Firstly it's the teensiest weeniest little book - just 12,000 words for your £10. But far more significantly, Roberto Trotta has decided, for reasons it surely is impossible to explain rationally, to write the book only using the 1,000 most common words in English. (In practice he only used 707.) When I first saw that I thought that this was an attempt to write a science book for those who struggle to read, so he was sticking to a limited vocabulary. But no - the approach means that Trotta has to go all around the houses to use words in ways they were never intended to be used. So, for instance, a planet is a 'crazy star', an atom (or more precisely, a particle) is a 'drop' and the universe is the 'all-there-is.'
That 1,000 word vocabulary seems painfully arbitrary. I don't even know where he got it from. When I looked up a list of the most common 1,000 words in English, they included both planet and atom, so it seems as if his list has almost been deliberately chosen to be difficult to use. Trotta makes an even more bizarre choice about proper names. He uses people's proper names with gay abandon, but doesn't use country names. So, he calls China, 'the land of Mr. Mao' - which is more like a crossword puzzle clue than something that simplifies the reading. (He also insists on calling people Mr. this and Mr. that, presumably because Mr. and Mrs. are in the list - but when he has said Mr. Einstein 10 times, it just seems weird. Why not just 'Einstein'?)
And yet... and yet the result is something with a strangely hypnotic, poetic quality. I was reminded most of all of Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha. This book isn't in verse, but it has the same, slightly mystical, rhythmic feel that translates a fairly ordinary story (like the opening chapter about an astronomer arriving at an observatory) into something magical. I really wanted to read it aloud. It fascinates despite itself. And though I wouldn't say it's a great way to find out about cosmology, as you spend a lot of your time trying to convert the words into something understandable - it certainly gives a feel for the excitement and intensity of the best modern work in the field.
If I have any criticism of the content it's the common one that there is far too much certainty in the way what is inevitably a speculative field is presented. Trotta even says 'We know the age of the All-There-Is is well that it would be like be 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.' Admittedly the dating of the big bang hasn't changed much lately - but it has before and it may again. This is emphasised by the way Trotta tells us 'This Early Push [inflation] left space-time shaking with lots of waves, which student-people think they have now picked up with a Far-Seer at the bottom end of our Home-World.' Unfortunately, the BICEP2 experiment this refers to did not do this after all - and what's worse, some even have suggested that what evidence there is suggests inflation is an incorrect model.
So it's a shame Trotta didn't use the exceptional form he has chosen in order to emphasise that science involves model building - more poetic, if you like, than establishing truth. But that didn't stop me liking this little gem. The best comparison I have for it is Alan Garner's Stone Book quartet - and that's a recommendation indeed. (It is on Kindle, but I recommend the paper version, as it's a handsome little book. There is also an audio version, which may be good for the poetic feel, but you probably need to see some of these words to understand what is meant.)
Review by Brian Clegg