A review of Benjamin Labatut’s award-nominated collection.
They are well-worn clichés: the scientist as tortured genius; the idiot savant who peers unblinkingly into the secrets of the universe while forgetting to eat or bathe; or, at the most superficial, scientists as hopeless nerds, whip-smart but clueless when it comes to “regular” people and their quotidian concerns. (The Big Bang Theory made plenty of gold—if not comic gold—for twelve seasons on such tropes.)
But there are some dark truths underlying these ideas. Science can be soul-crushingly competitive, mentally and physically exhausting, and morally irreconcilable. Just ask the men and women who developed the atomic bomb, bringing an end to World War II by vaporizing tens of thousands in an instant; or the chemists of a generation earlier who developed conventional explosives and poisonous gases that murdered and maimed on a scale previously unthinkable. Of course, those same scientists made possible near-miraculous medical treatments, harnessed the atom to electrify cities, and invented fertilizers to feed millions who otherwise would have starved. But science itself is simply the process of acquiring knowledge, but not necessarily wisdom. No wonder science occasionally unhorses her most passionate adherents.
This difficult aspect of science has been explored a thousand times, both in fiction and non-fiction, but never so poetically or so powerfully as in Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, a collection of short works that was short-listed for the 2021 International Booker Prize. Labatut is a celebrated Chilean writer; WWCTUTW is his first work published in the United States, translated from the original Spanish by Adrian Nathan West.
I describe the pieces of Labatut’s book as “works” because they are difficult to categorize. These are neither short fictions nor essays in the strictest sense. Labatut advises that this book is “a work of fiction based on real events. The quantity of fiction grows throughout the book…” So, these stories use real history and real science as jumping off points, blending in increasing doses of imagination, de-emphasizing pure facts in order to expose deeper truths.
In “Prussian Blue,” Labatut meditates on the irony that the same marvelous chemistry that sparked a revolution in synthetic dyes also led to the development of the poisonous gases deployed with such cruelty in the trenches of World War I, as well as Zyklon-B, the cyanide-based pesticide the Nazis used to exterminate millions of Jews during the Holocaust. Speaking of World War I… in “Schwarzschild’s Singularity,” Albert Einstein receives an unexpected letter from a front-line artillery commander (who also happens to be a brilliant physicist and astronomer) who uses Einstein’s newly revealed principles of general relativity to theorize the terrifying existence of black holes. “The Heart of the Heart” explores the unlikely connections between two mathematicians—one Japanese, one German-French—who are both brilliant but suffer from personal demons. “When We Cease to Understand the World,” by far the longest section of the book, delves into the lives of Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they battle their personal demons and each other over how to describe the weird, counter-intuitive world of quantum mechanics.
This book is a beautiful reading experience, but it can be frustrating for lay readers who want to know where the dividing line is between the hypnotic prose and the true stories behind its powerful ideas. Labatut provides some small help via a bibliography in his Acknowledgments. When We Cease to Understand the World should serve as both an inspiration and a guidepost for those seeking to delve deeper into the history and issues surrounding mankind’s quest for knowledge.