When We Cease to Understand the World

When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about ideas that defy comprehension told in a way that defies categorization.

It’s written by Benjamin Labatut, a Chilean writer born in Rotterdam in 1980. This is his third book, and the first to be translated into English. The book got a big boost when Barack Obama included it on his 2021 summer reading list.

Cover of When We Cease to Understand the World showing a pattern of branching neurons

When We Cease to Understand the World
By Benjamin Labatut; translated by Adrian Nathan West
New York Review Books, New York, 2020

At the most simplistic level, When We Cease to Understand the World is a collection of short stories about some of the 20th Century’s greatest scientists and mathematicians.

For example, there’s the story of Karl Schwarzschild, the astronomer and physicist who found the first exact solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity just one month after Einstein had published them. Miraculously, Schwarzschild worked out the solution while commanding a German artillery unit on the Russian front during World War I amid mortar explosions and poison gas attacks. What Schwarzschild discovered was the mathematics of black holes. His calculations showed that inside a black hole space would curve in on itself and become permanently cut off from the rest of the universe. Even light could not escape from such a place.

Labatut tells the story of Alexander Grothendieck, considered by many to be the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century, who delved deep, deep into the foundations of mathematics. Grothendieck, and the many mathematicians whom he recruited to his project, was looking for fundamental concepts, abstractions, mathematical stem cells if you like, that formed the basis of all of mathematics. He sought and perhaps glimpsed “the heart of the heart” that underlay it all. 

The centerpiece of the book is a novella about Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, two rival Nobel physicists whose work established quantum mechanics.

Heisenberg is best known for his uncertainty principle, the idea that there are limits to the accuracy with which we can predict certain properties of particles, such as their position and momentum.

The uncertainty principle shattered the idea of determinism, the idea that the universe and everything in it run like clockwork, obeying physical laws, most importantly the law of cause and effect. Heisenberg put an end to the dream of scientists since Newton that by discovering nature’s laws, humans could eventually explain and even predict any phenomenon in the universe. As Labatut tells it:

“Those hopes were shattered in light of Heisenberg’s discovery: what was beyond our grasp was neither the future nor the past, but the present itself. Not even the state of one miserable particle could be perfectly apprehended. However much we scrutinized the fundamentals, there would always be something vague, undetermined, uncertain, as if reality allowed us to perceive the world with crystalline clarity with one eye at a time, but never with both.” [p. 161-162]

Schrödinger, meanwhile, is most famous, in popular culture anyway, for Schrödinger’s Cat, a thought experiment he created to demonstrate one of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, namely that a cat held inside a specially constructed box could be considered simultaneously both dead and not dead.

As far as I can tell, the stories accurately reflect the broad biographical outlines and scientific accomplishments of each of these men, and they’re all men. But Labatut fills in the details with imaginative fictional accounts of how they lived and how they made their stunning discoveries.

A common theme is that the pursuit of new knowledge took these men into madness. In Labatut’s telling they often spent weeks working in isolation, hardly sleeping or eating, sometimes suffering various physical and mental illnesses, occasionally delirious. They took enormous creative leaps or ascended to dizzying heights of abstraction that led to theories which they often could not fully explain to themselves or anyone else. How could anyone explain that time doesn’t exist inside a black hole? Or that the location of an electron isn’t a position in space, but rather a probability distribution function?

This, I think, is the deeper meaning of When We Cease to Understand the World: as our scientific understanding of the universe has become more sophisticated, especially in the last one hundred years, it has become far less comprehensible. And not just to us members of the public, but to scientists themselves. It might in fact lead to madness.

In seeking to understand the world we have ceased to understand the world.

The book itself is a model for this new maddening uncertainty. Labatut deftly straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. Some might find this troubling, but maybe it’s not a line at all, and never was.

Maybe there’s a blurry grey zone where a story can be considered simultaneously both fact and fiction, not just on the page, but in our minds too.

Thanks for reading.

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