These words are always around. Many, many other words are not always around, and even though they more easily let us talk about the All-There-Is, they’re too hard to use.
The preceding paragraph is made up of words that—according to Wikipedia, anyway—rank among the 1,000 most commonly employed in the English language. Put another way, think of them as atoms in a universe of language and it makes good sense that Roberto Trotta, a theoretical cosmologist at Imperial College London, should have decided to put them to work describing the universe (beg pardon, the All-There-Is) and the fundamental laws of physics that govern it.
To give credit where it’s due, Trotta tells Kirkus Reviews, the idea to use that wordlist isn’t entirely original with him, but instead owes its inspiration to the geeky website xkcd.com. It’s so geeky, in fact, that its founder, the physicist Randall Munroe, writes of its name, “It’s just a word with no phonetic pronunciation—a treasured and carefully-guarded point in the space of four-character strings.”
“He drew a cartoon a while ago with a picture of a Saturn 5 rocket with its parts labeled with words on this 1,000-word list,” says Trotta. “I liked the idea, and I started thinking about the challenge of describing the universe, the All-There-Is, with this basic lexicon. Before long the project had grown to book length, though I didn’t really start with the outlook of publishing it. That just happened along the way.”
In fact, Trotta’s book, The Edge of the Sky just squeaks past the 96-page cutoff from booklet to book, helped along by some faux-naif illustrations that may remind readers of those accompanying the text of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. The text is seemingly as simple, too, but like the older book, it is deceptively so, harboring great depths of scientific sophistication as Trotta moves from discussions of our earliest explorations of the universe to our relentless modern probe of the skies with rockets, rovers, telescopes—beg pardon, Far-Seers—and a vast battery of theories about the structure of space and matter as formulated by some of our leading scientists: “To tell whether Mr. Einstein’s idea was right, student-people had to look at those stars around the Sun with a Far-Seer to see if they were in the place Mr. Einstein said they would appear to be.”
When we start speaking of Albert Einstein and his ideas, we head into—well, heady territory. It gets headier still when later concepts of cosmology are figured into the mix, such as “dark matter” or “dark energy,” what Einstein began working toward with his notion of a cosmological constant that proved a countervailing force to gravity.
“That was the part I found most challenging,” Trotta says. “For one thing, I couldn’t use the words ‘energy’ or ‘force,’ so I had to think hard about it. Eventually I used the word ‘push,’ which does appear on the list.” Trotta’s conclusion to the chapter on dark energy speaks volumes: “All of those things,” he writes, “remind us that the All-There-Is can sometimes be more crazy than our craziest ideas.”
That’s exactly right, and it’s a point worth pondering as we sit here on our Home-World gazing up at and thinking about things such as the White Road, He-Who-Talks-for-the-Gods and the She-God of Love and other Crazy Stars, and the White Shadows—or, more familiarly, the Milky Way, Mercury and Venus and other planets, and the faroff galaxies that only our biggest Big-Seers and farthest Far-Seers can find.
The eminent English mathematician Arthur Eddington once remarked that no mathematical expression of his was complete until he had written it out in plain English. Roberto Trotta—hailing from the Italian part of Switzerland, he came to our language only after learning several others—takes that worthy idea to a granular level with The Edge of the Sky, a book that will be of special interest to teachers seeking ways to reach young, linguistically unsophisticated learners while giving accurate accounts of some dauntingly sophisticated concepts.
If anything, to take it down to the level of that basic vocabulary, Trotta proves this point: Big ideas don’t always need big words.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.