One sentence challenge

By Risa Wechsler | December 21, 2006 1:46 pm

From Paul Kedrosky, via Rebecca Blood, an excellent challenge:

Physicist Richard Feynman once said that if all knowledge about physics was about to expire the one sentence he would tell the future is that “Everything is made of atoms”. What one sentence would you tell the future about your own area, whether it’s entrepreneurship, hedge funds, venture capital, or something else?

Examples: An economist might say that “People respond to incentives”. I had an engineering professor years ago who said all of that field could be reduced to “F=MA and you can’t push on a rope”.

There’s lots of good and diverse responses out there…

People power culture with the tools they have at hand.
The future is built by the curious — the people who take things apart and figure out how they work, figure out better ways of using a system, and explore how to make new things fit together in unexpected ways.
The only freedom that can never be taken away from us (and hence our only area of true control) is our response to a situation.
The Secret to Existance is Movement.
Whatever else you do, don’t skimp on backups or fire extinguishers.

This actually relates to a project I’ve been thinking about a bit, which maybe I’ll say more about later. Anyways, here’s my summary of the Universe in a sentence.

The Universe began, about 13.7 billion years ago, as a hot, dense soup of elementary particles, and has been expanding, cooling, and clumping ever since.

Readers, what’s your sentence? (Not limited to physics, of course!)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany, Science, Words
  • Schwaumlaut

    Heredity is a series of imperfect chemical processes that changes over time.

  • Ambitwistor

    U = 0.

  • Warren

    Bang the rocks together.

  • Get out of here

    Coca and Poppy are poison

  • citrine

    If a mathematical equation counts as a sentence, I’d nominate the SM Lagrangian.

  • Eugene


  • Floor

    Question everything! (Yes, even this)

  • nc

    The creation-annihilation loops in the vacuum are limited to the range of the IR cutoff (~1 fm) so they don’t justify “dark energy” which is a hoax due to a faulty use of general relativity uncorrected for redshift of quantum gravity mediating gauge bosons, which get redshifted when exchanged between receding masses (gravitational charges), weaking gravity and preventing the big bang expansion from slowing down due to gravity as Friedmann’s suggested.

  • Sean

    Risa’s sentence is good, although I think it’s cheating to use “and.” Thinking more big-picturey (which is another kind of cop-out), I’d really like to go with

    The world is not magic

    but ultimately I’d probably choose

    It works, Bitches!

  • John Sidles

    QSE is in NP.

  • Lee Sawyer

    Maybe the best thing to “send forward” would be one of the questions that got us (in the larger sense of modern science) started, like
    “Why do the apples fall straight down?” or
    “If I am moving at the speed of light and turn on a lamp, what do I see?” or
    “If I am in a eleavtor and the rope breaks, why don’t I feel my weight?”

    (Trouble is, there is a lot of cultural baggage associated with these sentences – words like “lamp” or “elevator” or the concept that light has a finite speed. How one would go about sending a message forward is quite interesting in its own right.)

    If we are limited to a simple declarative sentence, I would have to opt for “Never stop asking questions” and hope they figure out the rest.

  • Ed Minchau

    Thought is an emergent property of the signal-transformation quality of neurons.

  • Steve

    “Reality or Locality: at least one is false.”

  • Nate

    put the mentos in the coke

  • Martin Roth

    What passes for common sense is always revisable

  • Ryan

    The sustainable civilization must utilize only renewable sources of energy.

  • Spatulated

    open source your code.

  • George Ellis

    “It is bit” (John Wheeler)

  • Nick Fabry

    ‘It was briefly adventuorus, then wondorous, then glamorous, and fun, then it was economized, then terrorized, then downsized and it was done.’

    Nothing to do with physics or hedge funds, just with being an airline pilot.

  • seebee


  • Blake Stacey

    David Brin: “Criticism is the only known antidote to error.”

  • Garrett

    Never go for the first wave in a set.

  • DaCAP

    I have two:

    For human nature: “Everything about people comes down to three things: myth, power, and value.”

    For physics: The only thing that never changes is the speed of light in a vacuum – everything else is relative!

  • Jeff

    Going for Feynman-like simplicity and Sean-esque support of the scientific method, I’d utter “All knowledge of the universe is gained through hypotheses, repeatable experiments, and explanations.”

