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When We Cease to Understand the World

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A fast-paced, mind-expanding literary work about scientific discovery, ethics and the unsettled distinction between genius and madness.

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front of World War I. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that it contains a monster that could destroy his life's work.

The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tunnels so deeply into abstraction that he tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause.

Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality, revealing a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.

Using extraordinary, epoch-defining moments from the history of science, Benjamín Labatut plunges us into exhilarating territory between fact and fiction, progress and destruction, genius and madness.

192 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2019

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About the author

Benjamín Labatut

6 books548 followers
Benjamin Labatut was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands. He spent his childhood in The Hague and Buenos Aires and when he was twelve years old he moved to Santiago de Chile, where he lives today.

La Antártica empieza aquí was his first book, being published in México, where it won Premio Caza de Letras 2009, delivered by Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) and Editorial Alfaguara.

His second book is titled Después de la luz, appeared in 2016, published by Editorial Hueders. After a deep personal crisis, Labatut wrote this book, conformed by scientific, historical and filosofical notes about the void.

His third book Un verdor terrible, was published in spanish by Editorial Anagrama and also several countries such Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, United Kingdom and Portugal

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,296 reviews
Profile Image for Adina.
795 reviews3,065 followers
March 6, 2023
Update 2 2023
I wanted to add the endorsement of my father. He devoured the short novel and he was mesmerised by the ideas and writing. In case you missed it, I am my father’s personal book advisor ( and shop assistant).

Update 1: I wanted only to add the nation Book Award shortlist but also decided to give this novel 5* instead of 4*. I recommended it to quite a few people and I still think about it with pleasure.

Shortlisted for 2021 National Book Award for Translated Literature
Shortlisted for 2021 Booker International

First of all, do not feel intimidated by the blurb if you are not on good terms with physics. I loved this novel and I am crap at the subject. In school, I was good at math, statistics and chemistry but Physics was my nemesis. I only know about Quantum Physics as an elusive term and I only heard about Schrödinger’s cat because I read about it in a not very complex Sci-Fi novel. So, if you are like me and enjoy literary fiction with a bit of essay structure in it then do read this.

If I were to choose a subtitle for this novel it would be: The wonderful and destructive world of science. Most of the scientific discoveries presented in this novel have done both good for the humanity but also brought destruction (or might do so in the future). It either made the creator go crazy or affected/killed other people. However, the writer said in an interview that the main theme is the following: "This book is about what happens when we reach the edges of science; when we come face to face with what we cannot understand. It is about what occurs to the human mind when it pushes past the outer limits of thought, and what lies beyond those limits"

The 1st chapter, Prussian Blue, tells the story of the best known poison in the world, Cyanide. At some point we are introduced to the Nitrogen fertilizer who saved the world from famine. However, its inventor upgraded his creation to also develop Zyklon B, the gas that killed millions of Jews in concentration camps during WW2. There were many fascinating details in this chapter I did not know.

The author stated that the 1st chapter is 99% fact. As we continue with our reading the fact/fiction balance shifts more and more towards fiction while we explore different quantum physicist/mathematicians and their struggles with their creations. Sometimes the novel verges towards surreal as many of the scientists have visions and strange dreams.

The ending rounds up the whole book quite nicely. A 1st person narrator, maybe the author, meets a retired mathematician and discuss about some of the people and facts in the previous chapters.
All in all, it was a fascinating and a very well written book about science, its incredible role in our development as a species but also about its perils.

As a final thought, this book and especially the 1st chapter, reminded me of A Musical Offering. Although the subject is different, the way the fiction and fact is mixed together is quite similar. I highly recommend that book as well and you can read my review here, if you are interested. It has similar aspects with Sebald as well but more with Ring of Saturn which I haven't read yet and cannot comment.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
February 28, 2022
No One Does Evil Willingly

Is life on Earth getting more or less humane? Are those we consider heroes of humanity really worthy of adulation? Do our ideals of professional excellence, choice informed by scientific fact, and intellectual progress stand up to scrutiny? It depends, of course, on the criterion used to measure what’s going on. But whatever measure employed, it seems there is always another lurking in the wings of history to bite our collective ass. Here are summarised several examples provided by Benjamin Labatut in this marvellous little book of factual fiction in the manner of Borges.

The Jewish scientist Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize for his 1914 discovery of a chemical process for the extraction of nitrogen from the air. This process provided synthetic fertiliser for crops and thereby promoted a dramatic increase in world population. Haber also directed the creation and use of chemicals for warfare, including that of a cyanide-based pesticide, known as Zyklon B, that was used to kill millions of Jews, including Haber’s own relatives.

Karl Schwarzschild, also Jewish, was an astrophysicist. He was also a genius who was first to provide a complete mathematical formulation of Einstein’s theory of relativity. He predicted the existence of black holes a quarter century before they could be confirmed - incidentally, while he was an artillery officer in the German Army. Inspired by intense patriotism for the Fatherland Schwarzschild had abandoned academia in order to calculate trajectories for barrages of poison gas. He died on the Eastern front, convinced that black holes were a cultural as well as physical phenomenon, and that he and the rest of the German people had fallen into one.

Alexander Grothendieck (only half Jewish) was arguably the most important mathematician of the 20th century. He was incarcerated in Vichy France and at one point escaped with the intention of walking to Berlin in order to kill Hitler. He failed but survived his ordeal. In 1958 a mathematical research institute was founded in Paris devoted solely to him and his students. During the next twelve years this group revolutionised much of mathematics and created the entirely new field of algebraic geometry. But in 1970 Grothendieck abruptly stopped not just his research but also any involvement with mathematics whatsoever. He had come to consider mathematics to be the single greatest threat to human existence. His reasoning was impeccable: “The atoms that tore Hiroshima and Nagasaki apart were split not by the greasy fingers of a general, but by a group of physicists armed with a fistful of equations.”

These and other equally fascinating vignettes in Labatut’s book are moral tales. They are also empirical evidence of the arbitrariness of human judgment. The existentialist philosophers were right: human life is absurd. Hegel was right: the world is built on contradictions. Jesus was at least partially right: the first are often last, and vice versa. The Buddha was probably right: the world is illusory; good becomes indistinguishable from evil. And Qoholeth from the Hebrew Bible was without question right: all is vanity.

Socrates believed that no one willingly commits acts of evil. Hegel thought that even the worst acts have good reasons.* Another way of expressing the same sentiment is that human beings are capable of rationalising any behaviour, thought, or desire as beneficial to the world at large. If there is any human trait that can be considered as downright sinful it is this ability. Yet we continue to confer Nobel Prizes, FA Cups, knighthoods to the likes of Jimmy Savile, and high political office to people of the caliber of Donald Trump, clearly hoping that all the accumulated wisdom of our culture is wrong.

* To quote him exactly: "You need not have advanced very far in your learning in order to find good reasons for the most evil of things. All the evil deeds in this world since Adam and Eve have been justified with good reasons."
Profile Image for Nataliya.
727 reviews11.6k followers
July 4, 2022
No, I don’t quite know what this book was supposed to be.

A gripping nonfiction about dangerous chemicals and their discovery? A story about humanity taking discoveries and using them for wars? A fascinated look into the strangeness of human mind trying to embrace the alien idea of quantum world? An exploration of how tightly genius and insanity are intertwined?
“According to Schwarzschild, the most frightful thing about mass at its most extreme degree of concentration was not the way it altered the form of space, or the strange effects it exerted on time: the true horror, he said, was that the singularity was a blind spot, fundamentally unknowable. Light could never escape from it, so our eyes were incapable of seeing it. Nor could our minds grasp it, because at the singularity the laws of general relativity simply broke down. Physics no longer had any meaning.”

