29/12/2012

come the end of knowledge

Death of Knowledge; book, Cut, death, knife, knowledge, stab
Eric Smith (2007)

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 on 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.
- Richard Feynman


Asked some mates what single piece of information they would pass on were all modern knowledge destroyed. Was hoping their answers would reveal something essential about them, but I did expect some trolling too - which can anyway also be essential. (JH: "Careful now that swan could break your arm".)

CW: "Eat lots of veg."

RM: "Either that the Earth is spherical and 4.5 billion years old [cheat!] or that all people are descended from a common ancestor and any genetic difference between them is superficial. I'm not sure which would do more good."

CR: "Wear sunscreen"

SS: "π is an irrational number. Don't worry about finishing it."

JM: "I'd tell them directions to a place. We would rebuild there. It would be like Thunderdome."

MR: "Dunno. What I've been told: hold your beliefs lightly."

NM: "Maybe I would pass on that there is a large hairy humanoid in the North American forests. And from then on, Bigfoot would be considered factual and hard to disbelieve as there are very many similar species that are proven to exist. Furthermore I would say to them that weed is a fine herbal medicinal remedy. Which in many ways it is!"

JMcL: "Desiderata".


I love the existential ones, but would probably opt for something practical like "Invisibly tiny creatures cause most disease, and soap kills them." or "Rotate your fucking crops, guys!"

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CW and BC wondered what was so great about Feynman's pick (charged atomic theory). I agree it's not obvious or instantly practical (atomism only became useful in like 1803 in our timeline, after all.) But the wee qualitative sentence above implies reductionism, which attitude eventually gets you proper quant chemistry, medicine, engineering. And there's a few things you could deduce without much apparatus, like Boyle's law, Proust's law etc. So it maybe saves them a few thousand years.

Of course, you can then question whether getting ourselves massive instrumental power all over again is necessarily the safest move, given that the bulk of the lethal global risks we face comes from our own activity...


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BC: "Always back up your work."


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