It’s Not All About You! | Psychology Today

(PSYCHOLOGY TODAY) Carlin Flora, March 9, 2016 — Not only will the experience of awe make us feel alive, it might also help us conquer our daily self-absorption. All this by simply paying attention to nature and the world around us.

Learning about the universe—and our place in it—is one of the most mind-blowing experiences of childhood (that and realizing parents are just, well, people). Few children go on to explicate nature’s greatest mysteries, but Michio Kaku, now a theoretical physicist and science popularizer, did. When awe first struck him, Kaku was 8 years old, and his teacher had just announced that a great scientist had died. She held up a classic photo of Albert Einstein at his desk and pointed out his unfinished manuscript in the picture. Kaku said to himself, “I want to have a crack at it.” His feeling of awe came not just from the formation of this grandiose goal but from the idea that the universe is knowable. The world might seem unfathomable, he says, but, astonishingly, “you can summarize it on a sheet of paper, using the formulas of physics.”

Physicists struggled to reconcile Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum physics. As one of the originators of string field theory—which posits the existence of multiple universes and unknown dimensions, as well as one-dimensional extended objects known as strings—Kaku met his goal of carrying on Einstein’s work. Strings vibrate in space, not unlike the strings on a violin, and when they do, at different frequencies, they manifest as different particles and forces of nature. Gravity, then, would be like an F-sharp, while electro-weak interactions (part of quantum physics) would be like an E-flat. Kaku’s was a sublime achievement, especially for someone from humble and challenging origins—he was the son of a gardener and a maid, both of whom spent time in internment camps during WWII. That first moment of wonder, his youthful epiphany, is, he says, “ still the well from which I draw water when I’m tired and need refreshment.”

“There are thousands of papers on string theory,” he says. “Once in a while, one is beautiful.” To a physicist, Kaku says, symmetry is beauty: “It’s turning mounds and mounds of formulas into a simple, elegant, symmetrical equation. It’s symmetry that emerges out of chaos, like a diamond formed after years spent putting together pieces of shattered crystal.” Our drive to seek out beauty in the universe, Kaku says, has allowed humans to probe its most puzzling questions.

 This kind of beauty also allows us to zoom the camera lens far out from our tiny settings. “All your selfish little concerns mean nothing next to the grandeur of the universe,” says Kaku. “Awe gives you an existential shock. You realize that you are hardwired to be a little selfish, but you are also dependent on something bigger than yourself. Einstein was a tremendous influence on us because he was a messenger from the stars. We look at the stars and think, ‘My problems are so trivial compared to the majesty of the night sky.’”

Source: It’s Not All About You! | Psychology Today