All these were there, in an odd mix that had me fluctuating between loving it dearly and raising eyebrows in irritation. At the beginning it is almost pure nonfiction, written grippingly. Nazi sanctioned meth use, Haber, Prussian Blue and Zyklon B and Nazi suicide capsules and World War I gas attacks. Then we go on to Schwatzchild (yup, that name from the black hole Schwarzchild radius), and Heisenberg (of that uncertainty principle) and Schrödinger, featuring de Broglie, and a few mathematicians of whom I knew nothing (Mochizuki and Grothendieck, mostly fictionalized, apparently).
“We can pull atoms apart, peer back at the first light and predict the end of the universe with just a handful of equations, squiggly lines and arcane symbols that normal people cannot fathom, even though they hold sway over their lives. But it's not just regular folks; even scientists no longer comprehend the world. Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It's as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.”

Labatut admits in his afterword that the first chapter is mostly fact, but as we go on he keeps the science but starts extensively fictionalizing the lives of the scientists, focusing on insanity and mysticism.
“The case of Shinichi Mochizuki, one of the protagonists of “The Heart of the Heart,” is a peculiar one: I did take inspiration from certain aspects of his work to enter into the mind of Alexander Grothendieck, but most of what is said here about him, his biography, and his research is fiction.”

I absolutely loved it until the Grothendieck, Heisenberg and Schrödinger chapters where the pleasant comfort of almost nonfiction gave way to extra artistic touch with way more supposition than I felt necessary. I do feel a bit odd taking the real lives of people who lived in the relatively recent past (and some still alive) and shrouding those in mysticism, blending conjecture and fact a bit too much. Once those fiction and nonfiction lines get blurred, initially quite subtly, it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, actually, wishing Labutat had stuck a bit more to the lovely way he treated nonfiction at the beginning of the book, or created fictional personae for his more fictional sections.

And yet despite these reservations I liked it. It flowed so easily and effortlessly, captivating my attention and making me push all my other books aside while I was feverishly reading it. And even with my discomfort at the way artistic license was taken among actual facts, and a bit of confusion as to why exactly more sensationalizing than necessary was used, I was still mesmerized.

The intersection between science, destruction and madness is a scarily fascinating place.

Rounding up to 4 stars.


Also posted on my blog.

Recommended by: Barbara K
Profile Image for Ilenia Zodiaco.
260 reviews12.9k followers
February 20, 2021
Commistione riuscitissima tra invenzione e saggistica, la storia della scienza moderna - tra le meraviglie della scoperta e gli abissi spalancati dalla mancanza di senso - attraverso aneddoti biografici dei suoi protagonisti. Tutti ossessionati, geniali e furiosi. Forse l’unica pecca è che, malgrado la scrittura raffinatissima, manca una nuova prospettiva al racconto dello scienziato brillante, tra solitudine e follia, impossessato da un’idea spaventosa e sublime. Tanto è vero che i racconti sembrano tutti molto simili. Comunque un’ottima prova che solletica l’intelletto, sulla scia del filone editoriale di Rovelli&co.
Profile Image for Henk.
822 reviews
October 5, 2021
Shortlisted for the National Fiction Award for translated fiction.

Shortlisted for the International Bookerprize 2021, my favourite from the ones I read.
Very interesting how the judges have nominated so many works reflecting on history and scientific developments, with An Inventory of Losses and The War of the Poor having the same blend of non-fiction and fiction as this work.

Brilliant and sweeping, effortlessly sweeping the reader to scientific breakthroughs of the the early twentieth century
We rise, we fall. We may rise by falling.
Defeat shapes us. Our only wisdom is tragic, known too late, and only to the lost.
Guy Davenport (quoted in the foreword)

Benjamín Labatut takes the reader on a journey of scientific discovery, from cyanide, to potassium extraction, to quantum physics. It’s very clear that scientific inventions are often conceived with the best intentions (or accidentally) but are later on put to unthought of use against other humans. The story of cyanide, first leading to Prussian Blue as a pigment and later as a disinfectant against rodent, to the suicide capsules of the Nazi’s and the Zyklon B used in the gas chambers, is striking. Fritz Haber who contributed greatly to the development of poison gas in the First World War, was of Jewish descent and had his wife committing suicide in reaction to his experiments in this regard, while he himself needed to flee from the Nazi regime later in his life.

Karl Schwarzschild, the astronomer and universal man of science who theorized the existence of black holes, dying from poison gas exposure at the front, is also fascinating. One wonders how much more physics could have advanced if he hadn’t died at 42.

Shinichi Mochizuki is a more recent mathematician who posits the interuniversal Teichmüllertheory of numbers; here the author does not take the effort to illustrate what exactly that should entail but weaves his story with an other eccentric mathematician: Alexander Grothendieck. He seems to be paralyzed by the transformative powers his theory could have and dies as a hermit, possibly visited by Mochizuki.

The largest part of the book is dedicated to quantum physics, with fascinating tales about Heisenberg in Helgoland, Louis de Broglie, a French prince who subsidized Art Brut and pursued a doctorate from plus earned a Nobel prize and Schrödinger who seemed to live in a real life version of the Magic Mountain of Mann. Transcendental moments of obsession, neglect of the body and ideas that can’t yet be substantiated by logic alone take a centre stage.

The advancement of science in such a time of economic uncertainty and upheaval is fascinating, and seems to say something that also comes back in a science fiction novel like Seven Surrenders: does human knowledge really advance in times of peace and prosperity or is conflict and war an essential and required catalyst? A fascinating read and my preliminary favourite of the International Bookerprize 2021 longlist.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,722 followers
November 6, 2022
There are a lot of authors experimenting just now with ways to combine the real, and the fictional, and the historical, and the personal all together into a narrative. What I've vividly discovered for myself, now that I've read When We Cease to Understand the World, is how much I adore those authors who plumb the depths of history, and then weave a unique mythology of subjective meanings from the facts. Sebald, Labatut, Stepanova all do this. It's quite a different kind of thing from the kind of writing called "auto-fiction' just now, which dives deep into just one person's history, the author's personal narrative, and adds fictional or subjective elements to that very narrow personal experience. Unlike the auto-fictioners, who put themselves at the center of their stories, Labatut and his counterparts efface themselves almost entirely from their stories. They're interested in a bigger picture. Each detail they choose adds exquisitely to the whole and the result is a Bayeux Tapestry of a novel. I love this way of writing, this way of storytelling. It's a gift to read this book.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,169 followers
August 23, 2022
Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker and National Book Awards for Translated Literature

When We Cease to Understand the World has been translated by Adrian Nathan West from Benjamín Labatut's Un Verdor Terrible.

The best overview of the book comes in the author's own words on his German publisher's website - https://www.suhrkamp.de/images/sonder... - and thanks to my friend Neil for introducing me both to the book and pointing me towards this overview of it. His review here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

This is a fascinating blend of essay and fiction - as the author says:

"The book starts out with an essay which is 99% non-fiction, followed by two short stories and finally a novella. As the book progresses, the fictional content increases, but all the stories are based on hard facts." (apparently just one paragraph in the essay is fictional - I am intrigued which one)

The essay Prussian Blue is based around hydrogen cyanide: "by following that tiny –yet utterly deadly– molecule I found a thread that wove together science, art and history, assassinations and suicides, and that lead me to some of the greatest chemical discoveries, war crimes and massacres of the 20th Century." This part of the novel felt very Sebaldian, and it was interesting to see his The Rings of Saturn listed in the references alongside more factual books. Labatut's manages to make the ideas flow seamlessly but with a wide range:

"An ingredient in Dippel’s elixir would eventually produce the blue that shines not only in Van Gogh’s Starry Night and in the waters of Hokusai’s Great Wave, but also on the uniforms of the infantrymen of the Prussian army, as though something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence: a fault, a shadow, an existential stain passed down from those experiments in which the alchemist dismembered living animals to create it, assembling their broken bodies in dreadful chimeras he tried to reanimate with electrical charges, the very same monsters that inspired Mary Shelley to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in whose pages she warned of the risk of the blind advancement of science, to her the most dangerous of all human arts."

