When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut. Translated by Adrian Nathan West. New York: New York Review of Books, 2020, $17.95, pp. 192.
I do not know madness even from afar, but since I was a child, I always had the suspicion that there was something fundamentally twisted, something very extraordinary just under the skin of things.
A writer who has endured the long, dark night of an existential crisis, Benjamín Labatut is captivated by profound cosmic mysteries. His recent and highly acclaimed book, When We Cease to Understand the World (translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West), is a genre-bending literary experiment, somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, that recounts the agonies and ecstasies of twentieth century physics using a series of interconnected episodes, each more imaginatively embellished than its precursor. Labatut presents biographical snapshots of intellectual giants—chemists, mathematicians, and physicists such as Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger—whose work revolutionized our understanding of the universe, revealed maddening enigmas, and opened a Pandora’s box of cataclysmic horrors. This hybrid of storytelling and scientific history, which develops at a frenetic pace and then ends with an intriguing first-person narrative, is far more than the sum of its parts. The historical narrative is the crucial substrate, but the imaginative approach to the philosophical ideas that precipitate from the book’s synergy of content and form achieves true alchemy.
Labatut describes his book as “a series of meditations on what is abysmal… those parts of knowledge, of scientific knowledge, that we still haven’t understood.” He begins with a fateful episode: the luminous pigment known as Prussian blue, which was highly celebrated in European art, was key in the inadvertent discovery of cyanide in 1782; this was the key ingredient in Zyklon B, the potent poison used in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany and in the capsules used for tactical suicide (including Hitler’s). Labatut pairs this with a similar instance involving the weaponized toxins related to the production of a highly beneficial nitrogenous fertilizer, initiating a recurrent theme in the book: the pursuit of scientific enlightenment has a dark side; major discoveries have perpetuated death and destruction. Ashes from beauty–literally and metaphorically.
After “Prussian Blue,” a historical account that ends with a mere paragraph of fictional content, Labatut turns to the predominant historical vehicle of his project: the twentieth century physics revolution. “Schwarzschild’s Singularity” tells the story of Karl Schwarzschild (1873–1916), the mathematician, astronomer, and physicist who was the first to formulate an exact solution to the equations of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. One of the theoretical ramifications of the solution was unsettling: if massive enough, a collapsing star would become so compressed that the resulting gravitational force would cause an infinite curvature of spacetime, a singularity at which the very laws of physics become meaningless—an inescapable and unknowable abyss. This is Labatut’s premier philosophical theme: the fundamental inscrutability that underlies known reality. As humankind has made progress in mathematical and scientific knowledge, deeper-level mysteries have emerged. In a dovetailing short story, “The Heart of the Heart,” Labatut interweaves both of the aforementioned themes in the account of Alexander Grothendieck (1928–2014), who zealously sought, but failed to find, a unifying principle for all of mathematics, and retreated to obscurity after a portent of mathematics-driven annihilation.
Heisenberg (1901–1976) and Schrödinger (1886–1961), the subjects of the subsequent novella from which the entire book takes its name, labored for years to solve the mathematical riddle of quantum mechanics, to precisely characterize the subatomic world in which particles behave as waves from one perspective but as discrete particles from another, and in which obtaining an electron’s velocity and location is a frustrating either-or scenario. Labatut portrays Heisenberg and Schrödinger’s intellectual travails as harrowing journeys marked with fever- and drug-induced hallucinations, as well as work frenzies which drove them to the brink of insanity. Many of the details (some quite vile) are wholly contrived, but complete historical veridicality is not the objective; rather, Labatut imaginatively leads the reader to understand the gravity of unknowability. The brilliant minds of the physics revolution may have unlocked some of nature’s secrets, but they also discovered locked doors devoid of keyholes.
As Labatut illustrates, a primary assumption made by Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein, and others in their field was that the universe is a proper cosmos—a harmonious, interconnected whole that operates according to a mathematical schematic that theorists today call a Grand Unified Theory. In one passage, Heisenberg wrestles with the meta-mystery of the interface of mathematics and the concrete:
What possible relation existed between those lists of abstract numbers and the concrete molecules forming the stones scattered at his feet? How could he arrive at something that resembled, if only a little, the contemporary idea of the atom, starting from his rows and tables more befitting a lowly accountant than a proper physicist?
Equations model fundamental reality–but why? It might be said that mathematics plays the role of a quasi-divinity throughout the narrative. It is omnipresent and, in a way, omnipotent; it is the Promethean fire that makes physics possible; it defies comprehensive human understanding but has apocalyptic potentiality.
Hinting at the fact that the field of quantum mechanics ushered in the Atomic Age, Labatut creates an eerie premonition for a drugged Heisenberg: “Countless men and women with slanted eyes, their bodies sculpted of soot and ash” reaching towards him as if trying to warn him, then a blinding explosion that decimates them all. Once again, the theme of discovery yielding destruction comes to the fore, but Labatut ends the subsection with an ominous allusion, rather than a revelation about Heisenberg’s leading role in Germany’s atomic bomb project.
When We Cease to Understand the World resists categorization, and this is a considerable part of its appeal. It exhibits a significant level of literary artistry in that the very form of the narrative embodies the ideas explored through language. With each section, the fictional content increases, with a few moments of intense surrealism, suggesting the ambiguities and vertigo-inducing enigmas physics has revealed. Readers should be forewarned that there is a scene involving shockingly grotesque hallucinatory imagery and there are a few mentions of sexual self-gratification and defecation (content that seems superfluous to the narrative). The final section, “The Night Gardener,” initially seems like a strangely dissonant coda, but, like the rest of the book, it is more than meets the eye. In a keenly personal reflection, Labatut explores the finitude of life: an old, dying tree, decaying dog carcasses, parasitic vines with radiant red blooms slowly choking another tree belonging to a suicide, and the inevitable demise of his own lemon tree at some future time. It is a macabre yet entrancing closing meditation on the ultimate unknown: what lies beyond the veil of death. It is a poignant glimpse into a soul contemplating the ultimate abyss, without an inkling of the transcendent.
Melissa Cain Travis, Ph.D serves as the Distinguished Fellow of Great Books and Philosophy at Southeastern University and Affiliate Faculty at Colorado Christian University. She is the author of Thinking God’s Thoughts: Johannes Kepler and the Miracle of Cosmic Comprehensibility (forthcoming, 2023) and Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals About God (Harvest House, 2018).
“Benjamín Labatut and the blows that we are not able to understand,” Fahrenheit Magazine, January 5, 2022., https://fahrenheitmagazine.com/en/modern-art/letters/Benjamin-Labatut-and-the-blows-that-we-are-not-able-to-understand#view-1. ↑
Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World (New York: New York Review of Books, 2020), 98. ↑