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Science & Technology

Jargon-Free History Of The Universe Finds Beauty In Ordinary Words


A couple of years ago in Switzerland after years of searching, scientists finally found the so-called God particle, the Higgs boson, which holds our universe together. This was arguably the biggest discovery in all of science in decades. But here's how they announced it.


JOE INCANDELA: If we combine the ZZ and Gamma-Gamma in the region of 125GV, they combine to give us a combined significance of five standard deviations.


GOODWYN: For the non-physicists, it's not clear why everyone's clapping. What did he say? The problem is jargon. Science is filled with it, and for the layman, it can be a real impediment to understanding. But our next guest, a scientist himself, is trying to counteract that. Roberto Trotta is an astrophysicist at Imperial College London. His new book is called "The Edge Of The Sky." And it attempts to tell the history of the universe using only the thousand most-used words in the English language. The universe becomes the all there is. There our far seers and big seers and crazy stars and sky gods. Roberto Trotta joins us now from the BBC studios in London. Welcome.

ROBERTO TROTTA: Thank you, Wade. Great to be here.

GOODWYN: Where did this idea come from?

TROTTA: I came across a challenge on the Internet. Somebody put together a page challenging people to describe their job using the same format; only the most used 1,000 words in English. And I tried it, and I found it quite fun. And I thought, well, maybe there is something here - a new idea, a new way of talking about all there is without any of the jargon in a way that anybody can understand.

GOODWYN: So you could only use the thousand most-used words. Did you have a list tacked up on the wall in front of you and as you wrote, you had to hit backspace constantly and then sit there and ponder how am I going to say this?

TROTTA: Yes. At the beginning, that's how I started. Then after a while, I must admit that it came more natural to me. This straitjacket, this poetic straitjacket, in the sense, became much more comfortable. And so by the time I finished the book, I felt quite cozy in it. And I didn't need to use the backspace all that much anymore.

GOODWYN: There are nice moments when simple words remind us how amazing science can be. You point out how remarkable it is that we know the age of the universe by saying (reading) we know the age of the all there is so well that it would be like being 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. When you're fully immersed in scientific jargon, sometimes the remarkable gets lost.

TROTTA: That's right. And this is part of the reasons why I wrote this book. I think that it's very important for scientists to remember the big picture, not to get lost in jargon, not to get lost in the technical details that make up 90 percent of our daily lives. We have to remember that all these questions that we're asking are the big questions that the entirety of human kind has been asking for all of the entire human history. And so talking with the public and having a dialogue with the public is a great way of reminding us how incredibly interesting and cool the science that we are doing actually is.

GOODWYN: What was the idea that was hardest to explain?

TROTTA: The early universe - the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang was really difficult because I kept banging my head against the limitation of my own set of rules. At the beginning, I couldn't see a nice, simple, satisfactory way of explaining those very complex phenomena for which I didn't have enough words. I didn't have the word energy for example. I didn't have the word speed. I didn't have the word particle. I didn't have the word fraction. I didn't have the word Big Bang even. So all of those things took time to come out of the simple language the book is written in.

GOODWYN: Heard any backlash from scientists?

TROTTA: By and large, my colleagues have been very supportive and very enthusiastic of the endeavor, which has pleased me. Some people think that it's a pointless exercise, that we have the jargon, we have the words, why shouldn't we use them? And some people think that it's even a sin to butcher the English language, which contains so many million different words to only the most-used thousand words. And so, yes, perhaps it would be easier to talk about the Milky Way and galaxies rather than using white road and star crowds, for example. But by doing so, I aim at stimulating a new awareness, a new way of approaching those objects, and perhaps, I hope, seeing them with fresh, childlike, new eyes.

GOODWYN: Roberto Trotta is an astrophysicist at Imperial College London and the author of "The Edge Of The Sky." He joined us from the BBC in London. Roberto, well done.

TROTTA: Thank you, Wade. It has been a pleasure talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.