If, in some cataclysm, all 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 (or 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 an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol. I (1964)
Perhaps this is churlish (!) …
I think that Feynman’s “but” – which is basically “and” – is cheating: if we’re allowed to use a conjunction to join two similar premises, then we can just concatenate all of the true statements of science into one big one, and leave that as the repository of all scientific knowledge.
Which leads on to a further question: imagine we’re not allowed conjunctions (*): what statement would you choose to leave to the next generation?
(*) Let’s say that your statement is a conjunction if one of your peers can find a way of splitting it up into one, rather than just if you’ve phrased it as one. This is a kind of challenge, after all. For example, from Feynman’s example above, I might choose, “all things are made of … little particles that move around in perpetual motion.”
He expresses a valid point, although what good this knowledge might bring to a retarded species it’s hard to say. I doubt that pharaoh Tutankhamen or emperor Caesar would have taken this knowledge and do something useful with it.
In other words, I don’t think that technological advances can be made in huge leaps. You have to gather momentum before you understand the phenomena yet alone find practical applications for it.