The Edge of the Sky with Roberto Trotta

By: FP Staff 01/29/2015 7:21AM
Category: People

Roberto Trotta (@R_Trotta) is a theoretical astrophysicist at Imperial College London, where his research is about dark matter, dark energy and the early Universe. A passionate science communicator, Roberto is also an STFC Public Engagement Fellow. We have spoken to him about his first book for the public, The Edge of the Sky: All you need to know about the All-There-Is (Basic Books), which was published in September 2014 to great acclaim.

Named by Brain Pickings as one of the "Best Science books of 2014", The Edge of the Sky is unlike any other science book you have read before: It endeavours to explain the entire Universe using only the most common 1,000 words in English... and "Universe" is not one of them!

  

It Is Fair To Say That Explaining The Entire Universe — Which In Your Book You Call The “All-There-Is” — Using Only The 1,000 Most Common Words Is An Unusual Challenge. Why Did You Do It?

When scientists talk about their discipline, they use words that for them have a very specific meaning. Most people might have heard of "electrons" or "galaxies", for example, but the mental pictures that those words evoke in them is very different from what a physicist or an astronomer think when they use those very same words.

So by using terms that we mistakenly believe non-scientists understand the same way we do, we, the professionals of science, get lulled into a false sense of comfort. We think that people understand us.

Things get worse when scientists commit the cardinal sin of slipping into jargon -- words that only their peers understand, and that are completely void of meaning for anybody but a narrow slice of their colleagues.

Limiting my lexicon to the most-used 1,000 words swipes the table clean of jargon. It also forced me to think afresh about seemingly familiar concepts, and how to describe them in a more pictorial, metaphorical way.

It is my hope that the result is a story that revisits our way of communicating science, and that will generate new mental pictures in my readers -- and it will bring cosmology closer to the human scale.

As Einstein is reported to have said once, "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother" -- and a mere 1,000 words are all you need to do that!

Where Does This Idea Come From?

In January 2013 I stumbled on the Internet on the Ten-Hundred Words of Science challenge -- a website collecting people's descriptions of their job written using only the most-used 1,000 words in English.

The format had come from a cartoon by Randall Munroe, the creator of the XKCD website. This is a humorous site with original, geeky stick-like cartoons, often revolving around physics and thoroughly enjoyable. Randall had drawn a picture of the Saturn V rocket (or "Up-Goer Five", and labelled its parts by using only the 1,000 words list.

I spent a fun half an hour writing up my job with the 1,000 words, and found it harder than I had imagined. I posted a copy on my website, then forgot about it. The next month I gave a public talk at the White Building, an art venue in East London. The person who introduced me mentioned that he had found this fun description on my website, and a member of the audience brought this up at the end -- what was this business with the 1,000 words about, exactly?

I read out the couple of paragraphs I had written, and was surprised by the unexpectedly positive reaction of the audience. That gave me pause, and got me thinking. Perhaps this format could be used to talk about everything in the Universe, not just my job.

The Edge of the Sky is the result of that small Eureka moment.

Was It Difficult To Use Such A Limited Vocabulary?

At first I found the exercise impossibly difficult, and I was on the verge of giving up.

But the writing process became easier and smoother as I pushed forward with it, and I started getting into the groove of using only a severely limited lexicon and after a while it became akin to poetry. A great deal of effort went into establishing a new vocabulary for relatively common words that were however not on the allowed 1,000 words list: so "particles" became "drops", "galaxies" became "Star Crowds", the "Milky Way" became the "White Road", and so on. Once that was done, a clear path started to emerge in my head: the format itself had generated its own language!

Readers can try the format out for themselves by leaving a comment in a specially designed box on my website, which allows them to use only the most common 1,000 words and offer suggestions when they get stuck.

  

What Was The Hardest Concept To Write About?

 
The Edge of the Sky takes the reader on a journey from the solar system to alien worlds and then all the way to the Multiverse, taking in dark matter, dark energy and the early Universe, i.e., the very earliest moments after the Big Bang (the "Big Flash”).
 
I found that talking about the very early times in the history of the cosmos using the 1,000 words only was perhaps the most challenging part. In the end, the solution was to resort to metaphorical imagery that I hope will convey the sense of wonder that cosmologists have when they realise that modern-day physics can describe (and understand) incredibly accurately what happened "over one hundred times one hundred times one hundred times one hundred times one hundred years ago”!
 

Why Is It Important To Make Cosmology Understandable?

 
Cosmology is about understanding where the entire Universe (the "All-there-is") came about, what its properties are and what its ultimate destiny will be. This is one of the greatest cultural challenges of humankind: to understand our place in the cosmos. It is therefore important, in a cultural sense (and not only in a scientific sense), that the public at large be involved in this quest: cosmology helps us create a sense of how our existence fits in the biggest framework there is.
 
Cosmology is also largely funded with taxpayers' money, and it is therefore only fair that we, the professional scientists, share with the public the questions that power our research, and the answers that the latest discoveries bring. We are fortunate that cosmology, astronomy and astrophysics are very inspirational topics, and they can help to increase take-up of scientific subjects in young adults: curiosity about the universe is one of the most-often cited reasons by first-year physics students at University when they are asked what made them choose this subject for their degree. So we need to continue nurturing and spreading this passion for science, since science is one of the key factors for a prosperous modern-day society in so many ways.
 
Ultimately, I view cosmology as a great cultural enterprise, in some sense akin to the arts: we don't produce art because of its practical benefits, but for its own sake, as we value it intrinsically for the sense of wonder, amazement, surprise (and, sometimes, unsettlement) it brings. It is one of the windows we have onto the world. But we shouldn't forget that discoveries made in fundamental sciences such as cosmology might one day lead to unforeseeable practical consequences of enormous importance for humankind and its future. As Michael Faraday once told the Chancellor of the Exchequer who asked him about the practical uses of his research on this esoteric phenomenon, electricity: "One day, Sir, you may tax it".
 
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Posted on: 01/29/15 7:21AM
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Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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