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When We Cease to Understand the World

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  389 ratings  ·  83 reviews
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 gr
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published September 3rd 2020 by Pushkin Press (first published January 2020)
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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
The Artisan Geek
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
Paul Fulcher
Aug 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: net-galley, 2020
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 - - and thanks to my friend Neil for introducing me both to the book and pointing me towards this overview of it. His review here:

This is a fascinating blend of essay and fiction - as the author says
Roman Clodia
Sep 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
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.

Aug 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In an interview with the author which can be found at, 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 do
Oct 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a book of geniuses and madmen, of teetering on the abyss of knowledge, of falling in and drowning in intellect. It connects personal histories and personalities with scientific breakthroughs and world events; imagines conversations and elaborates relationships. It's quite mesmerising. It sets the pulse racing. It excites wonder. Need I say more? ...more
Areeb Ahmad (Bankrupt_Bookworm)
Dec 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: review-copy
"... When discussing atoms, language could serve as nothing more than a kind of poetry... The physicist—like the poet—should not describe the facts of the world, but rather generate metaphors and mental connections."

RATING: 4.75/5

When asked to summarize his book in only two sentences, Benjamín Labatut said: "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 t
Pickle Farmer
Aug 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
3 1/2 stars.

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 computer 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 contrad
Jim Coughenour
Sep 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
I’m not sure what this writing is. Is it science? Fiction? It’s not science fiction. Whatever it is, it’s spectacular.

Particularly the first three chapters, reminding me at times of the short brilliant essays of Eliot Weinberger; also, here and there, of the musings of W G Sebald, although the timbre of the tales is different, less melancholy, their mystical moments tinged with apocalyptic. I’d never heard of Karl Schwarzschild, Shinichi Mochizuki or Alexander Grothendieck, and in fact had to ch
Dec 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: translation, science
Well damn. I finished my review - a pretty long one that I spend a good hour writing - but despite the GR flashing "saving" and "all changes saved," when I clicked "post" it disappeared. Damn, damn, damn. No time to re-write, so I'll just refer you to the reviews of Neil - - and Paul - - whose recommendations are why I read it. It is quite brilliant.
Anthony Ferner
El verdor terrible, by Chilean author Benjamin Labatut, is an odd but gripping hybrid of fiction and factual narration about several key moments in twentieth century physics, chemistry and mathematics. Some, such as the victory of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, are better known than others and already subject to extensive fictionalised treatment. Among the episodes Labatut covers are the discovery of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers by Fritz Haber; advances in mathematics, espec ...more
Easton Smith
Oct 10, 2020 rated it liked it
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--H
Sep 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novels
My favourite book of 2020 so far!
Aug 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
How do I even describe this book? It’s like falling into a black hole, into the minds of those who pushed the boundaries of reality. It’s both an exploration of the limits of genius and at the same time a commentary on what happens when those limits are broken. Fact becomes fiction and the rules and lines are blurred increasingly as we progress through the book.

When We Cease To Understand The World begins with an essay, mostly factual, concerning hydrogen cyanide, its development and use during
Rai FG
Aug 28, 2020 rated it liked it
When We Cease to Understand the World features an exploration of major scientific advances in the 20th century alongside the idea that genius is often beset by madness. It is important to note, however, that there are increasing fictionalised elements as the book goes on and it becomes hard to determine what is truth and what is fiction. I was unsure how to rate this book because of this. On the one hand, I enjoyed the scientific content whereas on the other hand I would've appreciated more a ge ...more
Dec 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The best books of 2020, the ones we'll still be reading a thousand years from now, include:
When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut Netherlands & Latin America- Chile
Epistemic doubts regarding certainty, objective reality, and the limits of knowledge; Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is a philosophical meditation and a novel of obscure associations constructed as a cinematic montage or a set of puzzle boxes linked by strings of images and motifs.
Oct 28, 2020 rated it liked it
In the 1970s science broadcasterJames Burke wrote and presented a TV series called Connections in which he sought to identify linked chains of technological and scientific development across history. In When we Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut starts with the same concept but then adds a veneer of fiction which borrows greatly from the gothic imagination of Mary Shelley.

