When We Cease to Understand the World

by Benjamín Labatut

Other authorsAdrian Nathan West (Translator)
Paperback, 2021

Call number




New York Review Books (2021), 192 pages


"A fictional examination of the lives of real-life scientists and thinkers whose discoveries resulted in moral consequences beyond their imagining. When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction. Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger: these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Labatut's book thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life to the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear. At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Benjamin Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible"--… (more)

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User reviews

LibraryThing member lloydshep
Lovely in places and elegantly written but pretty faux-profound - and has a real strain of anti-science running through it which I found by turns stimulating and irritating.
LibraryThing member Dreesie
And with that I have, finally, finished the 2021 Booker International Longlist. Or at least 12 1/3 of the books.

I do not understand why people love this. I enjoyed the first and last stories, and the middle was a boring emphasis on the maybe real or maybe fictional mental and physical illnesses of
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geniuses (does a married adult man obsessed with a 16-year-old girl count as mental illness? I'm guessing no, certainly not then, but still just why did I read this?) and math and physics. None of which I understood. Nor do I care to.

Using real people as fictional characters--especially modern real people--is one of my huge pet peeves. The acknowledgements here of "yeah a lot of this is true, here's the books I used" doesn't work for me for sources. Write a biography, or write a novel with your own characters and ideas, but don't write this.

Also, a blurb on the back cover calls this a "nonfiction novel". That is an oxymoron.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
These stories of science turned into semi-fiction are very engaging, although the spell begins to wear off near the end of the (short) book. The overall picture is a bit bleak--the incredible powers of the brain to understand the universe often lead us down paths of destruction. That's life, I
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LibraryThing member john.cooper
Unlike so many books that promise to stretch the boundaries of genre, this is an easy read — which is not the same as saying that it’s a fun read. As John Banville noted in The Guardian, it’s a dystopian novel set in the present. The first chapter, which is mostly nonfiction, deals with the
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Holocaust and the interconnections between research (specifically, research into the pigments used in art and manufacturing) and application, as it develops that the cyanide compounds make the most brilliant and beautiful blue. The second, which incorporates more fiction — presumably, in the motivations and thoughts of its nonfictional characters — involves an early-twentieth century physicist literally worrying himself to death over the implications of his work on black holes, and the third deals with mathematicians similarly going insane. As the afterword explains, the level to which things are fictionalized increases with each story/chapter. The prose is vivid, with a slightly formal style that may be an artifact of the translation from Spanish to English. The book worms its way into the brain quite well.

