The All-There-Is.

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings writes about an interesting project:

“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.

There are a bunch of quotes from the book — as well as a bunch of links, which I have been too lazy to add to the bit I quoted — at Maria’s post. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. But… Munroe already did the thing itself.

    Also, “crazy stars” for planets is bad. It’s unhelpful, counter-intuitive, reeks of effort. If this is a cherry-picked example, I’d hate to see the cherries left on the tree.

  2. Yeah, it’s a terrible way to say “planet,” but it’s a great phrase!

  3. The Bible in Basic English supposedly uses the canonical 850 words of Ogden’s BE, plus 150 extras.

  4. Not impressed by Maria Popova: Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.

    Er, right.

    And Roberto Trotta’s explanations make no sense at all. Just using simple words and newly-coined neologisms made from simple words doesn’t make it easier to understand.

    Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever.

    Why is “student-people” easier than “scientists”?

    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.

    Huh? “The form of space time is what moves matter one way or another?” I can’t even conceptualise this… but I’m not a physicist.

    Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.

    How does THAT work?

    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.

    Sister Drop? Death Hug? Kissed each other? Single Drops? What are we talking about?

    And I don’t agree about Crazy Star. Are Crazy Stars pretty much the same as Stars? So the Earth is pretty much the same as the Sun? And the Earth is crazy but the Sun isn’t? What sort of conception of the universe is a vocabulary-challenged person going to get? Since when was “planet” such a hard word?

  5. January First-of-May says:

    Also, “crazy stars” for planets is bad. It’s unhelpful, counter-intuitive, reeks of effort. If this is a cherry-picked example, I’d hate to see the cherries left on the tree.

    Extremely seconded. I don’t recall offhand what Munroe did with that word, though (and he was probably working from a different list anyway).
    [EDIT: judging by what I could recall of the text of Space Weird Thing, it was probably “space ball”. I think. Not sure.]

    One problem with that kind of stuff is that it keeps missing some actually basic words, just because they’re too infrequent and drop off the list (Munroe’s list notably did not include “eight” and “nine”, which made the countdown sequence in Space Weird Thing sound, well, a bit weird).

  6. I kept cringing as I read the excerpts from Trotta. It was bad on multiple levels.

    (The beginning of that blog post also reminded me of the canonical joke about whether Margaret Mead knew enough about her field not to be fooled by “an intelligent twelve-year-old.”)

  7. Owlmirror says:

    Sister Drop? Death Hug? Kissed each other? Single Drops? What are we talking about?

    Sister Drop = anti(matter) particle
    Death Hug = deadly embrace ; annihilating collision
    Kissed each other = fused
    Single Drops = protons

    (“The least uncleft is that of ordinary waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a *firstbit*.”)

    Since when was “planet” such a hard word?

    plánētes=wanderer

    I’m not sure why wandering is considered crazy. Or maybe “crazy” was just the closest he could find to “wandering” in the basic list.

  8. I have no idea how the idea that higher concepts are impenetrable because they use unfamiliar jargon and not because the framework they fit into is complicated and requires a large base of knowledge manages to see any circulation when it’s absurd on its face. If making calculus accessible, for example, was simply a matter of using small words then everyone would be proficient at “changing-number-learning”. The fact that they teach elementary schoolers the solar system and not supersymmetries in elementary particles is not a bizarre pedagogical gap.

  9. PlasticPaddy says:

    @bathrobe
    Re the form of space-time moving matter, the visualisation I have is a ball bearing on a deformable sheet. When the sheet is flat, the ball bearing does not move (or does not change its initial position or velocity). If the sheet is deformed sufficiently to overcome friction, the ball bearing moves (or its linear motion changes) and the new motion depends on the deformation and more strongly on the deformation in the immediate neighbourhood of the ball bearing.

  10. William Boyd says:

    I’m hoping there’s a couple of 12-year-olds out there who’d offer their perspectives.

    For me, a nearly 74-yr-old, this attempt at simplifying is a bit of a treasure. Nonetheless, thanks, all, for your perspectives.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Drop is a stroke of genius.

    Huh? “The form of space time is what moves matter one way or another?” I can’t even conceptualise this… but I’m not a physicist.

    Gravity is the shape (curvature) of spacetime.

  12. If that’s all-there-is, then let’s keep dancing.

  13. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Yes, but what is curvature if you aren’t talking about a manifold embedded in a larger-dimensional one? It is really hard to conceptualize in a pure way. The 2-d sheet imbedded in 3-d space with gravity in 3-d space impelling the ball bearing and causing its weight to deform the sheet is at best a simile — 4-d spacetime just is, there is nothing to embed it in; the curvature is called that because the way your metric varies with position can be expressed the same way as the variation of the imposed metric of a curved sheet in 3-d space, but the variation is not caused by a non-flat embedding, it’s caused by matter directly.

  14. “If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it, …”

    Isn’t Margaret Mead the one who got hoaxed by 12-year-olds in Samoa? “her work may properly be damned with the harshest scientific criticism of all, that it is ‘not even wrong’.” — by one assessment in wikipedia.

    No amount of clear explanations given would persuade me to allow a 12-year-old to carry out brain surgery, or engineer a rocket, or command a national response to a pandemic … … oh, wait ….

  15. the visualisation I have is a ball bearing on a deformable sheet.

    Yes, I’ve heard that one. It’s an image meant to help you understand the concept. But that’s not what he wrote.

  16. PlasticPaddy says:

    @lars
    I agree and what is true about my test mass ball bearing holds also for massless photons. But you have to start somewhere. In fact, I am unable to visualise 4 dimensional geometry, even more so when the metric has negative curvature, so i would be reduced to formal manipulations. Describing these to a novice would require presenting equations and some tensor notation.

  17. It’s quite certain that Trotta, as a cosmologist, knew what he was writing about, but I am afraid that there’s the danger that some people may start thinking that they understand the subject matter because they knew all the words used in his book. There may be fields whose difficulty lies largely or even entirely in jargon, but cosmology is for sure not one of them.

    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!

    This is a pretty poor way to convey the idea of a fast growing universe. For one thing, using hours and days (probably necessitated by the absence of shorter time intervals on the basic word list) creates an impression that the cosmological inflation, which in fact was happening on the time scale of 10^-32 seconds, lasted hours or days. Second, based on this description, an average 12-year-old (or adult unaccustomed with exponential functions, for that matter) will likely not do better than the sultan in the old grains on the chessboard story, and strongly underestimate how big the ball becomes in the end. “You say you enlarge it ten times and repeat that 72 times? How many times it grows you ask? Perhaps ten thousand?”

    I am also not sure why the ball had to be coloured.

  18. My guess is “coloured” was added so the reader has a better chance of understanding what a “party ball” is.

  19. @Keith Ivey: Oh, I get it now! When I initially read “colored party ball,” I though of a beach ball (also inflated by blowing into it, but of a basically fixed maximum volume), when the phrase was actually meant as a kenning for “balloon.”

  20. The whole point of modern physics is that we human beings cannot visualize or describe in language what is going on at very small or very large dimensions. The only way these worlds can be understood is via mathematics. Substituting verbal metaphors for mathematics may give an illusion of understanding, but all it can possibly do is make people think they understand something that they don’t understand at all.

    “It is reputed – I do not know if it is true – that when one of the kings was trying to learn geometry from Euclid he complained that it was difficult. And Euclid said, “There is no royal road to geometry”. And there is no royal road. Physicists cannot make a conversion to any other language. If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in. She offers her information only in one form; we are not so unhumble as to demand that she change before we pay any attention.”
    – Richard Feynman

  21. John Cowan says:

    However, it is possible to verbally express mathematics, the principle behind the eqn(1) filter and parts of TeX. One of the oldest algebra problems we have is literally (from the Arabic): “A heap, a whole, its seventh, it makes nineteen”. For that matter, chess hasn’t always used a notation either: “The Queen to the Queen’s Bishop’s Pawn’s Square, giving Checkmate”.

