When We Cease to Understand the World
One of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2021
Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize and the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Literature
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 Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut 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 for 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, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.
Reading like an episodic digest, Chilean writer Labatut's stylish English-language debut offers an embellished, heretical, and thoroughly engrossing account of the personalities and creative madness that gave rise to some of the 20th century's greatest scientific discoveries. Labatut begins with Prussian blue, the first synthetic pigment, created by alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel, and links it to the evolution of modern industrial poisons and the life of WWI German chemist Fritz Haber. Labatut then follows Alexander Grothendieck, the reclusive French mathematician whose political and spiritual inclinations led him to a life of monklike sequestration, before dramatizing the long battle between Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schr dinger over the future of quantum physics. Labatut, like his single-minded, sometimes nearly demented protagonists, is interested in the underlying nature of things; his subject is the all-consuming human drive to discover, and the danger therein, which he explores with literary but never pretentious prose, impressively translated by West (on Prussian blue: "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"). Hard to pin down and all the more enjoyable for it, this unique work is one to be savored.
Ignore the bad reviews
You either get it or you don’t. If you’re the type who normally gets it, you will. If not, you probably won’t.
Enlightening, Dark, Gripping and Profound
An excellent read that kept me intrigued for 3 days straight, I feel as if I have to read it a few more times to come to terms with what was conveyed.
Not that great
Once I found out that part of this book is fiction I wondered what the heck did I just read. Weird sexual fantasies about young girls and bizarre drug trips. The NYT recommended this book. I say it’s quasi pornographic. It may have some truths but who knows what those are.