The Story of The Universe in Zero Words

Cover of "The Universe in Zero Words"My first book, The Big Splat, did not make me rich. In fact, it just about did the opposite. So I wasn’t in a big hurry to write my next book. Nevertheless, it was something I definitely wanted to do. For one thing, publishing a book gives you instant credibility as a writer. But also it gives you a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction. A book is something that will go into libraries and last just about forever — far different from magazine articles, which are much more ephemeral.

So I wanted to write another popular book but I also wanted to take my time and find the right topic. As it happened, the right topic found me. Elwin Street, a book publisher and packager based in London, contacted me in 2008 because they were looking for a writer for a book on the history of equations.

This was a little bit of a surprise to me, because I had been very steeped in the mythology that a book must be born out of the fevered imagination of its author. Did anyone tell Hemingway what to write about? But after I thought about it, I got used to the idea. I am completely accustomed to writing articles that have been suggested by my editors. Why should a book be any different?

But more importantly, Elwin Street’s idea appealed to me. Way back in 1997, when I was studying in the Science Communication Program at UCSC, one of my teachers (or perhaps one of our guest lecturers) explained why you never see equations or formulas in articles on popular science. This expert said, “For every equation you put in, you will lose half of your audience.” It’s not too hard to see that if you include a dozen equations or so in your article, the only people left reading it will be you and your mother! (And even she might put it down.)

However, I’ve never actually seen any data to support this assertion, and it always seemed to me that it (a) underestimates the willingness of readers to put forth a little effort if they might learn something substantive; and (b) does a huge disservice to mathematics (as well as a lot of other sciences). The simple fact is that the best way to express many ideas in math and science is through an equation. When you try to do it in words, it’s inaccurate and confusing. Not only that, equations are beautiful! A good equation is a wonder of preciseness and conciseness, expressing exactly what is true in the most economical form possible. Zero words, or as John Horton Conway would say, zero irrelevancy.

So that’s why I wrote The Universe in Zero Words. It is my attempt to end the censorship of equations in popular science writing. I hope that readers will enjoy learning what the equations mean, and they will no longer see them as something mystical or forbidding or convoluted. I have tried to convey this sense of meaning through stories, through simple explanations and examples, and through my personal passion. There is a lot of me in this book. Even if it was first conceived by a group of editors at Elwin Street!

And by the way, did I mention that those editors did a great job of illustrating the book? I think that is one thing that will make the book jump off the shelf, compared with other popular math books: It is visually very attractive and stylish. I’m also pleased that they accepted my suggestion of presenting the featured equation for each chapter in calligraphy. You can see some of those stylized equations in the sidebars of this website. I hope that those equations will subliminally (and wordlessly) reinforce one of the most important themes of The Universe in Zero Words: Mathematics is beautiful.

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