    I grant these are not metaphors, but mathematics is just a concise expression of them.

  22. January First-of-May says:

    from the Arabic

    Ancient Egyptian, I believe. (The papyrus it’s from has a bunch of other similar problems as well.)

  23. the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words.

    this is the part that gets my goat. the idea that there were fewer words in the past, that people were stupider in the past. as opposed to having understandings as sophisticated, as elaborate, and above all as verbose as ours – just different (in structure, form of expression, and content).

    also, what intelligent 12-yr-old would put up with dumbed down vocabulary, of all things? that’s the very mark of adult condescencion…

    which isn’t to say that some interesting things can’t be done, and done well, with a willfully constrained lexicon – including complex scientific explanations, as Yuval said all the way at the top of this thread!

    but (even fake) myth isn’t one of them. we’re only used to seeing traditional literatures from outside europe and certain parts of asia presented in baby-talk because the folks translating and publishing them believed they were recording the primitive thoughts of not-quite-humans, and wrote them out accordingly. (and that’s giving them a lot more credit than most of them deserve for bothering to properly learn the languages they were dealing with.)

  24. A heap, a whole, its seventh, it makes nineteen

    It‘s more of a hybrid: there was a symbol for Egyptian fractions and a word (𓁷𓂋𓏤) for add.

  25. Let’s face it: much of this cosmological stuff is fundamentally unreachable by the human imagination. I’ve read about the ball bearing on the rubber sheet a hundred times and I don’t pretend to be any the wiser about what ‘space-time’ really means. Einstein was right simply because the maths comes out right, not because anyone can understand it.
    Can you picture the big bang without wondering what there was before the bang? Can you picture a finite universe without wondering what’s outside it? Of course not.
    Do you think you can imagine the size of the universe? Quick quiz (please answer on gut feeling within five seconds; don’t try to calculate): if the earth was the size of a pea, the sun would be a large beach ball about 75 metres away. How far away would the nearest star be? A. 10km. B. 100km. C. 1,000km. D. 10,0000km.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Going for 10,000 just because it’s the largest number you offered. And the ratio of 8 lightminutes to 4 lightyears seems about right.

  27. Stu Clayton says:

    there was a symbol for Egyptian fractions and a word (𓁷𓂋𓏤) for add.

    Do you mean “there was an Egyptian symbol for fractions …” ? Or was there a different symbol for Hittite fractions, or none at all ? Their chariot factions were in disagreement, so maybe the fraction factions too ?

  28. They were, in fact, fractious.

  29. AJP Crown says:

    Well put, Julian. We use maths & physics to predict outcomes all the time and not only at CERN. But to answer questions about life, the universe and everything, 42 doesn’t help; it’s just yet another kind of metaphor taken from human experience. Philosophy supplies more questions that don’t assume human prior experience, if not more answers, than maths & physics. At the end of your comment, I base my answer (10,0000 km) on my gut feeling for the most likely, which is that the correct one has to be the biggest or second biggest and hardest to visualise. Actually using the pea scale metaphor to guess the most likely distance would require prior knowledge of comparative distances in space, and that’s precisely what the question implicitly precludes. The astronomy educator Andy Fraknoi has different units for the same question here:

    If the Sun were the size of a basketball, Earth would be a small apple seed about 30 meters from the ball. Proxima Centauri, the nearest star beyond the Sun, is 4.3 light-years away. That would be almost 7,000 kilometers from the basketball.

    Even if astronomy is easier to imagine than particle physics (at least we can SEE the stars), I think also that his explanations are better than Roberto Trotta’s. No twelve year old will be helped by the confusing “Student-People” for scientist, nor by “Big-Seers” for telescopes. A seer sees visions of the future, which is the opposite of a telescope. And did I see “Mr Mao’s Land” somewhere? If I did, that’s just weirdly anachronistic.

  30. January First-of-May says:

    Or was there a different symbol for Hittite fractions, or none at all ?

    IIRC, “Egyptian fraction” is an actual math term for a fraction with unit numerator and positive integer denominator (though I’m not sure if this was intended in the context).

    For some weird reason the Egyptians kept describing all (or almost all) fractions in their math as sums of such unit-numerator fractions (plus 2/3 occasionally).

  31. Stu Clayton says:

    Well if that don’t beat all:

    # Beyond their historical use, Egyptian fractions have some practical advantages over other representations of fractional numbers. For instance, Egyptian fractions can help in dividing a number of objects into equal shares (Knott). For example, if one wants to divide 5 pizzas equally among 8 diners, the Egyptian fraction

    5/8 = 1/2 + 1/8

    means that each diner gets half a pizza plus another eighth of a pizza, e.g. by splitting 4 pizzas into 8 halves, and the remaining pizza into 8 eighths.

    Similarly, although one could divide 13 pizzas among 12 diners by giving each diner one pizza and splitting the remaining pizza into 12 parts (perhaps destroying it), one could note that

    13/12 =1/2 +1/3 + 1/4

    and split 6 pizzas into halves, 4 into thirds and the remaining 3 into quarters, and then give each diner one half, one third and one quarter. #

  32. Who knew the Egyptians even had pizzas?

  33. Stu Clayton says:

    The pyramids of Piza were built by stacking, then petrifying them.

  34. Needless to say, the stack leaned off center.

  35. Stu Clayton says:

    Look what can be learned from poking fun at the illustrious MMcM ! Egyptian fractions provide an eminently practical way to divvy something up equally.

    It doesn’t have to be pizza. Anything that can’t already be divvied by means other than cutting (scooping, for bean soup). Cornbread, say. Or Sachertorte.

  36. Stu Clayton says:

    Needless to say, the stack leaned off center.

    The pyramids of Piza, not the tower of Gisa !

  37. AJP Crown says:

    The International House of Pancakes.

  38. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Hmm, that pizza sharing thing — it works fine if the denominators of the result all divide the original denominator evenly. But for instance 2/7 is 1/4 + 1/28 — so you end up with four quarter pizzas and 28 very small pieces, and four people get a quarter and one small piece, the three others each get eight sad, cold little pieces and all the pepperoni slices have fallen off. Fair but unfair.

    Anyway, the Egyptians had a symbol (an eye shape over a number) to denote the reciprocal, and they figured out how to calculate with sums of those instead of introducing ‘arbitrary’ fractions. Ghosts of Sapir-Whorf.

  39. Lars Mathiesen says:

    One confusing thing about the ‘curvature of spacetime’ is that there are two different concepts. The curvature that makes planets go in circles around the sun is the Riemann curvature, the one that is caused by mass (in the simplest case) is the Ricci curvature (this is the cruz of GR). They are related, of course, but understanding exactly how requires more index juju than I possess.

    ‘Flat’ space has zero curvature, both kinds. But you can have a metric on spacetime where the Ricci curvature is zero, corresponding to a vacuum, but the Riemann curvature is not. These ‘solutions’ are highly constrained (by the Ricci tensor being zero) but one of them does describe spacetime around a central mass: the Schwarzschild metric which was found in 1916, though it seems that better versions are still being researched.

  40. Plus, this all assumes that the five pizzas are the same. In practice, person A doesn’t want any of the pizza with black olives, only persons B and C like anchovies, D isn’t very hungry, E takes more than his fair share of the meatball pizza, etc etc. It’s no wonder the Italians are so quarrelsome.

  41. AJP Crown says:

    And it only works for rectangular pizza, like Sicilian sfinciuni. Dividing circle sectors according to tiny area and the arc perimeter is… completely impractical.

