Feynman’s Approach to Definition
In 1961, Caltech invited Richard Feynman to take over the introductory course in physics. While teaching this course, Feynman 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 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.”
Feynman’s approach didn’t seek to define what the word physics means. As he noted in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, this is “just a label—it doesn’t tell you anything about what it actually is.” So, instead, he set out a simple statement that nonetheless contains a huge amount of information. As psychologists know, making someone process information rather than simply giving them an answer is a more effective approach in helping them to build deep knowledge.
More recently, Michael Pollan summarized healthy eating as, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The key takeaways from this statement are messages around eating real food rather than over-processed junk, showing restraint in the quantities of food you consume, and the benefits of favoring plants over meat or fish as the largest portion of the diet.
Most people consume articles on the Web like candy. Their brain is briefly engaged and their immediate need for information is satisfied, but little sinks in—at least little of any real value. The more deeply someone engages with content, the more likely they are to remember it.
I like these statements from Feynman and Pollan because they encapsulate a huge amount of information if the listener is prepared to think deeply about these statements and consider how they might translate into a more formal understanding of that information, as well as how to act.