Sunday 23 October 2016

Can the universe be described in 707 simple words?

Astrophysicist Roberto Trotta - whose book 'The Edge of the Sky' attempts to explain the universe in very plain English - on learning a childlike understanding of the cosmos.

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

The Milky Way: Astrophysicist Roberto Trotta explains the universe in a very simple way
The Milky Way: Astrophysicist Roberto Trotta explains the universe in a very simple way
The Edge of the Sky by Roberto Trotta (Basic Books).

Would you try to cross the South Pole wearing only flip-flops? Or row across the Atlantic on an inflatable swimming pool? Or describe the beauty and mystery of the universe using only the most common 1,000 words in English?

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In my book The Edge of the Sky, I set out to achieve something seemingly impossible with the simplest of means: to rethink our understanding of the universe using only a handful of different words (707, to be precise). My aim, as an astrophysicist, was to discuss some of the biggest questions in science today, in a language that is accessible to everybody.

I was shocked to discover that many of the words I would have liked to use were not available to me. For example, I couldn't use "universe", "galaxy", "particle", "planet", "earth", or "scientist". It seemed hopeless! But as I persevered, something unexpected happened.

The extremely limited lexicon I was working with created a poetic straitjacket that gave me a fresh, childlike perspective on the cosmos. A new voice began to emerge: "galaxies" became "star-crowds"; "particles smashing together" became "drops kissing each other"; "planets" were "crazy-stars"; the "Milky Way" became the "White Road", "scientists" became "student-people".

Armed with this simple yet powerful language, I found I could tackle all the subjects I wanted, from the Big Bang to the possibility of parallel universes.

To some, reducing the vast and rich English lexicon to a mere 1,000 words is plain wrong, tantamount to a butchery of the English language. Others have seen in my experiment a radical approach to science communication: jargon-free and full of metaphors and imagery. By getting rid of all but the simplest of words, the story of the universe acquires the immediacy of folk tales, or perhaps of a post-apocalyptic future when the 'proper' words for complex scientific ideas have been lost.

This is not to say that science is simply a fictional narrative among many others. The unique power of science rests on its ability to observe, infer and quantify regularities about the world we live in, that is, the 'laws of nature'.

But translating the contents of mathematical expressions into natural language raises the question of whether any choice of words is sufficiently accurate for the purpose. Is "electron" any better than "very small drop" to describe what a physicist understands by that term, and all the complex quantum-mechanical ideas associated with it? Despite its richness and many shades of subtlety, the English language cannot replace the full depth of understanding allowed for by mathematics - no natural language could.

For all natural languages cannot be but an approximation of the true, exact and mysteriously powerful language of nature: mathematics. My translation of complex cosmological ideas into very simple English tries to subvert the inadequacy of natural language, when compared with mathematics, by reducing it to the smallest number of atoms. Just like the periodic table of the elements can explain the entirety of the chemistry we see around us, so I imagined that the most common 1,000 words could provide the building blocks for a new description of the complexities of the universe.

Whether or not I have succeeded in my goal is a question that only my readers can answer. If my book can inspire some of them and generate a new spark of wonder for the cosmos we live in, I'll be happy.

Roberto Trotta) will be in conversation with writer Aifric Campbell at the Dalkey Book Festival tomorrow at 2pm. Tickets from the box office at 20 Railway Road, Dalkey or by telephone 087 465 6414, or online at

The Edge of the Sky by Roberto Trotta is published by Basic Books

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