  42. House of Pancakes, pray for us.

  43. (and that’s giving them a lot more credit than most of them deserve for bothering to properly learn the languages they were dealing with.)

    Speaking of Margaret Mead, which we were, Growing Up in New Guinea contains an assertion about the simplicity of the Papuan language she had to learn that stuck in my mind when I was a boy, and which decades later made me laugh and shake my head.

  44. David Eddyshaw says:

    I read somewhere (it’s too good to look up, in case it spoils the beautiful simplicity) that the actual Western Samoans were none too pleased with Margaret Mead’s fantasies about the nature of adolescent experience there, what with them actually all being Methodists, of a straitlaced variety somewhat endangered in decadent America.

    Nobody who thinks (any) language is “easy” should be allowed out as an anthropologist.

    (She had an affair with Edward Sapir. Did she learn nothing? Perhaps they didn’t talk shop much …)

  45. David Marjanović says:

    Do you think you can imagine the size of the universe? […] How far away would the nearest star be?

    Tellingly, only now does it occur to me how self-demonstrating this set of questions is. How far away, rather, would the nearest galaxy supercluster be?

    (The same as for deep space, of course, holds for deep time. Last week, last ice age, same difference.)

    Perhaps they didn’t talk shop much …

    A horrible accusation against at least one of them.

  46. David Eddyshaw says:

    A horrible accusation against at least one of them.

    Well, there are other things to talk about than Anthropology and Athapaskan. Not as interesting, I dare say, but de gustibus

  47. Lars Mathiesen says:

    The Great GRB Wall would be out past Proxima Centauri.

  48. Quick quiz (please answer on gut feeling within five seconds; don’t try to calculate): if the earth was the size of a pea, the sun would be a large beach ball about 75 metres away. How far away would the nearest star be? A. 10km. B. 100km. C. 1,000km. D. 10,0000km.

    I’d say D.

    At the right bank of the Vltava river, just north of Prague, there are scattered models of celestial bodies forming what’s called a “Planetary Trail”. The distances and sizes are to scale. The Sun sits almost exactly at Prague’s administrative boundary and it can be said that it looks like a yellow beach ball, albeit a very large one. The other bodies are all metal balls, some small and others bigger, more or less pea-sized Earth being few dozen metres away. The farthest one is Sedna, about 12 km away downstream (distances are measured along the river). I was once curious where Proxima Centauri should be placed, and while not remembering precisely what the calculation result was, I recall that the desired position was beyond Hamburg.

  49. @Lars Mathiesen: The Riemann curvature is the most general curvature tensor that one can write down. In two dimensions, it has just one independent component (the Gaussian curvature, which tells you the angle defect of a small triangle drawn at a given point). In three dimensions, it has six components, and in four spacetime dimensions (corresponding to the real world), twenty. The two pieces that the Riemann tensor spits into are the Ricci tensor and the Weyl tensor. The Weyl part is identically zero in less than four dimensions; while in four dimensions, both the Weyl and Ricci tensors have ten independent components. Only the Ricci part of the curvature is governed by general relativity, meaning the Weyl part of a solution metric has to be inferred from other conditions.

    @prase: In the 1990s, a model of the solar system was installed around Boston, centered at the Museum of Science. The sun was at one end of the museum (although it was only partially represented; you could just see a sector of it between the corner of the wall and ceiling). A correctly sized model of Mercury was on the other side of the museum. Venus was in the museum parking garage, Earth in the hotel across the street, Mars in the Cambridgeside Galleria mall a couple streets over, and the jovian planets at various locations farther away. What I remember being rather obnoxious was that that Galleria management apparently decided that they didn’t like the position of the Mars model, so they moved it from one end of the mall to the other, which was a significant change in the distance from the sun. Apparently, many of the model elemenst no longer exist, unfortunately.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    The Great GRB Wall would be out past Proxima Centauri.

    Thought so.

  51. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @Brett, I’ve always felt as if there is a slight disconnect between mathematical solutions to differential equations and so on, and the actual physical phenomena. You can use the calculus of variations to find the catenary formula, but if you actually hang up a chain it doesn’t just assume that shape, there is a lot of jiggling that has to die down first. Similarly for things like rotating fluid in a cylinder (the first year exam question I bungled so bad) — at the molecular level there will be all sorts of fluctuations and phonons bouncing all over, our equations just describe the large-scale equilibrium that it will converge towards. But in principle we understand how the convergence happens, so you can just wave a hand and say Statistical Mechanics.

    Similarly for the solutions to GR — but we simply don’t understand yet what it is that does the jiggling and bouncing, so we have to be satisfied with solving for a Weyl tensor field and finding that it predicts what we see.

  52. Lars — Since this is a linguistic blog: the equilibrium solution reflects the system’s competence. All those jiggles and fluctuations reflect mere performance, and are of no interest.

  53. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Vade retro!

  54. At the Edge of Time, a Litter of Galactic Puppies:

    The discovery of a black hole surrounded by protogalaxies provides astronomers with a rare glimpse of the web of matter permeating the cosmos.

    Man, I love this stuff.

  55. ktschwarz says:

    Note that neither “litter” nor “puppy” is among the 1000 most common words in English—at least, not on the first few such lists that I googled; “edge” is on some of them but not others. That’s another illustration of the difference between *commonest* words (used by adults) and *basic* words that you could use with children, as pointed out also by January First-of-May and others above. Maria Popova confused those things, but they’re very different. Lists of the 1000 most common words include a lot of boring adult words like refer, region, report, require, research, society, structure, subject, just from a glance at one screenful. So I don’t think that restriction is particularly helpful if what you really want is vivid, charming metaphors.

    And what rozele said about “African mythology”.

  56. @David Marjanovic: yes indeed, deep time is just as unimaginable as deep space. That’s why the ‘climate has changed before’ optimists are so confused and dangerous. They have no idea about the *rate* of change. For a good take on that see XKCD/1732/

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    And what rozele said about “African mythology”

    You betcha. I should have given that one a good kicking myself if I’d been paying proper attention.

    (Spending too much time at present analysing Moba verb flexion. I’m making progress, and now realise it’s no worse than French. For much the same reason – they can’t be bothered to pronounce half of the inherited non-initial consonants, have changed the ones that they do retain against all properly-brought-up phonetic principles, and have deliberately screwed with the vowel system in order to confuse foreigners. I admire their spirit.)

  58. Mongolian Wikipedia article on Big Bang:

    Ikh tesrelt (Angli: Big Bang; Oros: Bolishoi vzryv) ni odon oron sudlal dakhi orchlon yertöntsiin zagvar bögööd odoogoor yertöntsiin üüsliin talaarkh, khamgiin örgön khüleen zövshöörögdööd bui üzel bolood baina. 1929 ond Edvin Khabbl ogtorguin biyet khoorondyn zai ni tedgeeriin solongon zadlal dakhi ulaisalttai kholbootoig neesnii daraa yertönts telj baigaag ilrüülsen bilee. Üünees üüden yertöntsiig urid tsagt ilüü jijig, nyagt ikhtei, khaluun baisan gesen taamaglal devshüülsen bögööd ug üzliig batlakhaar khet nyagtshil, khet öndör tyempyeratur zergiig sudlan odoogoor bidnii ajiglakh bolomjtoi baigaa yertöntstei ijil ür dünd khürchee. Odoogoor ikh tesreltiig 13,8 terbum jiliin ömnö bolson gej nariivchilj togtooson bögööd ene too ch ireedüid öörchilögdökh magadlal öndör yum.

    The only foreign term (or “big word” as they would say in America) used is “tyempyeratur” (and name of Edwin Hubble). All other words are common Mongolian.

