Dan Falk has a real gift for explaining incredibly complex topics in a way that the rest of us can understand without making us feel dumb. This book on the quest for the "Theory of Everything" is no exception, but...
Don't get me wrong. Universe on a T-Shirt (The Quest for the Theory of Everything) is a wonderful book that I would have been proud to have written myself if only I'd been clever enough. The idea is that, since time immemorial, man has been looking for the "Theory of Everything" – ideally a concise, simple, and elegant explanation (almost certainly expressed in mathematics) that will explain everything in the physical universe, people, stars, cats, and even my Auntie Barbara.
As American experimental physicist Leon Max Lederman (1922-) once famously said: "My ambition is to live to see all of physics reduced to a formula so elegant and simple that it will fit easily on the front of a T-Shirt."
This book is jam-packed full of juicy tidbits of trivia. Thus we discover that the Greek philosopher-scientist Thales of Miletus (c.620-c.550 BC) said that the universe is made of water (scholars are still debating exactly what he meant by this). This is a world view that would certainly have fit on a T-Shirt had such a garment been in vogue at the time.
By comparison, Empedocles (c.493-c.435 BC) first put forward the idea of the "elements" – he decided that everything in the universe was made up of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Again, this would easily fit on a T-Shirt, and has the benefit of lending itself to a range of graphical treatments.
Dan leads us onwards and upwards across the centuries. Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) would doubtless have been proud to don a T-Shirt sporting the equation for his law of Universal Gravitation. Similarly James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) spent twenty years perfecting his famous "Maxwell equations," which describe the relationships between electric and magnetic fields. And, of course, in more recent times, the equations of General Relativity developed Albert Einstein (1879-1955) grace T-Shirts to this day.
And we're still only half way through the book. Now Dan starts to introduce us to Quantum Theory and Modern Physics. We meander our way through concepts like String Theory, Supersymmetry, and Hidden Dimensions ... and then things start to get really weird (grin).
On the one hand I have to say that this book gives the best explanation as to how electrons, photons, and indeed all subatomic particles can act like both particles and waves. As Dan says:
In an interesting historical quirk, one of the decisive electron-wave experiments was carried out by British physicist George Thompson – son of J.J. Thompson, who had discovered the electron back in 1897. The father won a Nobel Prize for showing that electrons were particles; his son won a Nobel Prize for showing that they were waves. Both were right.
I won't go into Dan's explanation here, but when I read it I nodded my head and said to myself: "Well, that certainly makes sense!"
On the other hand, to my mind the book sort of trailed off at the end. I was poised for a major revelation when … I found myself reading the epilog.
Once again, this is a great book and well worth the read, it's just not quite reached the lofty peaks of Dan's other works, at least, not the ones I've read, such as In Search Of Time
(which I'm still pondering).