This sense of the danger of advanced science / mathematics, both to mankind, but to the mental state of those practising it, is a key theme.

Schwarzschild's Singularity tells how "a German soldier on the Russian front of the First World War was the first person to solve Einstein’s equations of the theory of general relativity, which are astoundingly hard. He did so while suffering a blistering skin disease and died soon after sending his results to Einstein. The strangest thing of all is that in his calculations there appeared, for the first time, a monster that was not to be recognized till decades later: the black hole."

Schwarzschild himself is quoted as saying:

"Often I have been unfaithful to the heavens. My interest has never been limited to things situated in space, beyond the moon, but has rather followed those threads woven between them and the darkest zones of the human soul, as it is there that the new light of science must be shone."

The next short story, The Heart of the Heart, focuses on pure mathematics and begins:

"On the morning of August 31, 2012, the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki published four articles on his blog. Those six hundred pages contained a proof of one of the most important conjectures in number theory, known as a + b = c."

a 'proof' that still today bewilders the rest of the mathematical world. The story also tells of Alexander Grothendieck, a Fields medal winner and brilliant mathematician, who, in his later year, retreated into reclusion and mysticism.

The final piece, the novella When We Cease to Understand the World (from which the English title of the whole book is taken), focuses on the rival discoveries in quantum mechanics of Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg. Per Labutut "what really interested me was the conditions under which each one of them had their particular epiphany" and it is here the fiction really kicks in as he takes what is known ("for example, we know that Schrödinger spent a week in Arosa with a lover, but we do not know her name, her age, we really know absolutely nothing about her") and adds a detailed and imaginative fictional story around it.

But this is also a story about how the advances of quantum theory made the world both more explainable, in a purely mathematical sense, but much less comprehensible.

"Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding."

(from the 'secret gardener' in the final chapter)

Although the focus is on the Schrödinger/Heisenberg rivalry, perhaps the most interesting contrast for me was with Einstein, who found Heisenberg's theories particularly confounding:

"The father of relativity was a great master of visualization: all of his ideas about space and time had been born of his capacity to imagine himself in the most extreme physical circumstances. For this reason, he was unwilling to accept the restrictions demanded by Heisenberg, who seemed to have gouged out both his eyes in order to see further
Einstein became the greatest enemy of quantum mechanics. ... “This theory reminds me a little of the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoiac, concocted of incoherent elements of thoughts,” he wrote to one of his friends."

This section also finishes, in a change of style, with a shorter, much more personal chapter, which stands in an intriguing relationship to the rest of the book.

A wonderful book - a hybrid of accessible science and novelistic imagination, and highly thought provoking, one that leads the reader down many interesting areas of further reading.

Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC.

4.5 stars rounded to 5
Profile Image for Katia N.
579 reviews635 followers
May 2, 2021
This book has reminded me of a sandwich, the moment when you cut your teeth into a very attractive piece of gourmand bread enjoying the flavour, but suddenly it is mixed with a taste of the filling. And this filling is somewhat iffy. Possibly, it contains too much spice or just lacking the sophisticated ingredients the bread made you to anticipate.

Enough said, I think. There is a lot to like in this book. He explains the underlying ideas pretty well. He also shares the list of the books he has read in his research. But “this filling” in the middle has significantly diminished my enthusiasm. The enigma of the scientific epiphany has remained unresolved. And in terms of “the world we cease to understand”. I dare say we have not ceased just yet as we never did understand it at the first place.
Profile Image for David.
236 reviews487 followers
October 12, 2021
This is a fascinating mashup of fiction and essay to explore the psychological impact of scientific advances, focusing on developments in the 20th century that led to widespread changes in how we understand the world. The novella at the heart of this work, for example, explores the development of quantum mechanics and the philosophical challenges posed by an abandonment of Newtonian physics to understand the molecular world. Einstein in particular is an interesting character, opposing Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg on philosophical grounds. This is one of the most interesting works about scientific development I've come across in awhile.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,746 reviews1,195 followers
November 4, 2021
With thanks to the Colophon Books blog for featuring my review here



This book is about what happens when we reach the edges of science; when we come face to face with what we cannot understand. It is about what occurs to the human mind when it pushes past the outer limits of thought, and what lies beyond those limits.

This book has now been shortlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Fiction having previously been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (where it was one of two books by Pushkin Press – who publish “the world’s best stories, to be read and read again” - the other the eventual winner).

I was already well aware of this book and very keen to read it - as one of my closest Goodreads friends Neil had picked it as one of the best books of 2020 (for a Mookse and Gripes discussion/ranking – where it ended up ranked first for 2020) and my twin brother Paul had suggested it as the clear deserving winner of the 2021 Booker (well before the longlist).

I was also aware that it is a book which draws heavily in its initial chapter on WG Sebald’s “Rings of Saturn” which I re-read recently and for much of the rest of its content on quantum physics and mathematics (which I studied and loved at University - quantum physics in fact being the only part of applied mathematics/mathematical physics that I really loved as its more theoretical and probabalistic nature much more matched my love of pure mathematics and statistics).

And this is not a book that disappoints.

As both Paul and Neil have pointed out the author (a Netherlands born, Spanish language writer now living in Chile) himself gives the best introduction to the book in a detailed English language interview with his German publisher – and I would recommend reading it in full (before and after reading the actual novel).


The book starts with a almost entirely non-fictional chapter “Prussian Blue”, which has heavy overlap with Sebald (for example starting with silkworms) and takes in (largely via the German scientist, Noble Prize winner but also alleged war criminal) Fritz Haber such ideas as German end WW2 mass suicides, artifical pigmentation, WW1 gas attacks (including Hitler as a victim), the amphetamine dependency of the Nazi war machine, Zyklon-B, nitrogen-based fertilisers both natural/historic and artificial (via the synthesis of ammonia), poisons and so on. The author has the section contains only one fictional paragraph which I think could be the last one – where Haber’s true lack of remorse for his War actions (which in WW1 even lead to the suicide of his wife) was said to instead have regretted his role in allowing the risk of fertiliser enhanced nature to take over the world.

The second chapter concentrates on Karl Schwarzschild and his remarkable work on solving Einstein’s General Relativity Equations while posted on the Russian front (my pun – he could have been said to have solved the Field Equations while in the field), and despite suffering from a completely debilitating genetic auto-immune disease which may have been triggered by a gas attack (linking of course to the first chapter). Symbolically though the many different ideas in the chapter are inexorably drawn to one central idea Schwarzschild first originated – the Black Hole. A physical singularity which is a necessary consequence of the mathematical equations of space-time but which is difficult if not impossible for us to really conceive of in any conventional terms; and something which at first – and particularly to Einstein - seemed a paradox, an anomaly, a consequence of either over-simplification or of applying a formula beyond the limits and bounds where it can be correctly parameterised – but which in science has gradually accepted as being real and fundamental to our understanding of physics. The even greater power in this chapter though is the corollary drawn (I am not clear if really by Schwarzschild or by Schwarzschild interpreted by Labatut that human psyche (if sufficiently warped and concentrated on a single purpose) could perhaps produce an equally terrible singularity “a black sun dawning over the horizon, capable of engulfing the entire world”, something even more terrible than WW1 – which is of course a prophecy of the rise of Nazi-ism.