Ultimately, I found the work not to my liking due to its depressive, almost nihilistic pessimism, and moreover, because the blend of nonfiction and fiction distracted me by making me question everything I was reading. For example, a central chapter characterizes a mathematician named Grothendieck, whose career seems so remarkable I was fairly sure he was made up. He’s not. But how much of what the book says about him is true? And what are the discoveries that the book only hints at? “One of his greatest strokes of genius,” we’re told, “was expanding the notion of the point....Where others had seen a simple locus without depth, size or breadth, Grothendieck saw an entire universe. No one had proposed something so bold since Euclid.” But what did Grothendieck propose? It seems nonsensical on its face. Nothing more is mentioned about this bold idea. We’re introduced repeatedly to similar “breakthroughs,” all completely vague, such as “the concept of motive, a ray of light capable of illuminating every conceivable incarnation of a mathematical object.” Once again, this seems like nonsense, as a ray of light can’t “illuminate” an abstract concept, which by definition cannot be “incarnated.” I don’t know if the author is simply trying to analogize mathematical ideas that can’t be explained in any other way, or what, but he might as well be talking about magic spells that demons aim at elves. It’s very frustrating. As Grothendieck goes crazy, his behavior and his concepts grow more wild. If I knew this was all fiction, I could digest it, but knowing that it’s some unknown mix of fiction and nonfiction makes it impossible for me to swallow. I don’t want to close the book thinking I know something about the real Grothendieck when I can’t trust a single thing I’ve read. Perhaps readers with less literal minds than mine, and readers who are more comfortable with nearly unsolvable ambiguities, would profit from this book much more than I.
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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
I understand why When We Cease To Understand The World (Benjamin Labatut; translated by Adrian Nathan West) landed on so many best of 2021 lists — it is unlike anything else. More nonfiction than fiction (although Labatut says in the acknowledgments “the quantity of fiction grows throughout the
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book”), it weaves together tales of the most famous mathematicians and theoretical physicists of the 20th century. The stories are weird and interesting, the science confounding and often too much for me, and the writing (and translation) beautiful. This book is not for everyone, but readers brave enough to dive in may not enjoy it but will find a uniquely fascinating book.
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LibraryThing member albertgoldfain
A unique riff on some of the key moments in modern physics and mathematics. I actually liked the fictionalized (but un-romanticized) moments, especially in the lives of Grothendieck and Schrodinger.
LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
equal parts fascinating and horrifying --and much of it completely over my head
LibraryThing member maryroberta
Excellent. Ended up re-reading sections of it and trying to map out the characters which feel different yet repetitive. Enjoyed play of ideas. Duality. Fiction and Truth. How we scratch the surface and the dangers of playing with what we don't fully understand.... So much more one could think, say,
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write about this. Outstanding.
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LibraryThing member MarkLacy
An interesting collection of stories, but I'm not sure it would appeal to someone who didn't have some background in mathematics and physics. I wish this work did not serve to perpetuate the view that geniuses are always eccentric and not in touch with reality, even as the stories focus on the
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attempts of these geniuses to excavate to the bedrock of reality. And of course, the more they dig to find that bedrock, the further they distance themselves from the surface of reality that is so important for day-to-day functioning as a human being. My only quibble with this work is the occasional use of coarse language and descriptions of autoeroticism. In both cases, when they appear they are both jarring and distracting and serve no important function.
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LibraryThing member berthirsch
A work of fiction based on the lives of real men, all of whom were mathematical and scientific minds of the first kind, indeed geniuses. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schwarzschild, Schrödinger, and others depicted as they conjure up new understandings of how the universe works. Quantum physics and
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the basic workings of atoms, waves, and particles. Labatut, presents their world in a dizzying tale of theories, dreams, nightmares bordering on psychotic episodes.

“Schwarzschild complains of something strange that has begun to grow inside him: ‘I don’t know how to name or define it, but it has an irrepressible force and darkens all my thoughts. It is a void without form or dimension, a shadow I can’t see, but one that I can feel with the entirety of my soul’”.

In the end this is a fascinating unique mesmerizing work of fiction based on the lives of geniuses who dared explore the very essence of life and existence.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
“The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions.”

This book is a mix of non-fiction and fiction. It starts off mostly non-fiction and gradually adds more fiction as it goes along. It is a mind-blowing analysis of several primary concepts in mathematics, chemistry, and
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physics, including a large section on quantum theory. It features scientists of the 20th century, such as Karl Schwarzschild, Fritz Haber, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Alexander Grothendieck. It delves inside their theories and their minds, portraying the effects of attempting to grasp and explain such complex concepts.

One of the most interesting sections is the rivalry between Heisenberg and Schrödinger, each having come up with a different approach to quantum mechanics. There are tie-ins with art and the real-world impact of scientific discoveries, both positive and negative, and how they may be used for both good and evil. It explores both genius and mental instability. I found it fascinating and noted plenty of topics for further reading.

“It was mathematics, not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare, or our climate Armageddon, which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple decades, at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant.”
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Beautiful, strange, troubling. A weird mix of fact and fiction, mostly about early 20th century mathematicians and physicists. Lovely writing, but the mix of truth and invention was disturbing.
LibraryThing member soraxtm
Wow. Now those are the stories about the geniuses. Intense
LibraryThing member stellarexplorer
Wow. Many books are great, some are even works of genius. But I don’t remember ever before feeling that a book is unique in its essence, in its very construction. This one is. To paraphrase Philip Pullman’s cover blurb, it feels like Labatut has invented a new genre. This work cleverly and
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almost diabolically blends fact and interpretation, fiction and nonfiction, in a way that is delightful and unsettling. There is a frisson of discomfort to read a reliable account of people well known to you, mostly famous and important scientists, to trust an author’s impeccable research, only to have the hairs on the back of your neck rise as you realize that the narrative has shifted into an account that didn’t take place. Or only might have taken place, so that you find yourself in the realm of neither fact nor fiction. You have been subtly taken in by a shrewd and unreliable narrator, one who is working to his own mysterious purposes.

