By Roberto Trotta

12 November 2014 - 10:56

Can the universe be described in simple English? Photo by Sweetie187 under Creative Commons licence.
'My aim was to discuss science with a language that is accessible to everybody.' Photo ©

Sweetie187, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original (link no longer available).

How can we make complex scientific ideas more accessible? Dr Roberto Trotta tells us about his attempt to describe the universe using the most common 1,000 words of English and explains why science ultimately speaks to us through the language of mathematics.

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?

Making science accessible to everybody

In my book The Edge of the Sky — All you need to know about the All-There-Is, I try 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 was to discuss some of the biggest questions in science today, in a language that is accessible to everybody, from children to adults, from amateur astronomers to the uninitiated, from native English speakers to those who have learnt English as a second language.

The first challenge I faced was to talk about the universe without using the word 'universe', for this was not on the list of the 1,000 words. 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 'galaxy', 'particle', 'planet', 'earth', or 'scientist'. It seemed hopeless!

But as I persevered, something unexpected happened.

Creating a childlike perspective of the cosmos

A new voice started to emerge from the format itself. So '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'. The extremely limited lexicon I was working with created a poetic straitjacket that gave me a new, childlike perspective on the cosmos.

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. For example, the expansion of the universe is explained thus:

She steps outside in the cold night, holding her cup of hot coffee with both hands.

The White Road is beautiful in the dark, clear sky, and, once again, she cannot help but be amazed by it all.

It does not matter how many times she has seen this before, or how much she knows about what is out there. The sight of the stars is enough to make her gasp.

'It all seems so still and yet it’s changing all the time,' she whispers to no one.

It is hard to believe that everything out there past the White Road and its stars is running away from us.

Yet, like Mr Hubble found long ago, the Star-Crowds are running away from each other, as the space between them gets bigger and bigger. The All-There-Is is growing with time.

(You can try out for yourself how it feels like to be writing with only the most common 1,000 words in this specially designed comment box on my website).

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 shift in the way we communicate science: jargon-free, full of metaphors and imagery, demanding an active participation on the part of the reader's imagination. 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.

The universe speaks to us through the language of mathematics

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'. While the international language of science today is English, we have to recall that, in some sense, this is just a translation -- fundamentally, the universe speaks to us through the language of mathematics, as Galileo is reputed to have first stated.

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?

The limits of English and other 'natural' languages

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. The fact that English is today the internationally accepted language of science might just be a temporary, historical accident. If one day Chinese becomes the language of science, it won't change the fact that any natural language cannot be but an approximation of the true, exact and mysteriously powerful language of nature: mathematics. In the end, natural language descriptions of the fundamental nature of the universe and of its governing laws are bound to be inadequate.

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.

Dr Roberto Trotta is a theoretical cosmologist at Imperial College London, where he studies dark matter, dark energy and the Big Bang, and a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Public Engagement Fellow. Roberto has won numerous awards for his research and outreach, including the 'I'm a Scientist-Get me out of here! Astronomy Zone' vote in June 2014, the Lord Kelvin Award of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Michelson Prize of Case Western Reserve University.

Visit Roberto Trotta's website or follow him on Twitter.

Roberto will be speaking at the English Language Council Lecture on Science and the English Language, live-streamed from London on 13 November. The lecture is a forum for debate on English as the international language of science and how to make science more accessible to the public. The British Council and the English-Speaking Union host the lecture three times a year to discuss topics relevant to the global community of English language speakers. You can watch the archived event on YouTube.

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