The third chapter in my view was the weakest – about the Japanese mathematician Mochizuki and his predecessor the master of abstraction Alexander Grothendieck. Thematically the chapter fits well – with the idea of mathematical concepts which while seemingly true seem impossible for most people to understand, and the idea that at the centre (for the few who do comprehend them) is something terrible and dangerous; but I just did not feel it came to life as well as the other chapters or had particularly strong mathematical descriptions (a quick Wiki look up helped me grasp A+B = C much better than the chapter). Here I think a largely factual basis has a number of fictional elements (particularly I think around Grothendieck’s last days).

The fourth section is the longest – by now the gradual blending of fiction and fact has come to something of a balance.

The factual scaffolding of this section is the two rival schools of interpretation of Quantum mechanics – Erwin Schrödinger and his Uncertainty Principle, and Werner Heisenberg and his Copenhagen interpretation as developed with his mentor Niels Bohr - rival schools which were not just about different mathematical formulations but about different mathematical/physical worldviews as explained in a preface “while Schrödinger had needed only a single equation to describe virtually the whole of modern chemistry and physics, Heisenberg’s ideas and formulae were exceptionally abstract, philosophically revolutionary, and so dreadfully complex” – further Heisenberg we are told (in a return to one of the author’s key themes) had “glimpsed a dark nucleus at the heart of things”.

Much of the rest of this section is then a fictional imagining of (quoting the author’s interview) “the conditions under which each one of them had their particular epiphany”. Schrödinger’s sensuous time on a ski resort, his “lover’s …..pearls inside his ears to concentrate”, Heisenberg’s solitary time with horrendous hayfever on Heglioland – scene of course post-war of one of the largest ever man-made explosions, a non-nuclear and peace time explosion by the victorious British of surplus armaments. Now of course (partly my link partly the author’s) had Heisenberg not failed in his development of the German WW2 Atomic Weapons programme (in contrast to Haber’s success in the German WW1 Chemical Weapons programme) a very different explosion (nuclear, war-time, by the Germans) may have taken place instead and the history of the World been very different.

These fictional sections – Heisenberg’s in particular, mix dreams and visions with quantum physics – returning to another recurring theme of the book, that many great mathematical and mathematical physics discoveries (particularly those relating to the mysterious world of higher mathematics and quantum mechanics) begin with a literally imaginative and visionary leap beyond conventional thinking with then the harder work being to put the mathematical framework behind it (this very idea of a factual scaffolding holding up but also inspired by an imaginative piece also mirroring the very structure of this fourth section).

And one of the key visions that Heisenberg has ends in a nightmarishy way – when he later meets with Bohr he tells him everything that lead up to his developments of his quantum theory other than this part.

but for a strange reason he could explain neither to himself nor to Bohr, for it was one he would not understand until decades later, he was incapable of confessing his vision of the dead baby at his feet, or the thousands of figures who had surrounded him in the forest, as if wishing to warn him of something, before they were carbonized in an instant by that flash of blind light.

And we of course see know that this vision is linked to and maybe even acted as a warning to Heisenberg not to contemplate the German Atomic weapons programme. I was of course reminder of Michael Frayn’s brilliant play “Copenhagen” which tells and retells the story of Heisenberg and Bohr’s meeting in 1941 and what it meant for both the US and German programmes.

The last chapter rounds the book off neatly – a first party and entirely fictional account, where the narrator, in Chile, meets a night-time gardener, an ex-mathematican and the two discuss many of the ideas in earlier chapters and the book’s overall themes.

The book is translated (extremely naturally I have to say) by Adrian Nathan West

The only criticism I could aim here is the usual bugbear of title – the Spanish language title being effectively I think translatable as “A Terrible Nature” (although literally translated in this book as “ a terrible verdure”) which is taken from the very last words of the first and important chapter, in my view encompasses the key ideas the middle sections explore and then identifies directly with the last and very different chapter of the book; whereas the English title is taken straight from the longest section of the book and perhaps gives that undue primacy in an English reader’s mind.

But that is a small criticism of a brilliant book.
Profile Image for Prerna.
220 reviews1,254 followers
May 26, 2021
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, 2021

It is hard to define beauty in physics or mathematics. Beauty is not a measurable quantity. But that hasn't stopped physicists and mathematicians from pursuing it for centuries now. The notion of 'beauty' has come to be associated with truth and symmetries in science. (Physicists, physics students and physics enthusiasts: I do not, I repeat, I do not want to see snarky comments on quarks here. That's not what I mean, and you know it.)

Schrodinger was fascinated by life because it did not act like 'any piece of matter.' In his 1944 paper 'What is Life', Schrodinger expressed astonishment over his observation that in living systems order and complexity seem to increase over time, even though 'life' is governed by the same laws of physics which dictate that in closed physical systems, entropy - a measure of disorder, increases with time.

In When We Cease to Understand the World, Labatut beautifully explores the lives of Schwarzschild, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Fritz Haber, Schinichi Mochizuki (of the a + b = c conjecture fame), Grothendieck and de Broglie. He writes about their eccentricities, their quests for beauty, truth and order that often intersected and changed the very fundamentals of physics and mathematics. He does it by taking only enough creative license to fictionalize their emotional lives, which was necessary in my opinion.

Where is the colour that might tame the sky? / The grey mist leaves me blind / the more I look, the less I see.

My only qualm with the book (and you've probably noticed this already) has to do with its stark lack of female characters. The only prominent female character was a 16 year old tuberculosis patient whom Schrodinger tutored and had sexual fantasies about. She was your typical underage manic pixie dream girl with no character arc of her own. What I don't like about general public reactions to the flaws of famous physicists and mathematicians, especially to those of physicists (and I've seen this in my peers too), is that it's often a feigned ignorance and sometimes even a glorification. I don't like how people in science sometimes pretend as though commonplace rules of morality and ethics don't apply to them because they are pursuing a 'higher truth.' And I'm saying this as a woman in STEM.

The scientists written about in this book are extremely popular and much talked about. I would have loved to read more about the unfairly lesser known female scientists - Emmy Noether, for example. Her contributions to both physics and mathematics have been phenomenal, yet I'm sure most of the general populace hasn't even heard of her. I don't mean to say that it was a personal duty on this author's part to write about female scientists. I'm just saying that there are women in science too, you know. And it's time we acknowledge this. Oh, and I expected more representation in a book shortlisted for the International Booker.

We can pull atoms apart, peer back at the first light and predict the end of the universe with just a handful of equations, squiggly lines and arcane symbols that normal people cannot fathom, even though they hold sway over their lives. But it’s not just regular folks; even scientists no longer comprehend the world. Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 7 books1,511 followers
November 7, 2021
Swirling fractal of a book, as facts about important 20th century scientists mathematicians slowly transform into a fictional surreality of quantum mechanics and atrocity, with beautiful writing all the way through. Labatut is new to me, and he has a fan now - I've seen the work compared to Sebald, and I do understand it, but to me there's a bit of Calvino here, a bit of impishness, as we skip between genres willy-nilly.

An accomplishment.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,392 reviews2,384 followers
March 30, 2021
Longlisted for the International Booker 2021

The physicist - like the poet - should not describe the facts of the world but rather generate metaphors and mental connections.

Labatut, like Sebald (and The Rings of Saturn connects in multiple ways with this book) has written a peripatetic text that comprises a series of what look like essays but include an increasing amount of fictional elements: what holds them together are an interest in scientific knowledge and the dangers and responsibilities that understanding should impose on us.