What makes this book the richer, is that while no knowledge of the characters is required, the more you know about them, the deeper the mysteries. I have spent much time with many of the principals, as the intellectual revolution of 20th century physics has always fascinated me. Einstein of course, though he is mostly a silent partner here. Haber, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, de Broglie, Bohr: these are more than heroes to me. They are the authors of one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of humankind: the quantum revolution and quantum mechanics. A beautiful theory which yields correct results without fail. And which many would describe as inscrutable and incapable of being fully understood outside of the math.

So to put Labatut’s methods under the microscope, in a way that will spoil nothing, Fritz Haber invented the chemical warfare that introduced a heinous new method of killing during WWI. Days after its first use, his wife Clara died by suicide. One possibility historians have entertained is that the motive was her revulsion at what her husband had created. But there was no note, and the matter remains unresolved. In Labatut’s telling, Clara accuses Haber of perverting science and killing on a massive scale, and she shoots herself in the chest. Apart from the curious conviction of the narrator, Labatut here has done something fascinating yet subtle. He has taken one possibility, and by observing it, reified it. In this version, we observe their argument, and one of many possibilities is made concrete: we now have a result. In a parallel to quantum physics, a result remains in a state of possibility until observed, at which time it assumes definite characteristics. Schrodinger’s cat is both dead and alive until the box is opened. Once examined, Clara kills herself because of Haber. Brilliant, and yet the reader must work to see the parallel.

The title: When We Cease to Understand the World. What are we to make of this? Clearly quantum mechanics is the manifest topic. Perhaps the most entrenched, unassailable theory in science, and yet not understood in human terms. But Labatut has something more in mind. Like elementary particles, the very “ceasing to understand" itself has a host of possible manifestations. We know things but are ignorant of their ultimate consequences. We derive formulae but can’t follow our logic in doing so. We don’t understand our own cognitive processes in reaching conclusions. Some claim to understand things that no one else can follow, in a triumph of subjectivity. The consequences are personal and painful, not only theoretical and philosophical. Something has been lost, something that Labatut sketches out gracefully through compelling vignettes. We are disconnected from ourselves, forsaking our human way of perceiving ourselves and our environment.

Labatut has written a beautiful book. His research is impeccable. There is a longing here for a time when the world was more comprehensible. Where is the acknowledgment of our changed relationship to what and how we understand? How effectively and elegantly he expresses his lament - almost paralleling the process of the creators of quantum theory! I feel astonished at his creation of a form in which to do so. This is a work of art, and an achievement to be reckoned with.
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LibraryThing member RajivC
This book by Benjamin Labatut is outstanding. The first chapter is almost pure non-fiction. The book features stories about renowned mathematicians, physicists and chemists from the last century. He created fictionalised accounts of their lives and interactions.

However, Benjamin takes you on a
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wild ride, encourages you to think. Genius does not always bow to social convention. Sometimes, genius refuses to believe new theories and explanations. You will be witness to both kinds of behaviour in this book.

Do we understand the world? We believe we do but, when you read this book, you may ask yourself if your complacency is justified.

The book is a wild ride and will not let you off until you have reached the last page.

Don't be surprised if, at the end, you want to read the book again.
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
This is a very curious book, part history, part biography, part literature. I learned a lot. about physics and about the development of physics during the first half of the 20th Century, and the scientists who developed it.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
I've catalogued this book as both fiction and non-fiction. You decide.