    Translation: “The Big explosion (English: Big Bang; Russian: Большой взрыв) is a model of the universe in astronomy and is currently the most widely accepted view of the origin of the universe. In 1929, Edwin Hubble found that the space between celestial bodies was expanding after discovering that they were related to redshifts in the spectrum. As a result, the hypothesis that the universe was smaller, denser, and hotter in the past has been proposed, and the study of ultra-density and ultra-hot-temperatures to confirm this view has yielded similar results in the observable universe. The Big explosion is now estimated to have taken place 13.8 billion years ago, and that number is likely to change in the future.”

    It doesn’t sound like baby talk at all. Why Americans think that only words borrowed from Latin or Greek can be used to discuss science?

  59. January First-of-May says:

    Why Americans think that only words borrowed from Latin or Greek can be used to discuss science?

    Because in English (and indeed, as far as I’m aware, in many other European languages) many of the worlds required to discuss science (“hypothesis”, for one) would be borrowed from Latin or Greek, and the alternatives are often so exotic that you’re better off hoping that the big word would be familiar to the kids than using one of the alternatives (or, even worse, having to neologize one) and hoping that the kids would understand that.

    (Offhand, I can’t actually think of a good non-big-word alternative for “hypothesis”, or for that matter for “celestial bodies” – “sky bodies” doesn’t work, and “sky objects” introduces another big word.)

  60. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Moba — that sounds familiar. I shall suggest we make it the friendship language of Danish!

  61. Athe Cornish-Bowden says:

    Nobody who thinks (any) language is “easy” should be allowed out as an anthropologist.

    (She had an affair with Edward Sapir. Did she learn nothing? Perhaps they didn’t talk shop much …)

    That (the first paragraph) seems to be an article of faith among experts on linguistics. But is it really true? Would anyone seriously maintain that Navajo is just as easy as Malay to get to the point where you can use it in everyday life? Or, to take an example closer to my practical experience, that Russian is as easy as Spanish to get to the point where you can use it in everyday life? Of course, I have no doubt that there are subtlties in Malay that take a lifetime to learn, just as there are in Spanish, but you can get on quite well without worrying about them. When I first started speaking French every day I assigned genders to nouns more or less at ranom, but it didn’t prevent me from being understood.

    The author (I think) of Teach Yourself Malay said in his introduction that after six months of exposure to Malay he thought he knew 90%of what there was to know, and that it wouldn’t any longer to pick up the rest, but later he realized that it would take (at least) the rest of his life.

  62. David Marjanović says:

    the *rate* of change

    Yup, currently ten times as fast as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, and five times as fast as… I forgot what, actually; probably the Permian-Triassic mass extinction.

    I had managed to miss the XKCD, though. As usual, it’s very useful.

  63. Here is how it works in Mongolian.

    Astronomy (odon oron sudlal) – literally “study of star space”
    Universe (orchlon yertönts, yertönts) – “surrounding world, world”
    celestial bodies (ogtorguin biyet) – “sky bodies”
    redshift (ulaisalt) – “reddening”
    spectrum (solongon zadlal) – “rainbow slice”
    hypothesis (taamaglal) – “supposition”
    observable universe (ajiglakh bolomjtoi baigaa yertönts) – “the world which we can observe”

    But I can see the problem. Some of the words used in literal translation are Latin loanwords in English (and therefore “big words”).

    I agree, it’s hard to talk about science when you don’t even have native word for “observe”.

  64. January First-of-May says:

    Some of the words used in literal translation are Latin loanwords in English (and therefore “big words”).

    To be fair, big words don’t have to be loanwords; Russian вселенная is just as much a big word as English universe, despite being technically native (literally meaning something to the effect of “the inhabited one”).

    the *rate* of change

    IIRC, the warming at the end of the Younger Dryas (11660 years ago) is currently reconstructed to as extremely fast, but I’m not sure if it was that fast, and in any case “several years of very fast warming, preceded and followed by much longer periods of relative stability” isn’t quite the same thing either.

  65. For a good take on that see XKCD/1732/

    Here’s a direct link. It’s excellent.

    Russian вселенная is just as much a big word as English universe, despite being technically native (literally meaning something to the effect of “the inhabited one”).

    Actually, it’s taken from Church Slavic (въселенаꙗ [a calque of Gk. οἰκουμένη], based on село ‘village’), so it’s just as non-native as the English word.

  66. It occurs to me to wonder if what Mead learned was really a local pidgin/creole that made her subjects smile at her primitiveness.

  67. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hat
    I suppose formations from Church Slavonic would have a more native feel for speakers of Slavic languages, as would formations from Latin for Romance speakers. Any Romance speaker can parse “dispensation”, fiducial”, etc., but the basic components are not words in English.

  68. Sure. I’m not saying the situations are identical, just that they’re both borrowings. Russian is lucky to have so familiar-sounding a language to borrow from.

  69. Any Romance speaker can parse “dispensation”, fiducial”, etc., but the basic components are not words in English.

    I get “fiducial”, but how does that work for “dispensation”? Apparently, the -pens- is from the Latin verb pendere, and I’m unsure how a Romance speaker would make that connection.

  70. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    örgön khüleen zövshöörögdööd

    It seems like Mongolian rivals Estonian in its enthusiasm for double umlauted vowels.

  71. See on väärtuslik võõras vöö ‘That’s a valuable foreign belt.’

  72. PlasticPaddy says:

    @Fancua
    pendere has a sense of “weigh down” so i would suppose dis+pendere could be construed as to lighten s.o’s load.😊

  73. The Trotta renaming scheme reminds me of the linguistic purism movement, which aims to replace Latinate words with words of Anglo-Saxon origin. Things like birdlore for ornithology. I did a little googling and found on Wikipedia that the prolific science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote a book called Uncleftish Beholding which explained atomic theory in words of Anglo-Saxon origin:

    “For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.”

    This is how German works. For example, its words for hydrogen and oxygen (Wasserstoff and Sauerstoff) are literally water-stuff and sour-stuff.

    But English hasn’t worked like that since 1066. It doesn’t make English worse at explaining difficult ideas, although it does mean that the etymology of English words is more opaque.

  74. pendere has a sense of “weigh down” so i would suppose dis+pendere could be construed as to lighten s.o’s load.

    What I mean is, would a Romance speaker be able to tell that pens is from pendere and etymologically has the meaning “to weigh down”? It seems to me that pender/pendre/etc. and their conjugated forms do not resemble pens enough for this to be the case.

  75. Poul Anderson wrote a book called Uncleftish Beholding which explained atomic theory in words of Anglo-Saxon origin

    Not a book but a brief essay, covered at LH in 2004.

  76. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Estonian has short, long and over-long vowels.

    I wasn’t, I hope, implying that Estonian and Mongolian use digraphs like öö in the same way! I know little about Estonian and no more about Mongolian than what I can read at LanguageHat. However, there is someone called Öö Tiib who often posts at talk.origins and that gave me the idea that such doublets are used a lot in Estonian. I was on the point of saying that I didn’t know any Estonians when I remembered that three came to the meeting that I organized in 1989. One of them was later a coauthor of the French edition of my kinetics book — a book with three authors, of whom none was French, but that’s misleading, because the one who did most of the work is a francophone Belgian.

  77. David Marjanović says:

    This is how German works.

    In part.

    astronomy – Astronomie
    universe – Universum
    celestial bodies – Himmelskörper*
    redshift – Rotverschiebung
    spectrum – Spektrum
    hypothesis – Hypothese
    visible/observable universe – sichtbares/beobachtbares Universum

    * Himmlische Körper would imply the bodies of angels or something, or it could be a boring euphemism for “sexy”.