The most obvious connection with Sebald is the subtext of German Fascism: Nazi silkworms (yep, Rings of Saturn), the use of amphetamines by Hitler's troops, various characters who end up in the camps, the development of Zyklon B, all make an appearance. There's also the spectre of Hiroshima that haunts the development of theories of quantum mechanics. Ideas of the monstrous and monstrosity return, as well as the image of a dark heart, though whether that's in the world or in humankind is left floating.

It's worth saying that I am probably one of the least scientifically-minded readers and yet I loved this. The wonder of quantum mechanics fascinates me though I can't begin to get my head around all those equations and theories - but that doesn't matter here and it's precisely the paradox uncovered by Schrodinger, the idea of a universe of potentialities and possibilities that evade the common sense of physical science that excites my imagination. It makes me think of a closed book, a text which contains a whole spectrum of meanings and interpretations contained within it which will be released by each individual reader as the book 'travels' through its readerly history and reception.

The writing and translation here are outstanding, this never reads like a translated text and there's a pliable texture to the prose that eases the transitions from topic to topic: what could have been jarring jumps in the hand of another author, here flow seamlessly and fascinatingly - the mode of writing thus seems to be making connections that parallel the programmatic stance of the text itself.

A clever but, importantly, humane book.
Profile Image for Oni.
62 reviews30 followers
December 27, 2021
I take books very personally. Even more so, books that weave all of my passions and interests together: literary modern fiction, science, ethics and science history. Unfortunately, “When We Cease to Understand the World” left me feeling offended and cheated.

The book is ambitious, clearly researched, seamless in its blending of fact and fiction, (mostly) eloquent in its explanation of complex scientific concepts and riveting because the texture of the subject and the individuals it deals with are riveting themselves.

So why did it leave me feeling offended and cheated? To some extent, this must have to do with my own background, but only to some extent. As someone with close friends doing hardcore research in physics, as someone with a PhD of her own in a STEM field, as someone who has at least witnessed the discipline and rigour and sacrifices that a career as a young scientist entails, I am sickened beyond words by the “mad-male-genius-tormented-soul” cliché that has been overused and abused to the detriment of us all. That cliché that both fences in and bars out and ultimately, does us all an enormous disservice. Labatut builds his entire book around this dangerous trope and in 2021 I think it is high time we demand more and take active steps towards expelling such a trite and harmful Romantic notion.

OK, OK! But how is the book besides this? Frankly, mediocre. For the physics part, I think Labatut does mostly a decent job explaining complex concepts. However for anyone with some interest in the topic of quantum mechanics and the figures who shaped it there will not be much to learn or to discover reading this book. Is that a problem in itself? No, not at all, yet I cannot help but wonder what he actually adds to the topic. Other recent books dealing with science and the figures behind it and blending fact and fiction - for instance, Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, and my favourite of recent years, Murmur by Will Eaves - did so with creativity and enthusiasm and a deep respect for the ideas and scientific work under discussion. This is of course subjective but I cannot say the same about “When We Cease To Understand The World”. Also, as another reviewer* (see Barbara’s review) perfectly described it before me, when it comes to mathematics, Labatut is out of his depth and reading his musings on the subject feels like being explained colour by a person who lived their entire life experiencing only black and white.

And cheated? Why cheated? Well, because “When We Cease To Understand The World” operates under the guise of sophistication and refined, elegant treatment of complex ideas and individuals but ends up - once stripped of its outer eloquent layers - having a treatment that is trite and frankly, “Daily Mail”-esque in its oversimplification and pursuit of melodramatic sensationalism.

There are however two valuable lessons to be learned from the success of this book in my opinion. The first one is that the dangerous notion of the “tragic genius on the brink of madness” pushing us a step closer to destruction is sadly deeply rooted in the collective psyche. The second lesson is more reassuring: there is a real thirst for books dealing maturely and elegantly with topics of science and hopefully in the coming years this thirst will be assuaged by works venturing into such subjects with more respect and depth and creativity.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,918 reviews35.4k followers
November 7, 2021
Geeeeezzzzz…..right out the door ….
at the start of this book killings and horrific deaths were reported as nonchalantly as eating jellybeans.

Adina’s review is MAGNIFICENT…. I couldn’t touch what she did…..READ HERS!!

It’s possible one needs to be a genius to fully comprehend these vignettes — or at least have gotten a passing grade in your college Physics class. ….
have been stoned on weed enough times to have experienced the universe through the mind of quantum mechanical genius.

Given how many times I spaced out listening to this short audiobook— it’s surprising how much I still found it fascinating.

I walked away - mostly thinking about the life and death - of our planet - TRYING to imagine (as horrific it would be)… if I/we were the last generation on planet Earth —

Profile Image for Matthew Ted.
687 reviews568 followers
October 20, 2022
16th book of 2022.

4.5. A real masterful piece of work this is. Sublime, stunning, and so intelligent. It's a shame this is his only book translated into English, he's brilliant (and looks almost too cool to be a writer [1]). The book is comprised of five parts which in a way read like separate pieces. The first, "Prussian Blue" is the most interesting piece of writing I've read in a long time, all circling the creation and use of cyanide. The next three parts ("Schwarzschild's Singularity", "The Heart of the Heart" and the titular "When We Cease to Understand the World") are about numerous mathematicians and scientists from Einstein, Schrödinger, Schwarzschild, and others. The final part, "The Night Gardener", of the novel suddenly shifts, a very short auto-fiction chapter, of just 10 or so pages, about Labatut's hometown in Chile. This, as all other chapters do, links back into the narrative, about madness, cyanide, war and genius. This honestly is one of the most fascinating and impressive books I've read recently.

"Prussian Blue" blew me away, in 24 pages. It opens with the medical examination of Hermann Göring on the eve of the Nuremburg Trials, describing his fingers and toes stained a 'furious red'. Labatut then describes the Pervitin that all of the Wehrmacht were borderline addicted to, receiving it in their rations, so that the troopers 'used to stay awake for weeks on end, fighting in a deranged state, alternating between manic furore and nightmarish stupor'. He then reports that in April 1945 alone 'three thousand eight hundred people killed themselves in Berlin', and talks of the suicides that rocked Germany rather than facing their defeat. We then read about Hitler's beloved German shepherd, Blondi, who was given cyanide first on Hitler's orders because he was 'so convinced that his dosage had been tampered with'. Next we hear about the Indian goldsmith, M.P. Prasad, who is the only person to write about cyanide's flavour, writing three lines before he died. The liquid form smells slightly of almonds, 'which not everyone can distinguish as doing so requires a gene absent in forty per cent of humanity', and Labatut comments, that a significant number of Jews murdered in the concentration camps would smell nothing at all as the cyanide filled the gas chambers, 'while others died smelling the same fragrance inhaled by the men who had organised their extermination as they bit down on their suicide capsules.' Then suddenly we zoom out, and Labatut explains that certain bricks in Auschwitz were stained a 'beautiful blue', this is because of 'cyanide's authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.' Thus begins the history of the colour and its creation, which later oscillates into describing silkworms (for those who have read Sebald, how Sebald [2]) and the Nazis planting millions of mulberry trees, into a short biography of Johann Conrad Dippel, who, without, Prussian Blue would never have existed, into, then, Carl Wilhelm Sheele, who first realised the danger when he 'stirred a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and created the most potent poison of the modern era'. This moves into another colour, a green, which Napaloeon loved, so Labatut's narrative takes us there to the Emperor and his bedroom, and his final days where his skin took on a 'cadaverous grey tone', and then we follow the narrative onto Rasputin and the failure to kill him, then onto Alan Turing, and Labatut describes what he was like as a man, and how he died by cyanide, which then leads us to reading about the children during the war and their gas masks, then into Ypres, where the 'first gas attack in history overwhelmed the French troops', and Labatut quotes a first-hand account of the gas and its effects which killed everything, all men, horses, birds in the trees, insects, mice, everything came from their holes to die, which leads us to Fritz Haber, who first obtained nitrogen 'from the air', as before, Labatut tells us, Englishmen would 'despoil the tombs of the ancient pharaohs, in search not of gold, jewels or antiquities, but of the nitrogen contained in the bones of the thousands of slaves buried', and how they did the same, unearthing bodies from the battles of Austerlitz, Leipzig and Waterloo, which then gets us to Adi, or Adolf Hitler, with a two page biography on how we went from aspiring artist to hateful war survivor, and finally the chapter ends with Haber's death and the letter written to his wife. This is 24 pages, the first part of the novel.