  • Rob

    If you want to understand anything of fundamental importance about anything at all, use mathematics.

  • Mat Ripley

    Min the banal max the anal.

  • Jed Harris

    Model it as a population.

  • Brendan

    Simplicity and clarity are more important than cleverness.

  • Yvette

    This is all a lot simpler and a lot more complicated than you could possibly imagine.

  • Q9

    The Universe in a tin, a tin of soup
    Who or what made the soup?
    Who or what opened the tin, and where did the tin go?
    Or if you prefer who or what let the genie out of the bottle?

  • Q9

    “the possibility that the entire universe arose as a quantum fluctuation”

    Lisa, not absolutely sure who to actually credit for being the first to have ever use those eleven words in that sequence. No doubt someone did.

  • Bob E

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge” _ big Al

  • Evan Murphy

    This is a fun game! A couple of my favorites from luminaries:

    The question of whether there are limitations in principle of what problems man can make machines solve for him as compared to his own ability to solve problems, really is a technical question in recursive function theory. (John McCarthy)

    Elegance is not a dispensable luxury but a quality that decides between success and failure. (Edsger Dijkstra, EWD1284)

    If I had to come up with one myself, it might be something like “Recursion is the basis of computation, and abstraction is the basis of describing it.”

    Also, many of Alan Perlis’s Epigrams on Programming are good.

    (I’ve been reading CV for a while; it’s good stuff! I haven’t had opportunity to post until now, though.)

  • Christopher L

    Being a computer scientist, the only thing I can think of to propagate to someone with no knowledge of the field in an attempt to bootstrap the science is:

    When building a computer, keep your data and programs in the same memory, and let the programs change the data freely.

    That’s the basic truth that allows turing machines to be so general.

  • handii

    All is expiring energy except for the truth which never expires and so is pure – either pure energy or pure nothingness.

  • handii

    Light and gravity are the only element of the universe and they are the same but the positive and negative of each other, everything is a product of these two elements.

  • handii

    “Reality or Locality: at least one is false.”
    Not false but relative.

  • ShadesOfTalmud

    A similar question was posed 2000 years ago about religion. Hillel gave an answer which has stood the test of time:
    “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

  • Katey

    Space and time are inherently linked.

  • Elliot

    The universe is fully explained by the Panthropic Principle. 😉


    (see “string wars” thread to fully appreciate this one sentence description)

  • Mick

    The most effective way to ensure progress is to first ensure freedom of speech.

  • schizo

    The Availability of time is a function of one’s priorities.

    without chocolate and coffee life would be all PMS on steroids.

  • kapakapa

    Ideas are powerful engines.

    Humans are fallible.

    Onions and matryoshka.

  • JMW

    Oscar Wilde: “Only the shallow know themselves.”

    Seems as good as anything else.

  • Navneeth

    String’s not the thing. 😉

  • Amara

    Cool! Here are some slogans I thought up to advertise, guess what?

    Good Honest Dust Since 5,000,000,000 BCE
    Which dust was your ancestor?
    I wish I were a Dust Traveler
    Gotta Lotta Dust
    Not your ordinary household dust
    Become the Dust

  • Pyracantha

    Art is whatever they pay for.

  • APic

    That big firey thing in the sky does not need to be worshipped for it to come back tomorrow.

  • John Phillips

    Curiosity is all.

  • Quasar9

    Amara – Ashes to ashes, Dust to Dust …
    A little ash, a little dust, mixed with water
    and a little breath is what living things are.
    Take away the breath, take away water
    and dust from dust, space dust is what living things are.
    I gathered me some dust – and voila!
    Stars & galaxies, planets & life – and oh la la

  • KundryVolare

    all advice sums up to:
    Do as i say, not as i do.
    Do as i do, not as i say.

    determining the correct application per RWE is the rub!

  • Darrell

    When things start going bad, roll on more throttle.

    Be skeptical about everything, but also be willing to seriously consider the ideas of others, especially those that you disagree with.

    If you haven’t tested it in the real world don’t trust it.

    To really know something you have to find it’s limits.

  • Sean

    Most of these are closer to rules to live by than “summations of your field,” it seems. Within every blog reader lives an advice columnist yearning to be free.

  • Flywheel

    If you’re rich you can afford to be stupid, but you won’t be rich for long.

