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The Edge of the Sky - Roberto Trotta ****

This is, without doubt, the strangest popular science book I have ever read or am ever likely to read. For reasons I don't quite understand, I really liked it. Let me start off by telling you why I shouldn't have liked it - but bear in mind that I did. What we have here is a book about cosmology, written in the strangest way.

Firstly it's the teensiest weeniest little book - just 12,000 words for your £10. But far more significantly, Roberto Trotta has decided, for reasons it surely is impossible to explain rationally, to write the book only using the 1,000 most common words in English. (In practice he only used 707.) When I first saw that I thought that this was an attempt to write a science book for those who struggle to read, so he was sticking to a limited vocabulary. But no - the approach means that Trotta has to go all around the houses to use words in ways they were never intended to be used. So, for instance, a planet is a 'crazy star', an atom (or more precisely, a particle) is a 'drop' and the universe is the 'all-there-is.'

That 1,000 word vocabulary seems painfully arbitrary. I don't even know where he got it from. When I looked up a list of the most common 1,000 words in English, they included both planet and atom, so it seems as if his list has almost been deliberately chosen to be difficult to use. Trotta makes an even more bizarre choice about proper names. He uses people's proper names with gay abandon, but doesn't use country names. So, he calls China, 'the land of Mr. Mao' - which is more like a crossword puzzle clue than something that simplifies the reading. (He also insists on calling people Mr. this and Mr. that, presumably because Mr. and Mrs. are in the list - but when he has said Mr. Einstein 10 times, it just seems weird. Why not just 'Einstein'?)

And yet... and yet the result is something with a strangely hypnotic, poetic quality. I was reminded most of all of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. This book isn't in verse, but it has the same, slightly mystical, rhythmic feel that translates a fairly ordinary story (like the opening chapter about an astronomer arriving at an observatory) into something magical. I really wanted to read it aloud. It fascinates despite itself. And though I wouldn't say it's a great way to find out about cosmology, as you spend a lot of your time trying to convert the words into something understandable - it certainly gives a feel for the excitement and intensity of the best modern work in the field.

If I have any criticism of the content it's the common one that there is far too much certainty in the way what is inevitably a speculative field is presented. Trotta even says 'We know the age of the All-There-Is is well that it would be like be able to tell the day of the year a stranger in the street came to life to the nearest day just by looking at him.' Admittedly the dating of the big bang hasn't changed much lately - but it has before and it may again. This is emphasised by the way Trotta tells us 'This Early Push [inflation] left space-time shaking with lots of waves, which student-people think they have now picked up with a Far-Seer at the bottom end of our Home-World.' Unfortunately, the BICEP2 experiment this refers to did not do this after all - and what's worse, some even have suggested that what evidence there is suggests inflation is an incorrect model.

So it's a shame Trotta didn't use the exceptional form he has chosen in order to emphasise that science involves model building - more poetic, if you like, than establishing truth. But that didn't stop me liking this little gem. The best comparison I have for it is Alan Garner's Stone Book quartet - and that's a recommendation indeed. (It is on Kindle, but I recommend the paper version, as it's a handsome little book. There is also an audio version, which may be good for the poetic feel, but you probably need to see some of these words to understand what is meant.)


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. Hi Brian, many thanks for your review! I'm delighted that THE EDGE OF THE SKY captivated you almost despite yourself!

    In answer to your questions, a couple of comments readers of your review might be interested in:

    WHY ON THE HOME-WORLD (AHEM, EARTH) DID I DO IT?


    When scientists talks 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, fresher mental pictures in my readers, whether they have encountered those ideas before or not.

    I hope The Edge of the Sky will take a step towards helping readers connect better with abstract concepts and far-away objects that were before very far-removed from their everyday experience.

    WHERE DO THE 1,000 WORDS COME FROM?

    The 1,000 words list comes from a Wikipedia entry which claims to have derived them from over 9 million words of "contemporary fiction" gathered online.

    I haven't made any effort to cross-check the exactitude of the list. I felt this was not relevant to my purpose: I am not very interested in the question of whether the 1,000 words I use are really the most used 1,000 words (by whatever criterium! I can easily imagine that the most-used 1,000 words in science fiction novels might be different from the 1,000 most-used words in short stories, for example).

    What I'm interested in is to see what kind of picture of The-All-There is can be painted with a given list. I accept some arbitrariness in its definition, and that is part of its charm.

    WHY ARE NAMES OF PEOPLE ALLOWED, BUT NOT TOPONYMS?


    I felt there was little point in finding metaphors for names of scientists, such as Einstein, Hubble, etc. The purpose of the book is not to be an exercise in style -- it is to illuminate cosmology from a different perspective.

    All rules are arbitrary at some level, and so are mine. I did leave out names of places because it seemed to me this was easy to circumvent, and could add a sprinkle of surprise here and there.

    With kind regards

    Roberto Trotta

    ReplyDelete
  2. PS - about BICEP2: I did hedge my stance by presenting the discovery as tentative (as I knew at the time that it was being questioned, and I for one was skeptical about it). Indeed, in the Glossary I say: "a discovery that is ***tentatively*** hailed as definitive proof of the theory of inflation."

    I do agree with you - science is very much about method rather than truth. But this is not a battle that I felt The Edge of the Sky could take on!

    Thank you for the pointer to Alan Garner's Stone Book quartet - I will definitely look this up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for those enlightening comments, Roberto. The Stone Book quartet aren't science books, they are children's fiction, but they have that same feel of a small, illustrated hardback that gives a sense of mystery and awe to a straightforward activity, and has an almost poetic feel despite being prose.

      Delete

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