And though Labatut says in the Acknowledgements that the 'quantity of fiction grows throughout the book' because "Prussian Blue" contains 'only one fictional paragraph' (he doesn't say which), it's clear that the man knows his science and his scientists. I didn't understand much of the quantum mechanics and whatever else but what prevailed wasn't the science at all, it was the genius and the madness. All the scientists in this book go pretty much 'insane' at certain points in their life, with recurring near-starvation and sleep deprivation (mostly due to obsessiveness of work), self-exile, talking to themselves, not washing, shaving, the usual. They were tormented souls and Labatut gives us full portraits of all of their madness (and genius). Somehow they all link too, scientists appearing in one another's chapters, ideas strung together ('standing on the shoulders of giants' . . .), and themes recurring and recurring. Of course as well as the madness and the genius, Labatut shows us that above all, maths and science are the most dangerous things to humanity; and, did these great men foresee that their inventions and ideas would be used for mass destruction, genocide? So it's also a reflection on the cost of genius.

How the novel is only 188 pages is utterly beyond me. I'll say again, masterful.



[2] The Rings of Saturn is placed comfortably within the acknowledgements.
Profile Image for The Artisan Geek.
445 reviews7,226 followers
July 5, 2020
What a splendid piece of Chilean fiction! As a stem girl this book was so up my lane - WOW. The way in which Labatut managed to merge fiction with non-fiction had me completely floored -- especially in the first story Prussian Blue. Another favourite of mine was The Night Gardener which I felt was the perfect ending, bringing the entire story full circle :) I will be sure to review this on my channel when it gets closer to the publication date :)

Pushkin Press kindly let me pick some of their books that piqued my interest in their catalogue and this was one of them. Honestly, I had no idea what this book was about except for the fact that it contained a lot of chemistry and physics -- so far I feel like I was so right on the money with this one. I'm 30 pages in and it is wildly interesting!

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Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
April 23, 2021
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021

An extraordinary book which almost creates its own genre. I don't have time to write a long review now, but thanks in particular to Neil for nominating this book for the Mookse and the Gripes group's best of 2020 poll - it fully deserves its place there. He and others have already written detailed reviews that I won't try to emulate.

Labatut starts of with an almost factual chapter on Haber, nitrogen and cyanide poisoning. The pieces that follow contain a lot more inventive liberties, and the title novella about Heisenberg, Schrödinger and their creative disagreements about the nature of quantum theory is both educational and at times almost unhinged. The final short part gives the reader some clues about the genesis of the book and how the author was alerted to its scientific and mathematical ideas.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews625 followers
August 18, 2020
In an interview with the author which can be found at https://www.suhrkamp.de/images/sonder..., the first question is “Could you summarise your book in two sentences?” Labatut’s answer is:

��This book is about what happens when we reach the edges of science; when we come face to face with what we cannot understand. It is about what occurs to the human mind when it pushes past the outer limits of thought, and what lies beyond those limits.”

The whole of that interview is well worth reading and it does a far better job of reviewing this book than I can do.

I picked the book up on NetGalley in the Literary Fiction section. I mention this because the first part of the book, Prussian Blue, is “99% non-fiction” (the author’s phrase) and traces the rather unpleasant history of hydrogen cyanide (with a lot of digressions into related thoughts). After that, the fiction content gradually increases as the book progresses. All the way through, we are tracking real people and real events as various mathematicians and physicists wrestle with quantum theory and the meaning of reality (e.g. the second story follows Schwarzschild who solved, for the first time, Einstein’s equations of general relativity whilst simultaneously fighting on the Russian front in WWI and dying from a deadly disease), but gradually Labutut introduces more and more flights of imagination. Some of the time, it feels as though we are reading a kind of horror story where the scary ideas at the heart of quantum theory are forcing their way into humanity against the wishes of the physicists exploring it: Labutut is interested in the ideas of epiphany and, again and again, it seems that breakthroughs come in a way that the person concerned cannot afterwards explain. And some of the ideas at the heart of quantum theory are extremely unsettling.

Just over 40 years ago, I picked the university I attended because it was one of the few (that I stood a realistic chance of getting into) to include options to study general relativity and quantum theory as part of the mathematics course. Needless to say, I have forgotten virtually all of the mathematics that I enjoyed so much four decades ago, but my fascination with quantum theory has remained. This might be part of the reason that I enjoyed reading this book so much. That said, it doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the underlying maths or physics because it is more interested in speculating about what was going on in the minds of several men who changed the foundations of science in a thirty year period at the start of the last century.

And then there’s a little story called The Night Gardener to make you stop and think at the end.

Lababtut ended the interview I have referenced like this, and it is how I will end this review:

”But I do not offer answers in this book; on the contrary, the ideas that fascinate me are those that we simply cannot understand. Schwarzschild’s black hole, quantum mechanics, Mochizuki’s proof of the a b c conjecture, these are all ideas that seem to be more than we can handle, and that had ravaging effects on the people who first approached them.

What we can know and what we can never know; I believe that thinking deeply about those two things is a necessity, more than ever before. I think we need to ponder such things if we are to survive the wilderness of the 21st Century.
Profile Image for Aletheia.
268 reviews107 followers
April 7, 2022
Una mezcla de ficción y realidad tan adictiva que la he leído de una sentada. Es una historia breve y emocionante de la física del siglo XX a ratos tierna y desquiciante; muy bien narrada.

Me ha parecido un libro muy original en su planteamiento y muy bien llevado a cabo, resulta una lectura muy complaciente porque al final todo se cierra y nos hace conocer más a las figuras que definieron la física en el siglo pasado más allá de la pequeña nota biográfica en el libro de secundaria:

"Lo que me estimula no es la ambición ni el afán de poder. Es la percepción aguda de algo grande, muy real y muy delicado a la vez." Grothendieck

Le falta un punto de atrevimiento o profundidad (¿de genio?) para llevarse las cinco estrellas, pero que no os engañe la nota, es todo lo que le podemos pedir a un ensayo.
Profile Image for Trudie.
520 reviews552 followers
May 17, 2021
This book is a tricky propostion if you like to clearly sort your fact from fiction.

I appreciated the author telling me the first essay Prussian Blue contained only a single fictional paragraph ( but which one ! ) and the subsequent essays become increasingly fictional yet remain faithful to the scientific concepts discussed .

This then can be read as is a fictional representation of the tortured process by which advances are made and in that light, I think it does a reasonable job.
I think of science, often as a long journey grappling around in the dark hoping to be granted a glimpse of something important. Often you lack the tools to see things clearly. You are like Heisenburg, sensing something out of the corner of your eye.

He thought he could distinguish a group of swiftly moving shadows on the edge of his field of vision. It’s the horses, he said to himself ... just the horses running blind through the fog. But when he looked for them he could not find a single hoof print

Labatut manages to capture this nebulous feeling in ways I think a non-fictional account might have struggled to achieve. Does he overdo the artistic licence, yes, I think he does ( I could have done without the TB-afflicted object of lust section) but the attempt to bring art and science together, rather than, as often happens, pitting them against each other is original, insightful and challenging.

