When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamin Labatut. Book report #12 (2022)

When We Cease to Understand the World, by Benjamín Labatut. Translation by Adrian Nathan West. Pub 2020

This book was an impulse purchase. At the bookstore to collect some books for work, I overheard the clerk telling another customer about this one and was intrigued by her effusive praise for the strange science and compelling stories. I thought it might make a good gift book for someone (and so an allowable purchase within my tsundoku rules), so I added it to my pile for purchase. The book is slim – 185 pages – and so I decided to read it myself first, in case the clerk was strange and the book a dud. She may have been, but the book is not. I finished it in just three evenings.

The book defies clear categorization, which I think is part of its own meta-purpose. Consisting essentially of three short stories, a novella, and a memoir-essay, the overall subjects are physics and math, but with healthy helpings of philosophy, biography, and history. Described by the author as “a work of fiction based on real events”, a better description coined by another reviewer is “nonfiction novel”; but even that doesn’t do it for me, too reminiscent of true crime (e.g. In Cold Blood)or historical fiction (e.g. Wolf Hall). The people – familiar figures including Heisenberg and Schrödinger, and lesser-knowns like Schwartzschild and Grothendieck – the theories, most of the dates and places – all of these are real, so it would be disingenuous to call it fiction; at the same time, Labatut incorporates fictional elements to the stories – things that either could not possibly be true or at least not known to anyone – that bring character and depth to the brilliant people that populate the stories.

The questions answered and then raised are fascinating, most around the idea of there being a line in scientific exploration that, once crossed, leads inexorably to evil, madness, and destruction – an event horizon of a kind, the point of no return. In the search for answers that raise more questions, can any theorem or equation ever truly be solved? Or is the pursuit of that ultimate solution an exercise in futility? Is the glimpse of that truth, forever out of reach, like the elusive perfection sought by artists – more than anyone can handle, resulting in insanity or despair?

There is also the observer effect – the act of observing something changes it – and what that means for science. Can we ever really understand anything if our very work distorts what we’re studying? Or can we only ever know things that were, not anything that is or will be? This raises the interesting element of science and peer review, and the near obsession sometimes for scientists to prove that they are right and for others to acknowledge and accept (and laud) the discoverer. This is another layer of observation that perhaps introduces its own changes and interference with understanding – that the things chosen for observation are not necessarily the ones that should be studied, but the ones that are the most daring and will therefore bring the most acclaim. This is realized often in modern science, where failed experiments are rarely published, and so that knowledge is never shared or realized; those failures may provide much valuable information, especially from a precautionary perspective, but they rarely see the light of day and remain unobserved.

At the heart of many of the disputes and discussions between these brilliant men is a philosophy (or even religion) rarely acknowledged by scientists: that there is an element of belief – doctrine or faith even – that is required to pursue questions about the essential elements of life. To explore the essences of time, space, matter, motion, light, and being, these scientists required some givens, some known or believed truths from which to explore the unknown. Like fanatics whose faith is challenged or tested or upended entirely, we see in these stories men whose essential truths are exposed by questions to being questionable, a circumstance that understandably drives some to madness and others to try hiding the truth – putting things back into the box and pretend they’re not there. But the contents of Pandora’s box, once released, cannot be put back; once a thing is known, without doublethink, it cannot be unknown. And so, the observer effect works on both the observer and the observed, changing both irrevocably. Curiosity kills Schrödinger’s cat.

So much uncertainty. And yet it also seems to be an essential part of human nature to want to know anything and everything. Thus, the pursuit will go on.

The questions raised through these stories about men who have (mostly) long since died reminded me of passages from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, especially:

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” –
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”
And this, and so much more? –
It is impossible to say what I mean!

I did enjoy this book – a lot. It is well written, thought provoking, complex without being confusing, and presents complicated subject matter in ways that are accessible without being superficial. If there were more of Labatut’s books available in English, I would seek them out.

Fate: this book will go to the afore-mentioned friend. I’m unlikely to read this again but will seek out similar books and will thank the clerk for her recommendation (and maybe ask for a few more).

13 – set in places I’ve never been (including Germany, Austria, Denmark, Japan, Switzerland, South of France, and Chile)
21 – a book translated from (or in) another language
25 – a book by an author I’ve never read
26 – a non-fiction book about science (I’ve included this, as there is a lot of non-fiction science in this book)

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