Sometimes when scientists speak nobody has the foggiest idea what they’re talking about. Even other scientists can have trouble decoding the lingo of colleagues from other specialties.
Roberto Trotta thinks that’s a problem. A theoretical astrophysicist with Imperial College in London, Trotta is also passionate about good communication about science. As science communicators ourselves, Seattle Astronomy was excited to hear his recent talk at Town Hall Seattle.
“I’m very much interested in sharing the mysteries and the outstanding questions that cosmology raises with the public at large,” Trotta said. “It’s only fair that we share our ideas and the reasons why we do what we do with the people who are actually funding the work. To me, talking about science in a way that’s understandable and utterly engaging for the public is a very important concept.”
Trotta’s new book, The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is, uses just the 1,000 most common English words to explain what he does in his day job. That’s a tall order; Trotta had to write about cosmology without using words like telescope, galaxy, Big Bang, universe, and dark energy, none of which made the list.
“This book came out of a little idea that it should be possible to talk about very hard things in a straightforward way that all people can understand,” Trotta said.
It doesn’t always happen that way. Trottoa told the story of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson working at Bell Labs in New Jersey in 1964. The two were using a new antenna to detect radio waves, but were having trouble eliminating persistent background noise. Eventually they wrote a short paper titled “A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 MC/S.”
“What these two gentlemen were trying to say is ‘We picked up the echo from the Big Bang!'” Trotta marveled. They had found the cosmic microwave background and eventually received a Nobel Prize for the work. Trotta gave other examples of scientific papers with language that he called “impenetrable” and “incomprehensible.”
“Jargon is in the way,” he said. “Jargon is one big obstacle in having a dialog with the public.”
Trotta’s first shot at the 1,000-word concept was describing his own job in this simple, straightforward language during a public lecture. It received a positive reaction at that talk, as it did at Town Hall, and so he decided to take the concept further.
“The book began very much as an experiment because I wanted to see how far I could stretch this language,” he explained. “Would it break? Would it become boring? Would it become impossible?” He wondered whether complicated concepts such as dark matter could be explained in such simple terms.
It worked, and early reviews of the book have been positive. Trotta said that writing the book was almost like learning a new language. There were a few hiccups along the way. He first thought of translating “Big Bang” to “Hot Flash.” This turned into “Big Flash” for obvious reasons. Other terms in The Edge of the Sky:
- Universe: The all-there-is
- Galaxy: Star crowd
- Telescope: Big seer
- Dark energy: Dark push
- Earth: Home world
Trotta said that since the book began as a thought experiment he really didn’t have a target readership in mind, but that he hopes it will appeal to readers from young adult on up who want to get a better grip on the sometimes challenging but always fascinating topics of cosmology.
The Edge of the Sky is worth a look.