    Also, Stoff doesn’t mean “stuff”, but 1) “cloth”, 2) “substance”. For “stuff” I’d say Zeug (which, however, appears to mean “clothes” in some places, and meant “equipment” 500 years ago).

    It seems like Mongolian rivals Estonian in its enthusiasm for double umlauted vowels.

    Fake, all fake. Mostly.

    Mongolian does have a vowel-length contrast in the first ( = stressed) syllable. But there, өө, ү & үү, transcribed öö, ü, üü, are [oː u uː]; ө, transcribed ö, is [ɵ] or thereabouts, funnily enough – a rounded central vowel. Rounded front vowels are absent.

    The main difference between this set and о, оо, у, уу o, oo, u, uu is that the latter are articulated with retracted tongue root.

    Elsewhere in the word, vowels written single are more or less [ə], and the spelling follows a vowel harmony which apparently doesn’t exist very much (but is noticeable on certain consonants, e.g. [x] goes with unretracted and [χ] with retracted tongue root). The ones written double are unreduced, but reportedly not particularly long.

  78. David Marjanović says:

    Estonian has short, long and over-long vowels.

    We appear to have overloaded murre.ut.ee.

  79. Regarding Anderson’s “Uncleftish Beholding”, note that Owlmirror quoted from it in the seventh comment to this post, and linked to the 2004 post.

  80. ktschwarz says:

    How did Mongolian get “rainbow slice”? Presumably from translators? If so, they must have made a deliberate choice to develop scientific vocabulary by compounding or extending the meaning of native words, instead of borrowing. So now Mongolian has polysemy in “rainbow” and “sky”, where English has a separate register of scientific vocabulary — a heavier memory load, but with the benefit that it’s common to all other European languages.

  81. David Eddyshaw says:

    Would anyone seriously maintain that Navajo is just as easy as Malay to get to the point where you can use it in everyday life?

    Certainly not. But saying some languages are harder than others doesn’t commit you to the idea that any of them is actually easy.

    “Harder” is not a simple scalar, either. Some languages are vastly easier to get to the point where you can hold a basic conversation in them than others, for sure. But an anthropologist (in particular) is going to need to get to grips with semantic complexity. Languages with no great morphological or syntactic complexity are probably at least as likely to provide traps for the understanding as the Navajos and Chukchees.

    I’m reminded of the introduction to John Haiman’s Khmer grammar. Khmer is admirably simple morphologically and is practically pidgin-like in syntax. However, he describes it in his first encounters with it as a “Desesperanto”: “a language of which one can read a page and understand every word individually, and have no inkling of what the page was all about.”

  82. From M.B. Lewis, Teach Yourself Malay:

    Malay is an easy language. Bafflingly easy. At the end of ten weeks you’ll feel that you know all there is to be known. At the end of ten years, you know that you never will.

    Even with ‘hard’ polysynthetic languages, you can communicate in a simplified grammar; in Navajo and Tiwi, for example, those simplified versions are taking hold.

  83. universe – Universum
    There is also Weltall (literally “world-all”), which was coined to be the native equivalent. It’s used quite frequently in talking about astronomy, but in a more limited way than Universum – I’ve never seen it used for universes other than ours, or non-literally, e.g. in order to translate “a universe of pain” I would use Universum.
    Edit: It’s also often used as a synonym for Weltraum “outer space” by laypeople.

  84. Stu Clayton says:

    in order to translate “a universe of pain” I would use Universum.

    None of Weltallschmerz, Universum(s?)schmerz or Universalschmerz would float a colloquial boat in my semantic canal. Maybe Universum des Schmerzes is what you had in mind.

    But what is a “universe of pain” anyway ? I find only a musical metaphor:

    # Statt anschließend Sänger bei Judas Priest zu werden, entwarf der Synästhetiker [der kanadische Sänger, Songschreiber und Multiinstrumentalist Devin Townsend, 38], der die Welt in Farben sieht, ein schwarzes Universum des Schmerzes. #

    Er ist einfach genial dieser Wahnsinn.

  85. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    From M.B. Lewis, Teach Yourself Malay

    Thanks, Y, that’s exactly what I was trying to remember — not too grossly far from what he actually wrote, I think.

    My post about Navajo and Malay contained, I now see, more than my usual number of errors of English. Immediately after it was posted, and before I had checked to see if there was any editing needed, my daughter in Paris contacted us by FaceTime to talk with her and our twin grandchildren. Some things take precedence over checking posts to LanguageHat! By the time we were finished my 15 minutes were long over.

  86. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hans, stu
    I find examples of Schmerzensuniversum in real texts with a Google search.

  87. Stu Clayton says:

    Plaintive-hysterical purple prose
    Confronts one everywhere one goes.

  88. January First-of-May says:

    my daughter in Paris contacted us by FaceTime

    …Oh, so FaceTime is a real thing! My grandmother (the Israeli one) mentions it a lot, but before this comment I’ve never heard of it from anyone else (that I could recall), so I wasn’t sure she wasn’t talking about something else and accidentally misnaming it.

  89. Owlmirror says:

    It’s an Apple thing. Most of the non-Apple world (and those parts of the Apple world not up-to-date) are shut out.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FaceTime

  90. We use it occasionally.

  91. @Stu: i would say “a world of pain” or “worlds of pain” myself, but i may be limited in my imagination… i think of it mostly as a comic-book threat: “try that and you’ll be in a world of pain, you [pick one: scholarly | diabolical] villain!”

  92. Stu Clayton says:

    At Owlmirror’s WiPe link is a footnote from 2013 explaining what’s behind “most of the non-Apple world … are shut out”: Apple’s new Facetime – a SIP Perspective. It’s all protocols and Wireshark, but so well-presented that even I can understand the gist of it.

    And yet I’m doing just fine without an iPhone !

  93. Stu Clayton says:

    @rozele: i think of it mostly as a comic-book threat

    Good point. Purple prose is just right for comics with dastardly villains and moral deterioration. “She was pure as the snow, but she drifted”.

  94. David Marjanović says:

    I know Weltall and All only as synonyms of Weltraum, sometimes Raum when the context makes it obvious, meaning “(outer) space”, even though they certainly look like calques of Universum when you think about it.

    The trick is that Weltall & All don’t have a plural, so they can’t be used in discussions of multiverse hypotheses. Universum does: Universen.

    I’m not aware of any expression comparable to “a world/universe of pain”, but I’d render it as a unit of measure: ein ganzes Universum voll(er) Schmerz(en), “a whole universe full of pain”.

  95. But wouldn’t that mean, literally, a universe filled with pain (as one might have a universe full of neutrons) rather than a large amount of pain?

  96. Stoff doesn’t mean “stuff”, but 1) “cloth”, 2) “substance”.

    In English, as in German, stuff/Stoff means material, substance, matter. And in English, too, stuff means fabric, as in this lovely example from Beatrix Potter’s Tailor of Gloucester:

    In the time of swords and peri wigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets—when gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta—there lived a tailor in Gloucester. He sat in the window of a little shop in Westgate Street, cross-legged on a table from morning till dark. All day long while the light lasted he sewed and snippetted, piecing out his satin, and pompadour, and lutestring; stuffs had strange names, and were very expensive in the days of the Tailor of Gloucester.

    And 12-year old children love this book, and love in particular the big, mysterious, beautiful words that Potter uses to draw them in. The idea that 12-year olds like only short simple words is one that people who don’t really know 12-year olds very well might think. But a reasonably intelligent 12-year old loves to say things like icthyosaurus, and arachnid, and andromeda.

  97. “Gravity is the shape (curvature) of spacetime.”