The book consists of five interlinked short stories, in the last of which the author draws metaphorical conclusi
Tom Evans
Dec 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
A really special little book.
In the beginning, I wasn’t quite certain how I would feel about it, the premise having been one that so excited me.
However, the more I read (and this process was swift) the more I found myself wanting to give it my full attention, re-reading certain passages (something that I rarely do on a first read-through) so that I could be sure I knew what was being said, and in so-doing, doing justice to the text.
I don’t know that it matters where the fact ends and the fiction
Aug 12, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: arcs, science, translation
This is a Spanish translation by a Chilean author. The books starts out with a chronicle of facts about suicides following WWII, which, needless to say, was hard going! Within this though, are interesting scientific facts which caught the beginning of my interest: 40% of humanity do not possess the gene to distinguish the aroma of almonds given off by cyanide; that same poison is a by-product of the pigment beloved by artists; Prussian Blue. Fascinating. I was very quickly awed by the ingenious ...more
Nov 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal. Problematic and oversimplified at one moment and hellishly complicated the next but phenomenal. Really in a class of its own. I am so glad that I knew relatively little about this book before I dug in because I’ve never been one, in film or literature, for the genre of fictionalized history, but this book is really something. An attempt to connect disparate parts of history without coming off as a cocksure explanation of why anything happened. And probably also a metaphor for the con ...more
Hans Ostrom
One of the best books I've read in a long time. It's about the worst and best of science, particularly physics, in the 20th (and 21st) centuries, and about the scientists and mathematicians behind discoveries, as well as the bizarre linkage between (for example) the discovery of "Prussian blue," a color that rivals ultramarine in its importance to art, and Zyklon B--the Holocaust gas. The form is what makes the book--it packages the scientific and mathematical information in narratives about the ...more
Sep 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley-book
The fine line between genius and madness is a theme that runs through this collection of short stories. The image of the obsessed scientist who has looked too far or dug too deep and been burned by what he (its all about the men of science) discovered crops up frequently.
I really enjoyed this collection, especially the first story, Prussian Blue. I loved the way the author weaved science, art, history and politics into each episode. I loved the way little links cropped up between the stories an
Nov 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Wow - have never encountered a book such as this before. The author looks into the perils faced by brilliant minds as they grapple with the mystery of mathematics and physics. Many drift into madness as they uncover what they perceive as answers to the mysteries of our universe. A terrifying but intriguing book.
Ignacio Azpiazu
Oct 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book going through the lifes of not so well know scientist that have changed the course of history.
The psicological approach to the characters is phenomenal and some fiction have been required according to the author.
Curious seeing how the particle physics force the scientist to the border of madness.
Gary Homewood
Oct 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Intriguing hybrid of historical non fiction, about the development of science and mathematics in the 20th century, genius and madness, with increasing fictional extrapolation of the lives of the key physicists involved. And a short, strange biographical coda.

The utility and strangeness of quantum mechanics.
Liam Drew
Sep 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book. From the mercurial opening chapters through the later imagings of how it felt to uncover the most powerful of scientific insights, I was engrossed by this book's mesmeric rhythm and the questions it posed. ...more
dean robinson
Oct 15, 2020 rated it liked it
was intreagued by the concept and almost enjoyed it. i'd prefer it to have been all non-fiction, after all, true life has plenty of material. i felt i was getting the science third hand and i still don't understand scrodinger's cat. ...more
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I have no bloody idea what this was, but whatever, it was the best version of it ever written!
Brian Hanson
Oct 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Be aware as you read this book that William Boyd's blurb on the hardcover (you may be reading the ebook) refers to its " bravura fictional gloss", and the author himself in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book (sadistic decision, that) confesses that it is "a work of fiction based on real events", and the "quantity of fiction grows throughout the book". The science is sound, though.

None of that lessens the book's power. I just wish I hadn't had to puzzle as I read it, about where the line
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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

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