The ultimate goal of physics—explaining the universe completely and in the simplest possible terms—is the heady topic of Dan Falk’s new book, Universe on a T-Shirt. Starting with the earliest roots of science in pre-Socratic philosophy and ending with the latest ponderings of cosmic string theorists, Falk chronicles the various attempts through history to create a “Theory of Everything” that not only explains the physical world, but is also simple and compact enough to fit on a T-shirt.
His broad account of the history of science is shallow and occasionally borders on patronizing. The text is filled with reassurances the reader won’t have to do any math, including frequent “don’t worry about the details” clauses. Sometimes the explanations fail to satisfy this reader’s need for details.
But this approach doesn’t stop the book from being informative—the writing is excellent, done in an entertaining, conversational style. For example, this reviewer learned that some physicists believe the universe is composed of tiny vibrating membranes that exist in p dimensions (for example, 2-branes are two-dimensional).
The place where Universe on a T-Shirt is rather “p-braned” is in the philosophical discussion in its final chapter. Here, Falk tries to examine what it would mean to have a “Theory of Everything” and where in that physical theory we could find room for religion, if we were so inclined.
He is careful enough to admit a full account of matter, energy and the cosmos is unlikely to provide much insight into consciousness or the origins of life. Yet Falk still uses the presumptuous description “Theory of Everything” throughout the book. He would have been better off using something like “Theory of Everything—in Physics,” or “Even Grander Unified Theory.”
The religious analysis is even worse. Since any religion invariably contains its own “theory of everything,” Falk concludes the ultimate goals of science and religion are the same, and religion is the weaker tool used to understand the universe. He completely ignores the social component of religion—the part that looks for meaning and wisdom instead of just knowledge. Falk seems to be too busy paying homage to the quest of science to see the distinction. The bottom line: This is Physics for Dummies with some bad philosophy of religion thrown in—valuable only for teenagers who want a quick, easy read about the history of science, minus the math.