Review of This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey to the Edge of Reality by Michael Dine
This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey to the Edge of Reality
by Michael Dine
There is a story going around about Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time wherein his publisher told him that each equation included in his book would halve the book’s sales. Consequently, Hawking chose to include only Einstein’s equation from special relativity, E=mc^2. The book was beyond successful for any book about theoretical physics in its day (and I quite liked it when I read it, especially the special illustrated edition). Michael Dine has gone a similar route. This Way to the Universe bills itself as “comprehensible to anyone with a high-school level education, with almost no equations.” It mostly lives up to this expectation, though there are a few moments in the weeds. It’s not so much that this book really got me thinking about physics knowledge, but as a teacher I really started thinking about physics education, as well as physics as a discipline.
Thanks to NetGalley and Dutton Books for the eARC.
Dine eschews the chronological development of physics that is par for the course in these types of books. Though his treatment of the subject is loosely chronological, as it should be, he has chosen to focus more topically—he starts off, for example, talking about relativity before jumping back to provide some context with Newton. But as he dives into the world of quantum mechanics, he is never afraid to bring us forward a little bit to talk about new developments before taking us back to an earlier time as we move along to the next mystery. That might sound confusing, the way I explained it, but I assure you that it helps the reader understand connections between ideas that were developed decades apart and, when presented chronologically, feel disconnected.
As Dine explains how our thinking about the universe has changed, I pondered the audience for this book. This Way to the Universe is not a textbook per se—it’s not teaching physics. But it is also not quite a popular science book in the way I am used to; as the title aptly captures, Dine is taking us on a tour, as if he has invited us into a physics department for the day and we’re meeting all the principal players. It made me think about the fact that (from my limited recollection of high school physics at least—I never took it in university) it would be nice if we made physics students (perhaps all science students) read more narrative accounts of their discipline. Fewer textbooks and more contexts.
I particularly enjoyed that Dine was carefully aware of the legacy of sexism and colonialism in physics. He lauds Marie Curie and Emmy Noether while also pointing out how structural misogyny made their lives and careers more difficult, and he doesn’t hesitate to mention ongoing experiences of sexism with more recent women who have contributed to the field.
On a broader note, Dine does an excellent job of emphasizing the collaborative nature of science. This goes back to the topical approach he takes, which allows him to show how future theorists and experimenters built upon the theories and experiments of previous scientists. Though the usual suspects show up, Dine mentions more obscure people who nonetheless made significant contributions to the field. He helps paint the picture of physics as a discipline that advances more often through small contributions from a large number of people rather than brilliant theories spun by a couple of geniuses—those exist, but they are not the heartbeat of the field.
Finally, I respect that while Dine has certain biases and favourites when it comes to the frontrunners for a grand unified theory, he does his best to present an unbiased take on those candidates. Too often I read books where a physicist’s opinion is basically “my theory is the best and the other theories suck,” and I understand the need to be confident in one’s horse to get grant funding, but that’s not what I need as a layperson reading your book. I don’t want you to tell me that string theory is “almost there” and we just need another decade. Dine is honest about the limitations of our current theories and experiments, describes what is happening right now at the bleeding edge of physics, and makes it clear that there is still a lot we don’t know—but, excitingly, we have some inklings of how we might find out.
I come to this book steeped in general knowledge of physics from countless such books before this one. The more I learn, the more I am convinced I do not understand modern physics and possible cannot, not because I am not smart enough, but because I am too lazy to devote the time. Nevertheless, I appreciate Dine and others who take the time to try to explain their work as simply as possible to interested people like me, because it is valuable and important, and I might never understand it, but I am glad there are people out there who do. Or, as Dine puts it, understand parts of it.
I don’t think this is the best book to start your modern physics journey with. It is comprehensible to someone with a high-school education, yes, but if it has been a while since you learned about electromagnetism and atoms, you might want a more basic refresher before you dive into this book. Make it your second or third popular physics book, and you might be on the right track. But this is definitely a contender worth considering for its even writing, great treatment of the discipline as a whole, and careful explanations of what we know and what we don’t.