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Book News

A lively jaunt through the corridors of science

'The Whole Shebang'
by Timothy Ferris

Simon & Schuster, $14

Review by L.D.Meagher

Web posted on: Tuesday, October 13, 1998 5:23:46 PM EDT

(CNN) -- Albert Einstein spent his life looking for a way to describe the entire universe in a single mathematical equation. He never managed to get it done, but his quest for a "unified theory" that explains literally everything is being carried forward by scientists today. "The Whole Shebang" describes the steps they've taken toward reaching Einstein's goal. Science writer Timothy Ferris calls his book "A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report". That's a pretty clear indication of the scope of the subject.

The search for a "Theory of Everything" is the province of the science called cosmology. It combines the study of the very large -- galaxies, galactic clusters and superclusters -- with the study of the very small -- photons, quarks and other subatomic particles. These seemingly dissimilar phenomena turn out to have quite a lot in common. The history of science in the 20th century has been the story of finding the relationships between the infinitesimal and the infinite.

"One can, of course, ask what difference cosmology makes to our everyday lives," Ferris writes. "The answer to this question, oddly enough, is that it seems to matter a lot. For some reason - and nobody seems to know just why -- virtually every human society, from ancient Egyptians to Native Americans to the residents of just about every towering city and tiny village today, has developed models of the universe and explanations of how it came into being. And these models influence our thinking in ways that are not always readily apparent." He adds, "One product of the interaction between cosmology and daily life is the Declaration of Independence."

"The Whole Shebang" is a lively jaunt through the corridors of science. Ferris throws light on the mysteries of creation, and on the personalities of the people trying to penetrate them. For example, he tells us Niels Bohr, the 1922 Nobel laureate for physics, offered explanations of quantum phenomena that "can sound as oracular as if he had uttered them from atop a tripod while chewing laurel leaves". Stephen Hawking, perhaps the best known scientist alive, once lamented that astronomers had found no evidence that primordial black holes formed in the early days of the universe. "Because had they found them," he said, "I would have won the Nobel Prize."

If Ferris brings the towering figures of modern science down to a human level, he does the same for their ideas. He demonstrates how the "big bang" theory (actually, there's more than one theory of the big bang) not only accounts for the current placement of stars and galaxies, but also explains interactions at the subatomic level. And he does so in clear, easily understood language tempered with wry humor. (One chapter is titled, "Quantum Weirdness".)

The more we have learned about the structure of the cosmos, the more insignificant our place in it has seemed. Ferris tackles this quandary as well, examining the role life in general and human life in particular play in the grand scheme of the universe. In a "Contrarian Theological Afterword", he raises the question "What about God?"

Science at the cusp of the 21st century may be no closer to Einstein's "unified theory" than it was when he began his quest. But the search has opened up stunning new avenues of research that might one day lead to the scientific Holy Grail. Newer theories, with names like "supersymmetry" and "superstring" raise new possibilities about the ultimate structure of the universe and may alter our concept of the term "reality". Those of us not equipped to journey into the upper stratosphere of theoretical physics are fortunate to have Timothy Ferris around. He can scale those rarefied heights, and return to explain "The Whole Shebang" to the rest of us.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.

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