Labatut structures the story around several critical scientific and mathematical advances that led to both good and bad (really bad) outcomes, and the men (yes, all men) that created them. The first chapter, based entirely on
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historical fact, concerns Fritz Haber's discovery of chlorine gas and the production of hydrogen cyanide from Prussian Blue, a dye that started the synthesis of dyes to replace expensive and rare natural substances. But he also developed the capture of nitrogen, revolutionizing farm yields to feed the world. So, crop yields, gas warfare in World War I, cyanide poison, Zyklon B - what should he be remembered for? The descriptions of gassed trench soldiers is particularly harrowing, and his indifference equally so.

The remainder of the book is more concerned with the advances in physics and mathematics, particularly centered on Heisenberg. Without a single equation, Labatut shows the reader the conundrums that deeply disturbed the atomic physics community and created quantum mechanics. His portraits of the mental states of Heisenberg, Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, Alexander Grothendieck and Shinichi Mochizuki, the latter two mathematical geniuses who ultimately gave up mathematics and, some would say, went mad, are more and more imagined as the narrative proceeds, grotesque, sometimes mystical, but always leading to both benefit and destruction, real and in the future.

Is science dangerous? Should we abandon mathematics because we are unable to comprehend its implications? Should we avoid the attempt to understand the atom? Can we really hide from these advances? The ending fantasy is almost, but not quite, sweet.
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LibraryThing member breathslow
Benjamin Labatut's short collection of stories about troubled or troubling scientists and mathematicians, and the ways in which the edges of our intellectual grasp of this universe can disturb us profoundly, is an odd probability cloud of fact and fiction. Using clear language and vivid anecdote to
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make compelling portraits, Labatut both reports and imagines the tortured thinking and sometimes tragic consequences involved in discovering the chemistry of ammonia and cyanide production, the all-consuming singularity threshold of black holes, the hidden mysteries of number theory, and the ambiguity of sub-atomic particles. Death and suicide circle around these lives and ideas, whether by poison, hanging, disease, genocide, armed combat or nuclear holocaust.

Along the way, Labatut intersperses an encyclopaedic account of these men (and they are all men) and their ideas with his own imaginative and often mystical or erotic threads of plot and dialogue, providing a kind of intimacy you won't find in the history books. In that sense, it's unclear if his writing is - to borrow some of his protagonists' metaphors - a wave or a particle. Like Werner Heisenberg, as observers we can't know both the veracity and insight of Labatut's writing at the same time.

However, we do know that he fails to solve the obscure equations entwining imagination and reality in our minds. By the end of this slim volume, it is only clear that we have yet to understand the world and our fellow humans and may never do so. Without being able to know exactly where we are ontologically, his implication is that we can never predict the outcomes of our knowledge, or the horrors that may result. He may also be hinting that - like stars falling past the point of no return - 'when we cease to understand' we're already too far into a black hole to escape the effects of our ignorance.

Having been whisked through the lives and misadventures of Fritz Haber, Erwin Schrodinger, Karl Schwarzschild, Alexander Grothendieck and others, we are really none the wiser to explain - in a final chapter closer to home for Labatut himself - why dogs are poisoned or lemon trees die with a final upsurge of fecundity. Like the author, perhaps all we can do is hug those closest to us as hard as we can.
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LibraryThing member VictorHalfwit
I wasn’t impressed with the way Labatut mixed the facts with the fiction. Otherwise, could have been an interesting overview of 20th century science, its successes and its faults.
LibraryThing member dabacon
This book is really going to bork my knowledge of the science history of Haber, Schwarzchild, Grothendieck, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, but that’s ok. A dark fiction of nonfictions, it is a book of imagined tails of these giants on the edge of discovery and disaster.

Some will be offended by
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the male genius trope, but others might consider that these are not heroes, and that science on the edge is, by definition, madness. Most scientists never get to live on this boundary, spending their lives in the cold comfort of existing structures, and Labatut captures this terrifying boundary in dense dark prose.
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LibraryThing member franoscar
Spoilers? Can there be Spoilers?
The last short chapter, "The Night Gardener" is like an epilogue, bringing the author into the work along with the night gardener who strikes me as probably a fiction. I chose not to read the graphic description of the death of the poisoned dogs. I think they are
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meant to refer back to the dogs and other animals tortured by the alchemist in the first chapter. Just like the blue pesticide.