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  • Count Iblis

    No need to write something original here, we can just quote David Hilbert: “Physics is much too hard for physicists

  • Count Iblis

    Perturbative series used physics are often divergent, but they often give very good approximations. The mathematical physicist George F. Carrier explained why this is the case in one sentence:
    Divergent series converge faster than convergent series because they don’t have to converge.

  • Ken Muldrew

    Things are numbers and numbers are things, Bitches!

  • Steve

    To paraphrase RPF’s “Everything is made of atoms”:

    “All information is symbols”

  • Guillermo Alcántara

    Computer science. Don’t Repeat Yourself

    Damn, I’m an advice columnist! 😛

  • Count Iblis

    Thermodynamics resolves this paradox: “Given that energy is conserved, why do we need to conserve energy?

  • Martin Richard

    “The 3 Laws of Thermodynamics: You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you gotta play.” –free-floating meme

    “If you seek mind, you find only matter; if you seek matter, you find only mind.” –zen meme

    “If you got it nailed down, what’s all that around it?” –Brother Dave Gardner

    “Reality is a hypothetical construct.” –Martin Richard

    And meanwhile:
    “Wine is a chemical symphony.” –Maynard Amerine

    And thus it follows:

    “Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
    The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
    The Bird of Time has but a little way
    To fly–and lo! the Bird is on the Wing.”

    Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
    To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
    One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
    The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

    Myself when young did eagerly frequent
    Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
    About it and about: but evermore
    Came out by the same Door as in I went.”
    –Omar Khayyam

  • cjl

    From my campaign hack days: Never turn down the opportunity to eat or use the bathroom.
    From my PR flack days: Never p*ss off people who buy ink by the barrel.

  • Alexey Petrov

    This one is from Rutherford: “In science, there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.” :-)

  • Fred

    I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.

  • John Sidles

    “Physicians [also scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and even philosophers] are defined by the tools at their disposal.”

  • Suresh

    How about this, for computer science:

    “A state machine with infinite tape is the only computer you’ll ever need”.

    and this, the moral of theoretical computer science as opposed to math:

    “Ask not what exists, but ask rather what can be computed”.

  • spyder

    My father always told me that “the universe and all that it contains can be described by mathematical ratios.”
    I said that “moderation in the extremes of excess is intelligent.”
    Now i say: “Good Luck, and thanks for all the Physh.”

  • Qubit

    To travel faster than light, turn off the switch and run in the dark!

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  • Sammy

    You have evolved like everything other living thing, and continue to do so without a master plan.

  • Bahearn

    Don’t think, look!

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  • Arun

    There is no one sentence guide to reality.

  • lorcanmask

    The map is not the territory.

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  • Lab Lemming

    “Rocks are made of elements.”

  • Khandurian

    Dont take the RED PILL!!

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Feynman on physics probably can’t be improved.

    Acting: Before you do anything on stage, take a breath. (Tyron Guthrie)

    Biology: All life has a common ancestor. (Darwin)

    Chemistry: See Feynman on Physics

    Geology: This place is **old** and the rocks move!

    Meterorology: The winds and the weather are powered by differential heating and steered by the Earth’s rotation.

    Blog Commenting: stop sooner rather than later.

  • Ben

    It’s all knowable, and it’s waiting for you.

  • Joe Fitzsimons

    …..Except for undecidable questions.

    How about: Quantum (non-classical) states are really really useful, especially the entangled ones!

  • Kaleberg

    From My Programming Days: The hard part is figuring out what people want computers to do, and the less hard part is telling the computers how to do it.

    From My Investing Days: There is no such thing as value, there is only price. [Surprisingly few people undertand this. One can only approximate value by performing pricing experiments which is why we need things like stock exchanges.]

    From My Legal Days: If you have the facts, pound the facts, if you have the law, pound the law, if you have neither, pound the table. [This is an old legal maxim.]

    From My Accounting Days: There is no such thing as truth. [This is an actual quote from one of the accountants trying to explain a cash surplus during NYCs bankruptcy days.]

    From My Fundraising Days: There is more money in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies. [Physicists might find this useful when investigating dark matter.]

    From My Mathematical Days: There is no such thing as truth, there is only proof.

    From My Cooking Days: No one has ever invented a new dish. [This is courtesy of Andre Soltner of Lutece, a great chef and a wonderful restauranteur, who claimed never to have invented a new dish.]

