When We Cease to Understand the World review: Haunting and astonishing

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Benjamin Labatut’s haunting, astonishing When We Cease to Understand the World, the Vox Book Club’s pick for March, is a book of cosmic awe and cosmic horror. Again and again, it spirals around the connections between science and madness, science and beauty, science and war.

Labatut establishes his framework in the first of five disconnected chapters, each of which incorporates progressively more fiction into its largely nonfiction narrative. In his opening pages, he teases out the connections between the dye that creates Prussian blue — “a blue of such beauty that [its inventor] thought he had discovered hsbd-iryt, the original color of the sky” — and its lethal byproduct, cyanide. Cyanide would be the basis of Zyklon B, the poisonous gas used in Nazi death camps, and in Auschwitz, Labatut tells us, certain bricks are still stained Prussian blue by the gas. It was as if, he muses, “something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence: a fault, a shadow, an existential stain.” Perhaps the stain was left behind by the alchemist whose chemical compounds provided the basis of Prussian blue, Labatut suggests, because the man was infamous for the extreme cruelty of his animal experiments.

This binary provides the basis for how scientific experiments work in this book. They are profoundly beautiful — and Labatut draws out that beauty in exquisite prose, nicely translated from the original Spanish by Adrian Nathan West — and they are also cruel, even violent. They reshape the world, and human nature itself. They fomented war. They push us to the edge of apocalypse.

We see that binary recur in the second chapter, when the German astronomer and army lieutenant Karl Schwarzschild uses Einstein’s equations for general relativity to theorize for the first time the existence of a black hole, containing at its center a point he called the singularity. Rendered in Labatut’s hallucinatory sentences, Schwarzschild’s singularity becomes both an object of monstrous beauty — a rip in the fabric of spacetime created when a giant star collapses, resulting in a point where “the equations of general relativity went mad: time froze, space coiled around itself like a serpent” — and a metaphor for the oncoming destruction of the 20th century.

Schwarzschild, fighting in the trenches of World War I as he develops his theory, is tormented by the “metaphysical delirium” his equations have conjured up. Labatut places him in a military hospital, ranting about the horrors of the singularity.

“If matter were prone to birthing monsters of this kind,” the fictionalized Schwarzschild asks, “were there correlations with the human psyche? Could a sufficient concentration of human will — millions of people exploited for a single end with their minds compressed into the same psychic space — unleash something comparable to the singularity?”

The singularity here is horrifying because it deforms our understanding of the fabric of the universe; it makes plain that the universe contains objects our minds cannot fully comprehend. It is also horrifying because it shows us the way our minds, too, can be deformed, pressed by some enormous and awful will into a monstrosity — which, here, becomes Nazi Germany.

Scientific discoveries can also, more concretely, become immensely destructive weapons. “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,” warns Grothendieck, one of the characters at the center of the third chapter. He’s a theoretical mathematician who pursues a “strange entity located at the crux of the mathematical universe” and then, having glimpsed it, renounces mathematics as the engine of mankind’s inevitable destruction.

The equations that split the atom are at the center of the fourth chapter, where we see Heisenberg and Schrödinger dueling over their understanding of the electron. Schrödinger sees electrons as waves, comprehensible and fully compatible with existing laws of physics. Heisenberg, however, argues that at the subatomic level, Newtonian physics no longer accurately describes the world: matter is both particle and wave, and the very act of measuring it changes it. Heisenberg wins the debate, but not before experiencing a vision of the nuclear bomb his work will birth. And it’s not exactly clear, in this book, that the bomb is any more destructive than the scientific theory that made it possible.

Labatut gives the last word to a character he calls the night gardener. Like Grothendieck, the night gardener is a former mathematician who renounced his calling him. It was because, he declares, of “the sudden realization that 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 of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant.”

If Heisenberg is right, and there is no stable external reality we can measure objectively, if the world we sense and describe with our small human brains is in some way a collectively agreed-upon fiction, if reality on a fundamental level simply does not exist , if we have entirely ceased to understand the world — well, what does that mean for us as human beings? If we cannot understand the world, can we understand ourselves?

Labatut seems to fear that the answer is no. In this book, violence — physical, political, spiritual — is set within the process of scientific discovery, relentless and eternal, like a Prussian blue stain. We have crossed the Schwarzschild radius, and now there is no escape for us.

Share your thoughts on When We Cease to Understand the World in the comments section below, and be sure to RSVP for our upcoming live discussion event with Benjamín Labatut. We’ll also be talking about the scientific concepts of this book on unexplainablehitting your podcast feeds on April 13. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

discussion questions

  1. It’s hard to avoid noticing that this is a very male and very European cast of scientists. Personally, I would have liked to see Marie Curie featured here. Do you have a good addition to the pantheon?
  2. Because of the blurriness between fact and fiction in this book, Labatut gets away with a lot of “that can’t possibly be true!” moments that you can look up later and realize are, in fact, true, even though in a pure novel they could easily feel too gothic to bear. Which one was your favourite? I have a fondness for the image of the silkworm farms all across Germany.
  3. Speaking of that fact-and-fiction blurriness: How did it work for you here? I’ve spoken to some readers who found it annoying and smug, and the New Yorker frets that it was irresponsible. For me, the mixture was effectively destabilizing, and it helped provide a narrative spine for all these heady philosophical concepts. What about you?
  4. Labatut seems to suggest that mysticism would offer us a more holistic and human way of understanding the world than that offered by mathematics and science. agree? Disagree?
  5. Does reality exist?
  6. If it doesn’t, what does it mean for us as human beings?
  7. Have we ceased to understand the world?

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