It might be true my enjoyment peaked with the earlier ( more factual sections). Quantum mechanics while interesting from the personalities involved, grew increasingly hard to grasp. After spending so long on the birth of this new field I was surprised how little time was given over to pondering its uses. Nuclear warfare was only hinted at in nightmarish visions compared to the substantial amount of space given to chemical warfare. In fact, the epilogue came as a shock to me, almost as though the author grew tired of all these mad geniuses.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
652 reviews3,200 followers
May 31, 2021
It's been especially interesting following the International Booker Prize this year as the shortlisted books all take a creative approach to form, genre and narrative in telling their stories. This is certainly true in the case of Benamin Labatut's “When We Cease to Understand the World” which inventively blends biographical nonfiction and fiction to describe discoveries made by several different male scientists and mathematicians of the 21st century such as Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger.

Their intellectual revelations made fundamental advancements within their fields of study, altered our human perception of reality and provoked innumerable changes to our lives in ways we don't often think about. But, like any scientific advancement, this knowledge could be used for positive or negative consequences from alleviating famine to facilitating mass killing. The question of the relative “goodness” of any such discovery is tricky as well because if fertilizer is made so readily available it leads to the planet's overpopulation is that really positive advancement? On a personal level, these discoveries also led to many of these intellectuals experiencing a moral, spiritual or existential crisis. They became so overwhelmed by the consequences of what they found some turned their backs on society to become reclusive and/or actively tried to block their findings from being used. It's described how Grothendieck anxiously wonders “What new horrors would spring forth from the total comprehension that he sought?"

Labatut wonderfully dramatizes the details of these men's lives focusing on the toll such genius and knowledge takes upon the individual. By not sticking to biographical fact the author gets at the emotional truth of the dilemmas which attend such intellectual “advancement”.

Read my full review of When We Cease to Understand the World by Benamin Labatut on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Intellectual_Thighs.
235 reviews340 followers
June 18, 2022
Ο μικρός μου έχει δυσχρωματοψία, δεν μπορεί να διαχωρίσει κάποια χρώματα, το πράσινο τον δυσκολεύει ιδιαιτέρως, πράσινο πορτοκαλί καφέ είναι ένα όταν βρίσκονται κοντά, αναρωτιέμαι τι σημαίνει πράσινο για εκείνον, πώς βλέπει ένα λιβάδι ας πούμε, όμως πάλι, είναι το δικό μου πράσινο ίδιο με το δικό σου; Συμφωνούμε πάντως στο ότι είναι πράσινο και αυτό είναι καθησυχαστικό.

Αναγνωρίζουμε κάτι ως αληθινό όταν οι νευρώνες μας το αντιμετωπίσουν ως κάτι γνώριμο και μέσα στην άβυσσο της αβεβαιότητάς μας με μόνη βεβαιότητα το τέλος (φρααπ), έχουμε ανάγκη να φτιάξουμε στέρεες αλήθειες, να αγκυροβολήσουμε κάπου τη φαντασία μας. Η επιστήμη φέρνει λύσεις, εξηγεί, ερμηνεύει, δικαιολογεί. Είναι μια σταθερά, το λιμάνι της λογικής που ακόμα και αν δεν έχουμε όλοι τα εφόδια να κατανοήσουμε πλήρως προσφέρει μια ανακούφιση, είναι μια τεκμηρίωση της αλήθειας. Πόσο έτοιμοι όμως είμαστε για την την αλήθεια, ποια πιθανή φρίκη θα μπορούσε να ξεπηδήσει από την πλήρη κατανόησή της;

Σε μια μίξη πραγματικών γεγονότων και φανταστικών προσθηκών για να γίνει η πραγματικότητα λογοτεχνία, ο Λαμπατούτ διηγείται ιστορίες μεγάλων επιστημόνων που τρέκλισαν στα όρια της ευφυίας και της παράνοιας και μας δείχνει πώς η επιστημονική πρόοδος μπορεί να έχει συγχρόνως δύο πρόσωπα και πόσο εύκολα και πιθανά μπορεί η αναζήτηση της αλήθειας να γίνει δυστοπική.

Όσο κατακτούμε τη γνώση και αναζητούμε την αλήθεια, τόσο χάνουμε τις βεβαιότητές μας. Η κβαντομηχανική ήρθε και μουτζούρωσε τις βεβαιότητες των ντετερμινιστών που θεωρούσαν ότι μπορούσαν να ερμηνεύσουν και να προβλέψουν σύμφωνα με τους κανόνες της λογικής, η πιθανολογική αβεβαιότητα ήρθε να φτιάξει απρόβλεπτες εκδοχές. Η γάτα του Σραίντινγκερ είναι συγχρόνως ζωντανή και νεκρή, ο Αϊνστάιν μέχρι τέλους επέμεινε σε μια λογική που ξεπεράστηκε. "Ο Θεός δεν παίζει ζάρια με το σύμπαν" είχε πει επιχειρηματολογώντας, μα ίσως και να το κάνει και να μας αφήνει να δημιουργούμε και να καταστρέφουμε με μια χούφτα ορνιθοσκαλίσματα, δυσνόητες εξισώσεις και θεωρήματα που ψάχνουν μια α��ήθεια που έχουμε ανάγκη να καταλάβουμε μα δεν μπορούμε καν να φανταστούμε. Και αυτό δεν είναι καθόλου καθησυχαστικό.

Ευτυχώς είμαι πολύ όμορφη για να κουράζω το κεφαλάκι μου με τέτοια.

* Αναφέρεται μόνο σε ένα σημείο το όνομα του Βόλφγκανγκ Πάουλι, θυμήθηκα την ιστορία του και μου ήρθε στο νου ο πίνακας του Φαϊτάκη με τον επιστήμονα να φλέγεται από αγωνία καθώς αναζητά απαντήσεις (να πάτε να δείτε την έκθεση The Triumph of Logic στην Allouche Benias) . Ο Πάουλι ήταν από τους πρωτοπόρους της κβαντομηχανικής και πίστευε ότι έφερνε μαζί του κακή τύχη και αυτή η κα��οτυχία του έμεινε ως "το φαινόμενο Πάουλι" και σε παρακαλώ, δες το παράδοξο, ένας κορυφαίος επιστήμονας να πιστεύει στην κακοτυχία, ήταν μια παραξενιά ενός ευφυούς μυαλού ή αναπόδεικτη γνώση; Οέο;

* Δεν ξέρω αν η αξία του βρίσκεται στην πρόζα, στη δομή, στην ιστορία ή στο άφτεριντ εφέκτ. Σε εμένα τουλάχιστον λειτούργησε με τέτοιο τρόπο που άνοιξε ωραιότατα φιλοσοφικά παραθυράκια αφού τελείωσα το διάβασμα, όμως δεν ξέρω αν αυτό συνέβη επειδή είμαι των θετικών επιστημών και ενδιαφέρομαι για τη φιλοσοφία και την ηθική της επιστήμης. Θα φοβόμουν να το προτείνω έτσι αβέρτα, όμως έχω στο μυαλό μου κάμποσους που θα το απολάμβαναν.
Profile Image for Easton Smith.
281 reviews9 followers
October 10, 2020
2.5 stars, rounded up.

Mustard gas, The Bomb, zyklon B, and other nasty business. That's how this book begins, with the (mostly) true horrors of science, and the personal histories of the architects of all this 20th century death. It's fascinating, even if the reader senses the selectivity of the history it describes.