    But this is just a mataphor. We are familiar in the space we inhabit with shapes that take up space and enclose volumes with curves and planes. And so, although we can’t really imagine what a “shape” would look like in the unimaginable “place” called spacetime, we can pretend that we can imagine it by analogizing it to the space that we do know. And then, once we’ve done that, we can fool ourselves into believing that we now understand something about that place called spacetime.

    PS- using a nice, simple Anglo-Saxon term like”spacetime” doesn’t make it any more imaginable than would a more learned name like, say, chorochronos.

  98. David Marjanović says:

    But wouldn’t that mean, literally, a universe filled with pain (as one might have a universe full of neutrons) rather than a large amount of pain?

    Yes – isn’t that the intention?

    stuffs had strange names, and were very expensive in the days of the Tailor of Gloucester.

    Ah, I hadn’t encountered that in English. The point stands that the meaning “things, matter” as in that stuff, my stuff* never occurs with Stoff in German.

    * “my shit is stuff, your stuff is shit”

    a nice, simple Anglo-Saxon term like”spacetime”

    Well, espace/spatium isn’t Anglo-Saxon, but…

  99. @David: the comix-y idiom that lives in my head is all about quantity of pain: “a world” in the sense of a world-full…

  100. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @Bloix, I don’t know if it’s even a metaphor. If you imagine a (3;1) Minkowski manifold embedded in some (flat) higher dimensional space, its metric will indeed be inherited from the surrounding space and you can calculate the Riemann curvature tensor for the manifold as an expression of the way it is not flat.

    General relativity says that the metric of spacetime is non-constant, so doing the same calculations will give you a non-zero Riemann tensor — but the Ricci part of the Riemann tensor is generated by the local stress-energy tensor, and not by a non-flat embedding. So space is not curved, it just looks like that from the inside.

    (You can actually obtain the Schwarzschild metric by embedding (Flamm’s paraboloid) but that does not mean spacetime is ‘really’ curved like that. And it only works for the part where the Ricci tensor is zero).

  101. Yes – isn’t that the intention?

    No, “a world of pain” (and by exaggeration a universe, though I’ve never heard anyone say it) just means a whole lot of pain/suffering: “You try that and you’ll be in a world of pain.”

  102. Задлах ᠵᠠᠳᠠᠯᠬᠤ zadlakh in Mongolian means ‘disassemble’, ‘strip down’, ‘take apart’, ‘untie’, ‘unroll’, ‘unpack’, ‘break down’. It yields the noun задлал ᠵᠠᠳᠠᠯᠤᠯ zadlal, which among other things means ‘analysis’.

    ‘Spectrum’ in Mongolian is солонго ᠰᠣᠯᠤᠩᠭ᠎ᠠ solongo literally ‘rainbow’, or alternatively спектр spyektr from Russian. Солонгон задлал ᠰᠣᠯᠤᠩᠭ᠎ᠠᠨ ᠵᠠᠳᠠᠯᠤᠯ solongon zadlal means something like ‘spectral analysis’ or ‘breakup of the rainbow’. Although based on simple words it isn’t at all simple-minded. And yes, it is a result of the introduction of Western terminology, which is the same the world over.

    Incidentally, Chinese for ‘spectrum’ is 光譜 / 光谱 guāngpǔ meaning ‘light score’ (well, 譜 / 谱 has a huge range of meaning from musical score to genealogy…). From this you get the Inner Mongolian word for spectrum, ᠭᠡᠷᠡᠯ ᠵᠢᠭᠰᠠᠯ жагсал jagsal, which means a procession, array, etc. equivalent to Chinese 譜.

  103. Timed out. To correct the last part: the Inner Mongolian term for ‘spectrum’ is ᠭᠡᠷᠡᠯ ᠵᠢᠭᠰᠠᠯ гэрэл жагсал gerel jagsal, meaning ‘light series, light array’, where ᠵᠢᠭᠰᠠᠯ жагсал jagsal is calqued from Chinese 譜 / 谱.

    ‘Spectral analysis’ is ᠭᠡᠷᠡᠯ ᠵᠢᠭᠰᠠᠯ ᠦᠨ ᠵᠢᠳᠠᠯᠤᠯᠲᠠ (гэрэл жагсалын задлалт) gerel jagsalyn zadlalt, and there you see a slightly different form of our friend задлал ᠵᠠᠳᠠᠯᠤᠯ zadlal (analysis) above.

    The two Mongolian standards show that there are lots of ways of using simple native words (including calquing) to express scientific concepts.

  104. There are a few Mongolian terms calqued from Chinese (obviously it is much more widespread in the Inner Mongolian literary standard).

    The most well known is “khun am” (‘population’), it is calqued from Chinese 人口 (renkou) – literally “person+mouth”.

    I don’t quite get it in either language. Is it some old Chinese abbreviation?

  105. Lars – when you say, “you can calculate the Riemann curvature tensor for the manifold as an expression of the way it is not flat,” here is the most a layperson like me can understand:

    People can make quantitive calculations about the space we inhabit using Euclidian geometry, which applies logical reasoning to unprovable axioms that simply appear self-evident to us. Once a person masters this geometry, he or she realizes that it can be extended by altering the axioms, and the results can be manipulated using reason in ways that don’t apply to the space we can perceive but, somewhat mysteriously, do apply to very extreme phenomena – very small, very large, very fast, etc – of the universe. Because these geometries are in many ways similar to Euclidean geometry people use terminology from that geometry to discuss them- flat, curved – but these words have real meaning only in the sense that they describe mathematical expressions that can be understood by people who have mastered the mathematics of non-Euclidian geometries, like Riemannian geometry. Such people can use words like flat and curved in a manner that isn’t metaphorical – it applies literally to certain mathematical expressions. And they can even learn to visualize and imagine such spaces. Einstein explained this process:

    “[B]y using as stepping-stones the practice in thinking and visualisation which Euclidean geometry gives us, we have acquired a mental picture of spherical geometry. We may without difficulty impart more depth and vigour to these ideas by carrying out special imaginary constructions. Nor would it be difficult to represent the case of what is called elliptical geometry in an analogous manner. My only aim today has been to show that the human faculty of visualisation is by no means bound to capitulate to non-Euclidean geometry.”

    So to a mathematician or physicist, these words describe the realities expressed by Reimannian and other geometries. But to a lay person like me, they are just metaphors, and it is a mistake for me to conclude that, because the metaphors are in plain English embedded in ordinary language sentences, I can rely on them to provide an explanation of the reality being described. That reality is comprehensible only to people who understand it via mathematics.

  106. That’s true, but it describes pretty much any form of specialized knowledge. To take a simple, everyday example: I can tell you about a book or movie in great detail, and you may feel you have a good sense of it, but you won’t actually know what I’m talking about until you read the book or see the movie. Much of human communication is an attempt to pass on a general idea of a phenomenon to replace actual experience of it.

  107. Popular Russian joke:

    – So that singer Pavarotti, I really didn’t like his performance at all.
    – Have you been to Pavarotti’s concert?
    – No, but Rabinovich sang his songs on the phone for me.

  108. Stu Clayton says:

    Much of the other kind of human communication is science: an attempt to replace general ideas about a phenomenon by actual experience of it – experiments, measurements.

    Edit: like Rabinovich singing.

  109. David Marjanović says:

    No, “a world of pain” (and by exaggeration a universe, though I’ve never heard anyone say it) just means a whole lot of pain/suffering: “You try that and you’ll be in a world of pain.”

    That’s what I mean: “a world” as exaggeration of “a whole lot”.

    I don’t quite get it in either language.

    “Mouths to feed”?

  110. That’s what I mean: “a world” as exaggeration of “a whole lot”.

    That’s not what you said; you responded to my “But wouldn’t that mean, literally, a universe filled with pain (as one might have a universe full of neutrons) rather than a large amount of pain?” with “Yes – isn’t that the intention?”

