The theory of everything, and more

I have felt a hunger lately.

I have felt an insatiable desire to wrap my arms around the entire world and understand its every nook and cranny. I want to cradle the globe in my arms, whisper my secrets to her, and wait for her confessions to be whispered back to me.

I still remember back in high school when I resolutely decided I was going to study physics in college. I can still remember what I wrote in my application essays — physics is the science that underlies the entire universe. Physics can explain everything. Ironically, five years later, there is still no agreed upon “theory of everything” in the physics community, but I think a part of me thought I was going to single-handedly figure it all out back then.

As it turns out, graduating with a degree in physics did not lead me to uncovering the secrets of our universe. The real secret, I sometimes fear, is that I really wasn’t much of a physicist, anyways….

That being said, I have not given up on my passion for finding answers. What has changed is the realization that if I really want to understand the world, I cannot just do it through science. And I realize that as a first year engineering PhD student, I have five long years of science ahead of me, but what I mean is that you wouldn’t try to understand love by only studying how adrenaline and dopamine work. You would fall in love — and feel every part of it.

I remember going to a poetry reading back at Carnegie Mellon a few years back. During the Q&A session, someone asked the poet why he decided to become a writer. “Because I resisted specialization,” he said.

He kept switching majors because he was passionate about so many different things that he couldn’t pick just one. In the end, he realized that poetry was the one thing that let him combine all his interests, synthesize different concepts through his own interpretation. I remember frantically pulling out my notebook to scribble down his quote so that I wouldn’t forget it, but I guess I let it slip my mind — until now.  

There’s a Barnes and Noble in the student center at Penn State, and earlier this week on a particularly long day, I decided to stop by to pick up a coffee. My friend had told me that it’s better to get coffee at the in-store Starbucks at Barnes and Noble than go to the real Starbucks because the line is much shorter — but instead of saving time, I found myself weaving through the bookshelves for an hour after getting my coffee (my friend was right though, there really was no line! Pro tip.)

I couldn’t help myself. It had been a while since my last bookstore excursion, and I found myself wanting every book that I laid my eyes on. I wanted Mary’s Karr’s memoir, last month’s New Yorker, a collection of 2015’s best magazine pieces, a cookbook, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, a European history book, and a Star Wars encyclopedia. As I darted from shelf to shelf, enthused by fresh caffeine, I realized that I resisted specialization, too.

The research group that I work in places a large emphasis on developing cheaper, more efficient materials for solar cells. But I don’t just want to sit in my lab learning everything there is to know about poly(3-hexylthiophene-2,5-diyl) — I want to pick up that New Yorker and read Elizabeth Kolbert’s story about climate change and Florida’s disappearing coast and understand why we actually need better solar cells. I don’t just want to watch the 2016 presidential debates — I want to refresh my memory on all of American history, way back to the Mayflower. I don’t want to be immersed in my own world, my own life, and my own experiences — I want to read the biographies and memoirs of my many idols and learn through their experiences, too.

I want to see the big picture. I want to connect it all together.

I feel like I’ve grown up backwards, that I am feeling that child-like wonder again, and that the world has all at once become an endless place of infinite new things to learn. I am determined not only to appreciate every shape in its kaleidoscope, but to find beauty in their combined pattern.

To be honest, I think string theory confuses me more than it helps me understand the universe. But in my own little way…I’m already creating a “theory of everything.” And I think I like this version better.