    From My Genetic Days: The first law of heredity is that if your parents didn’t have any children, neither will you. [I believe they have identified the childless gene.]

    From My Aviation Days: It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. [Courtesy of Dave Touretsky back in his CMU days when we all shared “plan” files instead of having web pages.]

  • zq

    If physics is governed by one law, it must be the Extremum Principle.

  • Chris Oakley

    On the door of a philosophy professor at a Canadian University:

    Coito, ergo sum

  • Ponderer of Things

    Particles are also waves.


    Electrons in solids *usually* behave as if they don’t see each other or the atomic lattice.

  • Paul Valletta

    On the question of our relation to Time, I say :

    Between Two points in Space, there is One Time,between Two points in Time there is but One Space.

  • mleeph

    On science in general:

    “No– look again.”

  • Count Iblis

    Obesity in America described in one sentence (note the similarity to inflation of the early universe) :)

    Americans are not just getting fatter, they are ballooning to extremely obese proportions at an alarming rate.

  • Sandra

    Behaviour is based in the brain.

  • Stu Savory

    There are no gods.

  • Nicholas




  • Nick Herbert

    I have just discovered an elegant Theory
    of Everything but one sentence is not enough to

  • Abbas Raza

    My field is comp. sci. and I would say: “You can build anything out of nand gates.” (If needed one could replace “nand gates” with their definition.)

    Also, as an erstwhile philosopher of language, I’d say: “The meaning of a word is public and depends on the meanings of other words.” If the “and” is considered cheating, then use the part after “and.”

  • Abbas Raza

    Sorry, what I meant in the previous comment is that if the “and” is cheating then delete the words “is public and”.

  • Markas Read

    my pearl of wisdom to future generations is this:
    “never read the threads”

  • Roy Belmont

    Time is a wave.

  • Walter

    Nothing is free.

  • liz

    live curiously.

  • Fernando

    People evolved from apes.

  • zenobia

    I’m an archaeologist and it’s already been said:

    “This too will change.”

  • charles

    “The brain is a non-linear transmission line and may be compared to a copper wire which also has input and output but insufficient complexity to have opinions of its own.”

  • Rahul Gupta

    Got the following Text Message (Called SMS in some parts of the world) on my Mobile phone. Does it qualify ass a distillation of Life:-

    No one dies a virgin…… Life f***s everybody…..

  • Scott

    It’s all been said before.

  • Sidi Mohammed

    The more we have the less we are … or … we grow up through self diminution.

  • Robin

    For much of sociology, anthro, political science and even econ:

    In the beginning was the deed.

  • simulacra

    Close–now look at it sidewise.

  • catman306

    I am the Universe, and so are you.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Thinking/talking about creator(s) is thinking/talking about the unknowable and is a complete waste of time.

  • Greg Peterson

    One of my degrees is in Biblical Studies. I’d say this about the Bible:

    It is mostly incoherent plagiarism, assembled by people with agendas, and never intended to be relevant 20 centuries later.

  • mc2

    To paraphrase the great Carl Sagan

    You need equal doses of skepticism and wonder.

    One question though:

    Of course if we are loosing all knowledge, can we guarentee that language will develop to be the same and hence our statements be comprehensible?

  • Louie

    Everything is pointless.

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  • James D. Miller

    Seek truth through mathematics and experimentation.

  • Steve

    All is One and One is all; and the better we understand particular things, the better we understand God.

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  • john

    if you get a splinter put a circle around it and pull it out after work.

  • Rose

    On the Mind and Consciousness: Your hard wired self includes the all upgraded model to include 4 miles of synaptic cables all inter connected into a self contained evolutional genius.

  • John

    God is the only one who can make a living at writing complex poetry.

  • Stephen Uitti

    There are no absolute truths.
    There is an exception to every rule.

    The Universe is the ultimate free lunch.
    In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
    — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

    You may not be coming from where I’m coming from, but I know relativism isn’t true for me.
    — Alan Garfinkle

    Computer Science:
    Any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature.
    — Rich Kulawiec
    “It’s pretty clear that the facts show that Windows provides a lower total cost of ownership than Linux, the number of security vulnerabilities is lower on Windows, and Windows’ responsiveness on security is better than Linux.”
    — Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, November 2004

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