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The Cataclysm Sentence

The Cataclysm Sentence

Update: 2023-06-3022


Sad news for all of us: producer Rachael Cusick— who brought us soul-stirring stories rethinking grief ( and solitude (, as well as colorful musings on airplane farts ( and belly flops ( and Blueberry Earths (— is leaving the show. So we thought it perfect timing to sit down with her and revisit another brainchild of hers, The Cataclysm Sentence, a collection of advice for The End.

To explain: one day in 1961, the famous physicist Richard Feynman stepped in front of a Caltech lecture hall and posed this question to a group of undergraduate students: “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?” Now, Feynman had an answer to his own question—a good one. But his question got the entire team at Radiolab wondering, what did his sentence leave out? So we posed Feynman’s cataclysm question to some of our favorite writers, artists, historians, futurists—all kinds of great thinkers. We asked them “What’s the one sentence you would want to pass on to the next generation that would contain the most information in the fewest words?” What came back was an explosive collage of what it means to be alive right here and now, and what we want to say before we go.


Richard Feynman, physicist - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (

Caitlin Doughty, mortician - Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs (

Esperanza Spalding, musician - 12 Little Spells (

Cord Jefferson, writer - Watchmen (

Merrill Garbus, musician - I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life (

Jenny Odell, writer - How to do Nothing (

Maria Popova, writer - Brainpickings (

Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist - The Gardener and the Carpenter (

Rebecca Sugar, animator - Steven Universe (

Nicholson Baker, writer - Substitute (

James Gleick, writer - Time Travel (

Lady Pink, artist - too many amazing works to pick just one (

Jenny Hollwell, writer - Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe (

Jaron Lanier, futurist - Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (

Missy Mazzoli, composer - Proving Up (


Special Thanks to:

Ella Frances Sanders, and her book, "Eating the Sun" (, for inspiring this whole episode.

Caltech for letting us use original audio of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. The entirety of the lectures are available to read for free online at

All the musicians who helped make the Primordial Chord, including:

Siavash Kamkar (, from Iran 

Koosha Pashangpour (, from Iran

Curtis MacDonald (, from Canada

Meade Bernard (, from US

Barnaby Rea (, from UK

Liav Kerbel (, from Belgium

Sam Crittenden (, from US

Saskia Lankhoorn (, from Netherlands

Bryan Harris (, from US

Amelia Watkins (, from Canada

Claire James (, from US

Ilario Morciano (, from Italy

Matthias Kowalczyk, from Germany (

Solmaz Badri (, from Iran

All the wonderful people we interviewed for sentences but weren’t able to fit in this episode, including: Daniel Abrahm, Julia Alvarez, Aimee Bender, Sandra Cisneros, Stanley Chen, Lewis Dartnell, Ann Druyan, Rose Eveleth, Ty Frank, Julia Galef, Ross Gay, Gary Green, Cesar Harada, Dolores Huerta, Robin Hunicke, Brittany Kamai, Priya Krishna, Ken Liu, Carmen Maria Machado, James Martin, Judith Matloff, Ryan McMahon, Hasan Minhaj, Lorrie Moore, Priya Natarajan, Larry Owens, Sunni Patterson, Amy Pearl, Alison Roman, Domee Shi, Will Shortz, Sam Stein, Sohaib Sultan, Kara Swisher, Jill Tarter, Olive Watkins, Reggie Watts, Deborah Waxman, Alex Wellerstein, Caveh Zahedi.


Reported by - Rachael Cusick (

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Comments (2)

Paul Towning

We know more than we can say!?!? In what weird post cataclysmic world would that be of any use to this hypothetical species of philosophically inclined hedonistic seals? The question posed by Feynman was what is the maximum information that could be conveyed in the fewest words, with the implied purpose of doing what physics does, attempting to describe how the world works. His own answer is very hard/impossible to beat. Your assumption that this subsequent species who inherits the statement is non human is not evident in Feynman's question. A rare dud in a generally interesting series of podcasts.

Jul 16th

Mike Turner

eye roll, another rerun

Jul 1st
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