we’re bound to figure that out.  That’s kind of obvious that the world’s made of bits.  Everything’s made of bits so wouldn’t we just extend that to the micro-world.’  And yet it’s a relatively new idea.  Certainly, um, there was this idea of the four elements and the idea that you have combinations but the idea that you have individual particles, whether that’s atoms or neutrons or quarks or whatever, it’s a relatively new idea.  It comes up with people like Dalton in the world of chemistry but the actual existence of atoms as far as I can tell took – I wouldn’t say it took an Einstein – it took Einstein.  Einstein’s experiments on Brownian motion seem to be the ones that really proved – or his analysis of Brownian motion, seems to be the thing that really proved – to us that the world really is made of atoms.  So it’s not an obvious thing for us to know!  And if we have to rebuild civilisation I’d be very happy to use that as a springboard to rebuild science from scratch.