The book is well written and disruptive of any thought of good & rational science.
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LibraryThing member pamelad
When We cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut is shortlisted for the International Booker. It is, according to Labatut, "a work of fiction based on real events......The quantity of fiction grows throughout the book......while still trying to remain faithful to the scientific
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concepts....." The book begins with chemistry, Goering's addiction to hydrocodeine, moving onto the Wehrmacht dependence on the amphetamine Pervitin, then to cyanide, a by-product of the manufacture of the first synthetic pigment, Prussian blue, and the suicides of Hitler and his staff, then to Zyklon B, the cyanide based poison used in the gas chambers. Having established the link between chemistry and war, he moves onto Fritz Haber, whose Haber-Bosch process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia was developed for making explosives during WWI, but when used to produce fertiliser led to the improved agricultural yields that have allowed the world's population to explode. Ammonia wasn't Haber's only contribution to the war effort: he masterminded gas warfare, flooding the trenches with chlorine.

The second chapter is about Karl Schwarzschild, a brilliant mathematician whose calculations, carried out while he commanded an artillery unit on the Russian front postulated the existence of black holes: the Schwarzschild singularity. The author imagines Schwarzschild's emotional state, his reaction to his discovery, Einstein's response. In the third chapter, the focus remains on mathematics, with the withdrawn Japanese mathematician Mochizuki linking to the life and work of Alexander Grothendieck, who retried at the peak of his powers to devote his life to environmental causes and religion, becoming increasingly eccentric and ascetic. Or is this the author's conjecture?

The longest section of the book covers the quantum physicists, in particular the work and rivalry of Schroedinger and Heisenberg. With Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, we cease to understand the world.

I found this book fascinating and enjoyed reading it, but where does fact end and fiction begin? What thoughts, opinions and emotions has Labatut imposed on his scientists? What dread?
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LibraryThing member krau0098
Series Info/Source: This is a stand alone book. I borrowed this on audiobook from my library.

Thoughts: This was fine. I didn't realize that this book is fictional accounts of historical scientific figures (I thought it was non-fiction). This seems to be a bit sensationalized to me. I did enjoy
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learning the history of these scientists but am left trying to sort out what was history and what was embellishment.

There is a heavy theme of mathematicians either developing theories while in fevers or going insane. The telling wandered quite a bit as well, part of this may have been because I was listening to this on audiobook rather than reading it. I would definitely recommend reading this rather than listening to it because it is hard to follow.

There was also quite the obsession with super gory details as well as odd sexual details; not sure if these were fact, fiction, or just meant to give the story more "color". All of these details seemed over the top and I felt they were over-emphasized.

A lot of the story seems to focus on how these scientific leaps lead to destruction, although in a few cases they lead to good outcomes as well. It would have been incredibly helpful to have either a foreword or afterword discussing what was fact and fiction in this book.

I listened to this on audiobook and the narration was fine. I found that the context of the stories and how they were woven together were a bit hard to follow and I think I could have followed this easier reading it rather than listening to it. You really have to pay attention and concentrate and I listen to audiobooks mainly while doing other tasks (driving, laundry, yardwork, etc).

My Summary (3/5): Overall this was okay but I honestly would have been okay not reading this as well. The fact that it is a factual sounding account of these scientists' lives but is actually fictional leaves me frustrated, especially since there are no references or account of what is fact and what is fiction. There are a ton of gory and sexual details added which seemed to outshine the scientific discoveries. At the end this felt like more of a sensationalized treatise on how insane all these clever people were than anything else. If I had known a bit more about what this book was about prior to reading it I probably wouldn't have read it. It was somewhat interesting to learn about these scientists, but I am not sure what I actually learned since this is a fictional account.
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National Book Award (Finalist — Translated Literature — 2021)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — 2021)
The Morning News Tournament of Books (Quarterfinalist — 2022)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — 2022)
The International Booker Prize (Shortlist — 2021)




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