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Review: The Edge of the Sky


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The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is
by Roberto Trotta
Basic Books, 2014
hardcover, 112 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-465-04471-9
US$16.99

In late 2012, Randall Munroe’s popular web comic “xkcd” published an illustration of a Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo spacecraft. The illustration was done in the form a blueprint, with a moderate degree of technical detail. What set it apart, though, was how it was annotated: Munroe used only the one thousand most common words in the English language (or, as he put it, the “ten hundred” most common words, since “thousand” itself isn’t in the top thousand.)

Being limited to only one thousand different words requires the author to break down complex concepts into their simplest forms, a key tool when dealing with difficult and often counterintuitive concepts in cosmology.

Since neither “Saturn” nor even “rocket” are in the top 1,000 words, Munroe called the rocket “Up Goer Five.” Describing the technical elements of the Saturn V and Apollo created some challenges he creatively addressed. The liquid oxygen propellant used by the rocket was “breathing type air (for burning) (cold and wet).” The Apollo command module was the “part that flies around the other world and comes back home with the people in it and falls in the water.” Not exactly concise, but it was accurate, and did limit itself to those top one thousand words.

Munroe’s jargon-free approach to describing complex topics inspired others. For a while, some scientists tried to describe their research using that constrained vocabulary, or “up goer five” abstracts of papers or conference presentations. There is even an “Up-Goer Five Text Editor” that flags words that are not in the top thou—er, ten hundred. Now, someone has taken that same approach to an entire book about astronomy.

The Edge of the Sky offers a brief overview of astronomy, again limited to that top thousand most commonly used English language words. The challenge is clear in the book’s subtitle: “All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is.” The “All-There-Is” is author Roberto Trotta’s way of naming the Universe, since “universe” isn’t in that limited lexicon. And Trotta takes on a universe-sized challenge: this brief book discusses everything from planets to the Big Bang to dark energy and dark matter, told from the viewpoint of a young astronomer spending a night at an observatory, collecting data about the distant universe.

The results are mixed. Being limited to only one thousand different words requires the author to break down complex concepts into their simplest forms, a key tool when dealing with difficult and often counterintuitive concepts in cosmology. To his credit, Trotta, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London, is able to explain the Big Bang, dark energy, and multiverses in that constrained vocabulary. It even allows for some eloquence: when describing how the accelerating expansion of the universe will eventually isolate us from the rest of the universe, he writes, “Nothing will be left but dark silence.”

But those flashes of eloquence are outweighed by the circuitous and confusing explanations he often has to resort to in order to explain astronomical concepts within the available vocabulary. Many common names in astronomy have to be reworked. Some make sense—“Big Bang” becomes “Big Flash” and “Milky Way” becomes “White Road”—but the litany of particles referred to as “drops” becomes confusing. Trotta does drop out of character, so to speak, in an appendix that defines these terms in more conventional language.

That brings up the flaw in the “up goer five” concept: there is such a thing as being too simple.

The available vocabulary, limited to encourage simplicity, sometimes works against that goal. Since “scientist” isn’t available, Trotta instead uses the phrase “student-people”, which sounds odd: aren’t students people? Elsewhere, when the unnamed “student-woman” character muses about alternative careers her family urged her to pursue, Trotta writes, “Or one of those people who wear horse hair on their head and try to trip up people for a living.” Say what? He’s referring to lawyers, but that description only invites confusion for readers in places like America where attorneys don’t wear wigs in court.

That brings up the flaw in the “up goer five” concept: there is such a thing as being too simple. While these vocabulary limitations help strip the jargon that can confuse readers, and also serves as a crutch for experts, it’s possible to go too far. Complex language can be a barrier to understanding, but when the average person has a vocabulary of several tens of thousands of words, stripping the language down to a small subset of that isn’t necessarily the best solution. Simplicity does not guarantee clarity.

The Edge of the Sky demonstrates that it is possible to describe, at a very high level, our current understanding of the universe using only the most common words in the English language. Whether that’s the best way of doing so, and whether this book is that useful or a good value—the main portion of the book is less than 70 pages—is another question. It would be far more interesting to see how Trotta could explain the universe with even a somewhat larger vocabulary than available here.


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