  111. And since we’ve been talking at cross purposes, I’ll repeat my question: what does ein ganzes Universum voll(er) Schmerz(en) mean, ‘a universe that is filled with pain’ or ‘a whole lot of pain’?

  112. Stu Clayton says:

    Clearly you are batting in speech-register big league by indicating those variants: Universum voll(er) Schmerz(en). Can you give us a general idea of what is low, what is high ? Of course it’s not that simple … So let’s simplify the request: what would be very unlikely for Joachim Blas to say ?

    All bets are off with regard to Austrian German.

  113. ktschwarz says:

    “Rainbow breakup” and “light array” are excellent metaphors — well done, Mongolian translators (and thanks, Bathrobe and SFR). Much more communicative than the Latin for “apparition” — I’d say poor show, Newton, except that “spectrum” has the advantage of being significantly shorter than gerel jagsal. It’s opaque, but once you’ve memorized it, it’s more efficient. A common tradeoff in language.

    And, I’ll keep harping on this, strong metaphors like this *don’t* arise from extreme restrictions to the most frequent words. “Rainbow”, “breakup”, and “array” don’t make the cut for Thing Explainer, so its page on the electromagnetic spectrum uses “rain lights in the sky”, which is both longwinded and unexpressive.

  114. John Cowan says:

    Rabinovich

    At LH ten years ago.

  115. PlasticPaddy says:

    @sfr
    Re “mouth” in renkou:

    mouth; (a measure word, for people, livestock or utensils)
    source: https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E4%BA%BA%E5%8F%A3
    Doesn’t answer why “mouth” but people, livestock and soup-ladles each have one.

  116. Stu Clayton says:

    I first read that as “soup-ladies”. Of course they would have mouths, I thought, but why are they singled out ? And what exactly is a soup-lady anyway ? Perhaps a mishearing of Spanish soplada ?

  117. I think Bloix’s statements about the meaning of curvature are entirely correct. The mathematics is the ultimate determiner of meaning, and any linguistic description of “spacetime curvature” is either a) a metaphor, or b) shorthand for the mathematics itself. I encountered this issue myself just last week, when I was trying to explain the definition of curvature to a group of physics graduate students. I pulled out my copy of Helgason‘s* Differential Geometry, Lie Groups, and Symmetric Spaces,** because it has a very good discussion of how the sectional curvature of a two-dimensional surface can be defined in different ways. However, I found that much of the discussion, and some of the imagery that went with it, really does not generalize well to higher dimensions. In two dimensions, it is (relatively) easy to envision what it means for a surface to be locally curved, by embedding in a three dimensional space. There is only one curvature parameter in two dimensions, which parametrizes whether infinitesimal circles around a particular point have areas that grow more or less rapidly than πr² as a function of r; this corresponds to whether the vicinity of that point looks like an elliptic or hyperbolic paraboloid.

    Beyond two dimensions, things get trickier for a number of reasons. In three or four dimensions, it is not possible to embed a curved manifold into a easily-visualized space to see what the curvature means. (The required embedding for a nicely behaved pseudo-Riemannian manifold requires six dimensions for a three-dimensional manifold or ten dimensions for a four-dimensional manifold like physical spacetime.) This means that, if you are to make any attempt at visualization (in, say, three dimensions), you need to use an intrinsic characterization of the curvature, without reference to a higher-dimensional embedding. Some people claim to have geometric intuition about how this works in three or even four dimensions, but I know I do not. The other complication that accompanies more dimensions is that the curvature has more than a single scalar component. The number of components of the Ricci curvature tensor grows as the square of the dimensionality, while the number of components of the Weyl tensor (which can be nonzero for dimensions four and higher) grows as the cube of the dimensionality.

    * His Wikipedia page has the usual disclaimer that: “This is an Icelandic name. The last name is patronymic, not a family name; this person is referred to by the given name Sigurður.” This blurb is presumably inserted by rote into Wikipedia articles about people of Icelandic origin, but its claims are of dubious validity for people who, while born in Iceland, may have lived much of their lives elsewhere. I don’t know whether “Sigurður” is an accurate representation of Professor Helgason’s preferred spelling for his given name; he certainly never spelled it that way that I ever saw or read, but that might have been a concession to the limitations of standardized English-language orthography. Nor do I know how he viewed his patronymic during his youth in Iceland. However, I do know that, long before I met him in the 1990s (by which point he had already lived the majority of his life in America), he had definitively adopted Helgason as a surname. His e-mail address was helgason@mit.edu—and unlike every other math professor at MIT, he had not changed his primary address when the department set up its own class B subdomain, even though most people switched to using some variant on [firstname]@math.mit.edu. Even more significantly, he passed Helgason on to his children; the one I was familiar with myself was named Annie Helgason. Perhaps I should make some kind of change to the article, but as I have already edited two Wikipedia pages today, more editing—particularly on a subject where I do not have any wider understanding of the issues—seems like a mistake.

    ** The book has excellent treatments of differential geometry and Lie theory, which are topics that you might not think would be closely related. (Lie algebras can be described purely algebraically, but it turns out that that algebraic description alone actually gives a complete local description of a large class of differentiable manifolds.) However, the sixty percent of the book devoted to symmetric spaces is much more tedious, and I suspect that Prof. Helgason never actually used the later part of the book as a course textbook.

  118. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Yes, I agree, Bloix nailed it.

    Also, if professor Helgason was born in Iceland and received that name at birth, it can only be because his father was named Helgi — you are simply not allowed to pass a name like that to your children. (Unlike, say, Laxness). In his family, only his brothers would have had the same patronymic (barring coincidence).

    But only Icelanders have that internalized to the extent that they can bring themselves to use a first name in formal contexts. Even in Denmark he would be Hr. Helgason and it would confuse us greatly that his father wasn’t Hr. Helgason too. (And for pragmatic reasons we would probably assume he was Swedish, there are two orders of magnitude more of them, though if it was Swedish it would be formed to the woman’s name Helga and that would seem strange even to Danes).

    In any case, it looks like he might be an American citizen now, so I assume Helgason is his family name in a legal sense and indeed the Wikipedia caution is misplaced.

  119. Yeah, that caution should simply be deleted with a brief explanation that he uses it as a family name.

  120. Lars Mathiesen says:

    But then they will ask for a citation, and a copy of his passport won’t be citable (if I could get it, even). It’s not the sort of thing that gets mentioned in an interview or biography, because it’s only people like us who care.

  121. But then they will ask for a citation

    Maybe, but probably not; who’s likely to care that much? Wikifanatics are an annoying breed, but it’s a mistake to assume they’re omnipotent. If you get reverted, you get reverted, big deal.

  122. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have edited the Wikiparticle. We’ll see if I get blocked for vandalism.

    The change in spelling of Sigurdur was made in 2016. With any luck the person who did it won’t be watching. More generally, I think we can assume that the way he writes on his web site (http://www-math.mit.edu/~helgason/cv.html) is the way he wants it written.

  123. Lars Mathiesen says:

    In related news, I’m going to hear Michele Levi talk about gravitational waves on Tuesday next. I might understand something this time around.

  124. Stu Clayton says:

    Is that some high-ranking wave functionary ? It’s all so establishment now.

  125. Lars Mathiesen says:

    I don’t think she is very high on the parnassus, but she has published a fair bit.

  126. Stu Clayton says:

    I know, I looked her up before making my little jeu de mots.

