In an auditorium at CERN, Tyson Klein stood behind a wooden podium, watching his colleagues arrive. It was the end of the workday, and most seemed tired. They shuffled in and plopped down in the folding seats, stowing their messenger bags and backpacks at their feet, weary eyes staring at him, silently saying, this better be worth getting home late for.
It would be.
This talk would be the most important of his entire career. And possibly theirs.
The slides-and the discovery they detailed-were the culmination of twelve years of research into his life’s work, The Theory of Everything. The data he was about to reveal was, he believed, the key to discovering a master theory that would unite the opposing branches of modern physics. If he was right, this breakthrough would resolve scientific mysteries that had haunted the world’s greatest minds, from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking. More than that, Ty believed that his discovery might answer the deepest questions of human existence:
Why do we seem to be alone in the universe?
Where did we come from?
And what is the future of the human race?
What is our destiny?
Ty had spent his entire life pursuing those questions. Now the answers were within reach. He simply needed what all scientists eventually require:
time and money.
He was about to ask for it.
If his audience said no, Ty wasn’t sure what he would do. It was entirely possible that the whole of human history might turn on what was about to occur in this auditorium.
As a child, that sort of pressure would have made him nervous. In fact, in middle school, he had once faked sickness to avoid giving a presentation in class. Luckily, he had a mother who could see through such a ruse. And, even more luckily for him, he had a mother who knew how to speak to him in a language he appreciated: science.
Even at a young age, science was Ty’s true north, and his mother wielded it to his benefit-even when arguing against him.
“Everyone is scared of public speaking, Ty. At least at first,” she had said, peering down at him as he sat on his bed.
Like any angst-filled twelve-year-old, he had hung his head and muttered, “Great. How does that help me?”
“Practice-that’s the only way to get better. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel.”
“I don’t want to practice. Or get better. There’s no point. When I grow up, I’m going to get a job where I never have to talk. I’ll be a mute.”
“You can’t simply not talk when you grow up, Ty.”
“You watch me.”
“Let’s look at this a different way, shall we? Let’s apply science.”
Ty looked up. “I like science.”
“So do I. It’s why I became an evolutionary biologist, and it’s why I can tell you exactly-from an evolutionary biological perspective-why you’re afraid of public speaking.”
He squinted at her, still not believing.
“A long time ago, humans spent most of their lives hunting and gathering food. Do you know what the most dangerous thing was for our ancestors?” Ty shook his head.
“Predators. In particular, a surprise attack. For thousands and thousands of years, the most terrifying moment of a human’s life was realizing that a set of eyes was watching them. Especially when those eyes belonged to a predator. Do you know what happened to our ancestors after they realized a predator’s eyes were watching them?”
“That’s half right. They either ran, or they fought. But one thing we know for certain is that all humans alive today are descended from the survivors of those encounters-humans who either ran and lived or fought and won.
In both cases, do you know what saved them?” “Being strong. Or fast.”
“No. Many of the strong perished. And the fast. Do you know why?” “No.”
“They weren’t afraid, Ty. They didn’t run-or prepare to fight-the second they felt those eyes upon them. Their minds didn’t ring the alarm bells that enabled them to react fast enough. The predators pounced. From an evolutionary standpoint, those prehistoric humans who weren’t afraid when they realized that eyes were watching them didn’t live long enough to pass on their genes. Being unafraid was a bad thing. It was deadly. And an evolutionary dead end. Being afraid was good. It conveyed a survival advantage. Selective pressure favored the fearful. Thus, the entire human race became populated with people like all of us-humans with genes that biologically program us to be afraid of eyes watching us. What does that tell you?”
“I don’t know.”
“It tells you that it’s okay to be afraid of giving your presentation. It’s natural, Ty. It’s science. Our entire species evolved to feel that way. Part of life is knowing that our bodies are biologically programmed to certain reactions. That’s what being human is. And I’ll tell you another thing: being brave isn’t about not feeling fear. It’s about feeling fear and overcoming it. You can choose to recognize that the fear you feel when you stand up in front of the class is not warranted. You’re in no danger.”
“You just don’t get it, Mom. I’m totally different from the other kids. It’s like I’m from a completely different planet.”
His mother looked away. “Actually, I do know what that feels like, Ty. But trust me on this: being different will help you a great deal when you get older. People like you-who are different-will be very valuable in this world. You’ll see.”
“Well, the waiting is killing me. And so is this presentation.”
“There’s a simple trick to controlling your fear of public speaking. It uses psychology and neuroscience. Would you like to hear it?” “Very much. And please start with this part next time.”
His mother smiled. “Noted. The thing is, there’s a way to essentially dampen that innate fear response in your amygdala. And luckily, it comes naturally to you: kindness and generosity. When we’re kind and helpful to others, it calms the fight-or-flight response in our brains. Kindness is a natural stress reliever. It puts our minds in a different place. When we change our attitude, it changes how our brain reacts. We’re not on the defensive. We’re on the offense-and we’re doing the offense to help others. That’s a deep well of strength.”
She studied him for a moment. “Kindness is the fear killer.”
Ty considered that for a moment. “Interesting.”
“It is. To me, that’s the power of science: it reveals the mysteries of life. It helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. And in your case, later today, I want you to approach your presentation with a sense of kindness and generosity. If you’re coming from the right place, it makes everything easier. You have to see your presentation as helping others.”
“Mom, my report on the War of 1812 isn’t helping anyone. Trust me on that.”
“Did you enjoy learning about the War of 1812?”
“Mom, I’m a geek.” “Did you?”
“Yes,” he muttered.
“So will others. Aren’t there other smart people in your class?”
“It gets easier, Ty. In time, you’ll realize that your kind heart will be the wind at your back in this life. You’ll see. It’s painful now, but eventually, you’ll figure out your strengths and what you’re really interested in. There, at the intersection of what you love and what you’re good at, is a magical place of success and happiness. It’s just hard to find.”
His mother had been right. It had been hard to find. Figuring himself out had been the biggest challenge of all for Ty. And life had dealt him a few setbacks, a few he was still overcoming. But he had found his passion: quantum physics. His mind was uniquely tuned to solving those scientific mysteries. Since college, he had dedicated his life to that work, and now it was finally all coming together.
Ty realized someone was calling his name.
He looked up to find his boss, Mary, sitting in the front row, nodding at him, prompting him to begin.
The auditorium was filled now. Forty of his colleagues sat in the rows of seats, their eyes in the semi-darkness triggering that ancient instinct: fear.
Ty’s nerves rose as the silence stretched out in the auditorium.
As he’d done so many times since that talk with his mother, Ty focused on centering his mind on a place of kindness and generosity. What he was about to share could help the organization-everyone at CERN-and the entire human race. It was important. It was worth their time. He was here to help.
He focused on that feeling, that serene place in his mind.
A calm came over him as he stepped to the lectern.
“Thank you for coming on short notice. You’ve probably had a long day, and you’re ready to get home. As such, I’ll be as brief as I can.” He clicked the pointer, and his first slide appeared.
“I’ve made a discovery that I believe is of historical significance. One that could change the world. You all are here for the obvious reason: I need help. I need help with some of the science. And I need finance to sign off on the work. What I’m proposing is an experiment on a scale the human race has never seen before, one that I believe will solve the greatest mystery of all time.”