What is the difference between a Programmable Unijunction Transistor and a normal transistor? I am reading the book Make:Electronics and it says I need one of those. Can somebody explain to me in somewhat non-tech terms what it is?
As far as I know these are completely different beasts (and a simple google search agrees).
The built-in negative resistance of the unijunction transistors is what makes them attractive (or maybe "cute" is a better word) in "simple" oscillators but IMHO you will be better off building a 3xRC (\$180^\circ\$ phase shift network) oscillator on one normal bipolar transistor or a simple oscillator on an op amp. Almost nobody uses negative resistance devices nowadays.
Negative resistance is fairly common in nature (a humble spark gap has this property) so this may be the reason why historically they were used for intro level oscillators. But there also were times when people notoriously made their own rectifying diodes out of some kind of rock and a piece of wire so they could build a long-wave radio receiver, so... :P
According to Wikipedia:
The 555 Timer is probably the easiest way to build an oscillator, programmable or not. It can be bought at Radio Shack, or anywhere chips are sold. Instructions can be found in Wikipedia, various datasheets published by its many manufacturers, or hobbyist websites. It's old as rocks. Calculate the waveform and frequency you want and smooth with a resistor + capacitor if necessary.
I remember when I was a 10-year-old electronic hobbyist and Mac programmer. I guess some things don't change! Have tons of fun.