As we get further along, the (mostly) true horrors turn to (mostly) true academic squabbles and (not very) true personal journeys of various famous mathematicians and physicists--Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein, Grothendieck, and others. For anyone interested in quantum mechanics, the morality of math, and the edge between brilliance and insanity, it's a stimulating read.

But at the end of the book you might end up feeling like a mathematician looking at an elegant, powerful equation that somehow just doesn't add up. Something in your intuition might say: it's almost right, but something is fundamentally missing here. And that thing, you might discover, is women.

This book does not pass the Bechdel Test. Passing or not passing the test may not, ultimately, say much about a book. What's more revealing maybe is that the one real, named, female character in the book is just an adolescent manic pixie tuberculosis-ward girl who helps inspire (or something) the pedophilic desires of one of our math-heroes. It sounds bad when I put it that way, and maybe it's not as bad as it sounds, but, all the same, the equation is off. The math doesn't add up.

In short: this book taught me a lot of interesting history and left me intrigued. But (and as someone who loves magical realism, I hate to say this), every time it veered into the weird, untrue, speculative moments of its history I felt like it only distracted from what was a well written explanation of complicated scientific concepts. Perhaps I need to seek out another, dare I say, more conventional book on the subject.
Profile Image for Karina  Padureanu.
70 reviews36 followers
February 3, 2023
Care este legatura dintre "albastrul de Prusia" si cianura cu care, incorporata in gazul Zyclon, s-a infaptuit masacrul evreilor? ☹

Care au fost destinele omului a carui inteligenta ne-a dat "singularitatea lui Schwarzschild" si a genialului Alexander Grothendieck, cel ce a schimbat modul de a gandi matematica, cautand esenta, "inima inimii"?

Apoi, fascinanta istorie a valului de descoperiri ce au pus bazele fizicii cuantice, datorita careia lumea are puterea tehnologica de astazi, dar pe care nimeni nu poate sa o inteleaga cu adevarat.

Am trait revelatie dupa revelatie citind-o. Fascinanta carte !
Profile Image for Berna Labourdette.
Author 17 books472 followers
November 27, 2020
Había leído maravillas de este libro y es una maravilla que le haga justicia a todo el hype que tiene. Contando tres historias sobre la producción de conocimiento que se utilizó para armas de guerra, en el marco tanto de la Primera como anticipando la Segunda Guerra Mundial, enlaza estos descubrimientos gracias a la descripción detallada de obsesiones de genios como Haber, Grothendieck, Heisenberg, Einstein, entre otros; con una narración muy clara, que permite enganchar incluso a quienes no tienen idea de física o química (como yo). Desde acá empatizo profundamente con la hiperacusia de Schrodinger y con las estupendas páginas donde describen su convalecencia de tuberculosis. Bellísimo y terrible. 
Profile Image for Tony.
896 reviews1,480 followers
May 10, 2021
Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It's as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.

I know nothing of quantum physics, except perhaps that it can be a sweet music, as above.

This, if not a novel, is an historical fiction. It's about those great minds that discovered quantum theory. Yes, it talks a lot about what that is, but it also talks of the competitive jealousies and the inspiration. So, don't be scared. Read it without trying to learn the science. Enough will stick to appreciate the larger point.

There is an interesting structure to the book. There are a handful of chapters, one almost of novella length, that introduce us to Herman Göring, Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and Erwin Schrödinger. There's then an Epilogue. But then a coda follows, a story in short chapters about a gardener. It reminded me very much of the structure of Paul Simon's The Boxer. That final verse in the Simon song, a departure we think from the story being told, may or may not explain things, but it's perfection. Here, too, the gardener is a perfect invention.

I'd recommend this to readers who like the stylings of Laurent Binet; or who, like me, just like quirky. Sometimes - okay, most of the time - I think a book review should not be what the book's about but whether you might like it. You know who you are.
Profile Image for Ana Cristina Lee.
641 reviews234 followers
March 12, 2021
Los descubrimientos científicos en el campo de la física que sacudieron el siglo XX, contados a través de las vidas - torturadas - de sus protagonistas: Bohr, Schrödinger, De Broglie, Heisenberg, Einstein... Todos ellos desafiaron la visión clara y sin fisuras que Newton había ofrecido de la realidad y abrieron la puerta a un universo lleno de incertidumbre y fenómenos oscuros y, en gran medida, incognoscible. Fueron descubrimientos que no trajeron la paz a los espíritus ni una mayor seguridad, sino la sensación de asomarse al abismo y, en el plano de su aplicación práctica, culminaron en el terror nuclear.

Todo esto se nos cuenta en episodios que se asemejan más a la magia, la brujería o la locura que a la ciencia tradicional. Ciertamente fueron seres poco convencionales - por decirlo suavemente - que pusieron al límite sus capacidades para entrever la naturaleza de las cosas.

Muy interesante, aunque algunas partes resultan demasiado barrocas y se alargan demasiado para mi gusto, pero ofrecen un buen retrato de la humanidad de estos personajes. Advierto que si no entiendes nada de física cuántica al principio de la lectura, al final te quedas igual, pero supongo que ése no es el objetivo de esta historia.
Profile Image for Benjamin.
38 reviews
December 28, 2022
I give this book 1 star, out of hot-blooded principle, because Labatut perpetuates the “mad scientist” trope in a very damaging way. He takes factual material about the lives of famous scientists and fills the (large) gaps with utter fiction from his imagination. He turns cogent scientists into tortured animals who belong in the insanitarium. I think it's bullshit. Science is a very sane process, a matter of taking the time to understand a subject and a matter of asking the right questions. These mad eureka moments are fiction, and I speak as an academic who spends his life in pen and paper. The eminent mathematicians of our time would agree (e.g. see Terence Tao’s blog). The gauntlet must be thrown: science is not the work of tortured artists.

Certainly, there are creative people who do science. Some have gone off their rockers. But they are not crazy *because* they did science. I doubt Heisenberg did much more than take long walks and think to himself in Heligoland. Einstein is no god. Schrodinger’s sexual dreams? I don't think Labatut condemns them enough (if at all); Schrodinger was a serial pedophile (let us not romanticize that). And reality reflects the sanity of progress: quantum mechanics is at this point well understood, the same way science understands that the Earth is round (and children do not). Science is not exclusive to mad *men*; in fact, the opposite. I claim that although we cannot hope to understand everything in the universe, to wrap the unknown in myth and prejudice—as does this book—contradicts the fundamental principle of science. Let us not idolize the unknown by concocting fiction!

Labatut deeply misunderstands the scientific process, conflating reality with his own romanticism and prejudice. This book is his view, and his alone: Labatut has ceased to understand the world. This shouldn’t prevent the rest of us from understanding it the best we can.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,040 reviews1,047 followers
February 22, 2022
I notice that the jury is still out on exactly what this book is about: a collection of essays about how great scientific inventions and insights always have a dangerous downside (such as the invention of artificial fertilizer and its derivative use as poison gas), a collection of documentary-fictions about major scientific debates in the 20th century (such as the one between classical physics and quantum mechanics), or a collection of fictionalized stories about the clash between mathematical and scientific geniuses who are on the verge of madness, and sometimes clearly over the edge of it? Benjamin Labatut does not make it easy for the reader who wants to understand what is going on. He plays with the boundaries between fact and fiction, without so much offering 'alternative truths'. On the contrary, I suspect that he wants to point out how elusive reality is, at least for those who expect unambiguous answers. So, I plead guilty: he catched me in my obnoxious habit to judge, underestimating opaque reality. Now that's quite something. But, though I enjoyed his stories, at the same time I wasn't really captivated by them; some aspects of the fictionalized parts were rather weird. Then, of course, I could be missing something, blinded by my obsession to understand the world (and this book). Rating 2.5 stars.
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