  127. Clearly you are batting in speech-register big league by indicating those variants: Universum voll(er) Schmerz(en). Can you give us a general idea of what is low, what is high ?
    Singular “Schmerz” as a mass noun is more literary, and it can also refer to non-physical pain / sorrow. “Voll / voller” are free variants in my dialect, and at least in this case I can’t see a register difference.
    And since we’ve been talking at cross purposes, I’ll repeat my question: what does ein ganzes Universum voll(er) Schmerz(en) mean, ‘a universe that is filled with pain’ or ‘a whole lot of pain’?
    Both. The literal meaning is “full of / filled with”, and it can be used to mean that, but it’s also the most natural way to use “Universum” as a measure word. English uses the construction with “of” to express measures, but using the normal equivalents of that construction (genitive or “von”) for that purpose is not idiomatic in German. With what are clearly measurement units, you use simple apposition (a cup of tea / a handful of dollars “eine Tasse Tee / eine Handvoll Dollars”), but “Welt” or “Universum” are not established units of measure, so you have to use other constructions. One of them is the one with “voll(er)”, others are “aus” (literal meaning “made of”) or “an”. The last one actually mostly indicates measure, but for whatever reason is not the first construction that comes to my mind when translating “a world / universe of X”; my first impulse, like DM’s, was to use “voll(er)”.

  128. @SFR & PP:
    “khun am” (‘population’), it is calqued from Chinese 人口 (renkou) – literally “person+mouth”.
    mouth; (a measure word, for people, livestock or utensils)

    this makes sense to me through the lens of james c. scott’s writing on state-ness (“The Art of Not Being Governed”) and the earliest states (“Against The Grain”):

    what states need to count (for taxation purposes) are people, livestock, and grain, so the set for the measure word hangs together pretty well, if we can think of the utensils most likely to be important to count as grain-measures (the presumed function of the early mesopotamian [or am i misremembering? egyptian?] mass-produced consistent-volume bowls). and, similarly, a conception of ‘population’ as an abstraction comes out of the needs of a state, especially the paradigmatic settled grain-based type – so it makes sense that a horseback empire would calque the term over from its sendentary neighbor/mirror.

  129. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, this is the thread this is in…

    “Voll / voller” are free variants in my dialect, and at least in this case I can’t see a register difference.

    Same for me, funnily enough, as far as I can tell.

    I don’t have much of an intuition on the implications of singular vs. plural pain, because my dialect doesn’t have any such noun at all; es tut weh “it hurts” is the only option there.

  130. Both. The literal meaning is “full of / filled with”, and it can be used to mean that, but it’s also the most natural way to use “Universum” as a measure word.

    Thanks!

    this makes sense to me through the lens of james c. scott’s writing on state-ness

    Nice to meet a fellow Scott fan.

  131. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Someone with an Icelandic-looking name has already edited my edit, but in a way that seems quite reasonable, adding “Icelandic: Sigurður” in the Introduction, but otherwise leaving it alone. I think that’s fine.

  132. It must be a relief to know the Vikings aren’t coming for you in their longboats.

  133. The Icelanders aren’t very threatening militarily in these latter days. In the Second World War, the British decided that they needed to occupy Iceland, to use it as a base and to prevent the Germans from trying to do the same. It was not deemed to be a dangerous mission, since Iceland had no non-police military units (and indeed the only casualty was a member of the British occupation force who committed suicide en route). However, the British did want to conduct some aerial reconnaissance ahead of their landing, and so they launched a biplane from a seaplane tender to overfly the island. Yet the appearance of the plane immediately alerted the Icelanders that an invasion was imminent. Since Iceland had no airstrip at that time, only a nearby warship could be the source of the reconnaissance flight. So there was a unit of police already present on the docks when the occupiers arrived, although there was no actual resistance to the landing.

  134. John Cowan says:

    “Welt” or “Universum” are not established units of measure

    Unlike, say, “Wales” (a unit of area) in English.

    no actual resistance

    What with the British in Iceland, the Americans in Greenland, and Denmark under occupation, the Kingdom was well and truly dismembered.

  135. Unlike, say, “Wales” (a unit of area) in English.
    In Germany, we use the Saarland for that purpose. 🙂

  136. it makes sense that a horseback empire would calque the term over from its sendentary neighbor/mirror.

    I haven’t done a study of this, but Mongolian has a very large number of two-word expressions of this kind, which must be understood as lexical units, not as freely created expressions. I suspect that they got this habit from the Chinese. Some clear borrowings from Chinese can be seen, although I’m not at all sure what proportion of the total is borrowed and what proportion has been coined natively.

  137. @Hans: As in something like: “After the First* World War, France occupied a portion of Germany as large as the Saarland until 1935*.”

    * or (Second/1957)

  138. 🙂
    A less self-referential example would be something like “a portion of the ice shelf two times as big as the Saarland broke off of Antarctica”.

  139. John Cowan says:

    How far away, rather, would the nearest galaxy supercluster be?

    Let us first ask: How far away is it? And the answer is, of course, zero distance, because we are in it. (Cf. the smart-aleck twelve-year-old who asked Asimov how far away the nearest star was. Asimov replied “About four light-years”, and the s.a.12.y.o. replied “No, actually; about eight light-minutes.”)

  140. Stu Clayton says:

    How far away does the farthest galaxy supercluster appear to be ? Depending on topological niceties, it could be the one we were in.

    That’s no weirder than getting a glimpse of your own butt in a hall of mirrors.

  141. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “a portion of the ice shelf two times as big as the Saarland broke off of Antarctica”

    I hate expressions like that (unless as parentheses after something meaningful). The weather reports in France love them (is it the same elsewhere?), and say things like “the equivalent of six months rain fell in 12 hours in the Alpes Maritimes yesterday”, when it would be so much clearer to say “400 mm rain fell in 12 hours in the Alpes Maritimes yesterday.”

    How much is “the equivalent of six months rain”? If you’re in San Pedro de Atacama it’s about 0.1 mm; if you”re in Cherapunji it’s about 6000 mm.

  142. Different strokes for different folks 🙂 I belong to those people who, if they are told they have to keep 1.5 m distance, get confused because I can’t tell how much that is, but the moment someone told me “it’s the height of a 10-year-old”, I was able to picture it (and yes, I know the height of 10-year-olds varies significantly, but still it helps). Being a lover of maps, I can relate the size of the Saarland to other areas I know, while giving the areas in square kilometers would have meant nothing to me.

  143. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    +1

  144. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Funen is the customary unit of comparison in Denmark — I’m always surprised at how big it actually is when I look at a map, and it doesn’t really help me get any idea of the size of anything. But square kilometers don’t help either, I have no idea how many of those a Funen is without looking it up. Or anything else.

    Well, the Earth has to be 40 thousand squared over pi, so half a billion? (I can usually remember that half a meridian is ten million meters by design).

  145. John Cowan says:

    the equivalent of six months rain fell in 12 hours in the Alpes Maritimes yesterday

    Well, the “400 mm” version tells you one thing, but this tells you something else: that the rainfall per hour (or any other time unit less than 12h) was 240 times as large as usual.

  146. *360?

  147. Lars Mathiesen says:

    What’s 50 percent between friends?

  148. I have always understood the “world of pain” threat (isn’t it usually a threat?) to mean you will be in so much pain that you will be unable to be aware of anything else. Possibly not even your identity as an “I”. Just pain.
    Not a quantity. Such pain that no part of your consciousness can separate itself from the pain to “observe” it.
    No one else interprets it that way?

  149. I wouldn’t have put it in those words, but the idea expresses my sense of it.

  150. I would interpret it simply as “an existence that is characterised by or full of or enveloped in great pain”.

    Living in a world of make-believe, living in a world of shattered dreams, …. it simply means that your entire world (existence) is make-believe, or full of shattered dreams.

  151. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, eine Welt aus Schmerz then.

  152. Stu Clayton says:

    That nails it.

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