The Edge of the Sky: A Poetic Primer on the Science of the Universe Composed in the 1,000 Most Common Words in the English Language
By Maria Popova
“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it,” pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the 1979 volume Some Personal Views, “one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” Whether or not theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta read Mead, he embodies her unambiguous ethos with heartening elegance in The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is (public library | IndieBound) — an unusual “short story about what we think the All-There-Is is made of, and how it got to be the way it is,” told in the one thousand most common words in the English language. Under such admirable self-imposed restriction — the idea for which was given to Trotta by Randall Munroe, who knows a thing or two about illuminating complexity through simplicity — Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from these common English words. The universe becomes the “All-There-Is,” Earth our “Home World,” the planets “Crazy Stars,” our galaxy a “Star-Crowd” — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say “Mirror Drops”?
What emerges is a narrative that explains some of the most complex science in modern astrophysics, told in language that sounds like a translation of ancient storytelling, like the folkloric fables of African mythology, the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words. Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.
Trotta’s story, which spans from the Big Bang (“Big Flash”) to the invention of the telescope (“Big-Seer”) to the discoveries and unknowns that play out at the Large Hadron Collider (“Big Ring”), also features a thoughtfully equalizing play of gender pronouns, casting both women and men as “student-people” — the protagonist-scientists in the history of cosmology and astrophysics.
The story is peppered with appropriately lyrical illustrations by French artist Antoine Déprez.
In a particularly poetic chapter on space-time and the quest to grasp the scale of the universe, Trotta, who works at the astrophysics group of Imperial College London and has held research positions at Oxford and the University of Geneva, chronicles Einstein’s most enduring legacy:
Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever. He had a quick brain and he had been thinking carefully about the building blocks of the All-There-Is. To his surprise, he found that light was the key to understanding how far-away things in the sky — Crazy Stars, our Star-Crowd, and perhaps even the White Shadows — appear to us.
You could not explain this using the normal idea of space and time. Mr. Einstein then said that space and time had to be married and form a new thing that he called space-time. Thanks to space-time, he found that time slows down if you fly almost as fast as light and that your arm appears shorter in the direction you are going.
He then asked himself what would happen if you put some heavy stuff, as heavy as a star, in the middle of space-time. He was the first to understand that matter pulls in space-time and changes the way it looks. In turn, the form of space-time is what moves matter one way or another.
It followed that light from stars and the White Shadows in the sky would also be dragged around by the form of space-time. Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.
Mr. Einstein then began to wonder what would happen if he used his space-time idea for the entire All-There-Is.
But Trotta’s greatest feat is the grace with which he addresses the greatest question of cosmology, the one at the heart of the ancient tension between science and religion — the idea that the universe we have seems like a miraculous accident since, despite an infinity of other possible combinations, it somehow cultivated the exact conditions that make life viable. Science rejects the idea of a grand “Creator” who orchestrated these conditions, and religious traditions are predicated on the terror of admitting to such purely accidental origin — a bind with which humanity still tussles vigorously to this day, yet one Trotta untangles with extraordinary intellectual elegance:
Imagine for a minute the following situation.
You enter a room where you find a table with a large number of small, gray, round pieces on it — of the type that you can use to buy a coffee, or a paper, or to pay for parking. The ones with one head on one side and some other picture on the flip side.
Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.
You would not believe for a second that they were all just thrown on the table and happened to land this way. Although this could happen, it would be a hard thing to accept.
It would be easier to imagine that someone had walked into the room before you and had put them all down like this, heads up, all four hundred of them.
The strange thing about the Dark Push is that it is a bit like the four hundred heads-up gray pieces in the room.
If the Dark Push were only a tiny bit larger than it is, then everything we see around us would be very different.
It is as if changing only one of the heads in the four hundred would make the entire world change.
Change the Dark Push by a little bit, and Star-Crowds could not form; none of the stars we see in the sky would be there; the Sun would not be there; our Home-World would not be there; and life, as we know it, could not be here.
We wouldn’t be here to talk about this in the first place.
So the question is: Who or what put down all four hundred heads exactly this way?
Some student-people came to believe that they could understand this by imagining more rooms. A very large number of rooms.
In each of them, the four hundred gray pieces are all thrown up in the air and flipped. And they land in some way, however they may.
In most of the rooms, some of pieces will land heads, and some won’t.
But if you have enough rooms, in the end you’ll find one room where all of the pieces have landed heads-up. Just like that.
There is no need to imagine anyone setting them up in this way.
It’s only a question of having enough rooms and trying them all.
And so the idea is that perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.
Trotta also chronicles the origin of the universe and the mechanics of the Big Bang with elegant simplicity:
The All-There-Is started from a single point, but then grew very, very quickly to become very, very large.
It is almost not possible to picture how fast it grew. Imagine breathing into a colored party ball, so that with every breath the ball becomes ten times bigger than before. If every breath took you an hour, you would have to keep going for over three days to make the ball grow as much as the All-There-Is grew right after the Big Flash. By that time, your party ball would have become much bigger than the White Road, so that one hundred party balls would fill the entire part of the All-There-Is we can see!
We don’t know what made it grow so much, so fast.
He distills what we do know about those first few moments of cosmic import, painting a sensual portrait of the science:
At the beginning, all the matter drops were hot and moved around quickly. Nearly every matter drop had a Sister Drop flying around, and when they met, they hugged each other and disappeared in a flash of light. All the drops would have gone and only light would be left over, if it wasn’t for a strange fact.
Imagine a number of matter drops as large as the number of people who live in the land of Mr. Mao today. Each one of them had a matching Sister Drop, and when they found it, both disappeared.
Except for one.
Everything we see around us today is made of the few matter drops that did not have a Sister Drop and that escaped their death hug. As space continued to grow bigger and bigger, it cooled down. During the next three minutes, when the left-over matter drops met another drop they liked, they kissed each other and stuck together. Most matter drops did not find any other drop to kiss, so they stayed alone. We call them the Single Drops.
Almost all the matter drops that kissed each other ended up as Heavier Drops, made of two pairs of different drops. Very few matter drops stuck together to form even bigger drops than the Heavier Drops.
At the end, there were about ten times as many Single Drops as Heavier Drops. Single Drops and Heavier Drops are the same kind of drops that today make up most of the Sun.
Also, a whole lot of much lighter Very Small Drops were still flying around like crazy.
After three minutes, the All-There-Is had grown too much for matter drops to kiss: they simply could not find each other any more in all that big, empty space! Once matter drops stopped kissing one another, nothing much happened for a long time.
The Edge of the Sky is one part children’s book for grownups, one part imaginative exercise in economical yet lyrical language, and wholly wonderful. For a counterpoint that might well be written in the one thousand least common words in English but is utterly mind-expanding and at least as delightful, see Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.
Published September 24, 2014