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When We Cease to Understand the World (2019)

by Benjamín Labatut

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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9974520,451 (3.95)53
"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 Schrodinger: these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Labatut's book 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 to 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, Benjamin Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible"--… (more)
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» See also 53 mentions

English (43)  Danish (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (45)
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
Obsessions with science and mathematics leads to discoveries - and at times madness. I would have preferred if this book weren't such a blend of fact - and some fiction. Would it really have been less of a great read if it were all non-fiction? ( )
  vunderbar | Feb 18, 2024 |
Benjamin Labatut's short collection of stories about troubled or troubling scientists and mathematicians, and the ways in which the edges of our intellectual grasp of this universe can disturb us profoundly, is an odd probability cloud of fact and fiction. Using clear language and vivid anecdote to make compelling portraits, Labatut both reports and imagines the tortured thinking and sometimes tragic consequences involved in discovering the chemistry of ammonia and cyanide production, the all-consuming singularity threshold of black holes, the hidden mysteries of number theory, and the ambiguity of sub-atomic particles. Death and suicide circle around these lives and ideas, whether by poison, hanging, disease, genocide, armed combat or nuclear holocaust.

Along the way, Labatut intersperses an encyclopaedic account of these men (and they are all men) and their ideas with his own imaginative and often mystical or erotic threads of plot and dialogue, providing a kind of intimacy you won't find in the history books. In that sense, it's unclear if his writing is - to borrow some of his protagonists' metaphors - a wave or a particle. Like Werner Heisenberg, as observers we can't know both the veracity and insight of Labatut's writing at the same time.

However, we do know that he fails to solve the obscure equations entwining imagination and reality in our minds. By the end of this slim volume, it is only clear that we have yet to understand the world and our fellow humans and may never do so. Without being able to know exactly where we are ontologically, his implication is that we can never predict the outcomes of our knowledge, or the horrors that may result. He may also be hinting that - like stars falling past the point of no return - 'when we cease to understand' we're already too far into a black hole to escape the effects of our ignorance.

Having been whisked through the lives and misadventures of Fritz Haber, Erwin Schrodinger, Karl Schwarzschild, Alexander Grothendieck and others, we are really none the wiser to explain - in a final chapter closer to home for Labatut himself - why dogs are poisoned or lemon trees die with a final upsurge of fecundity. Like the author, perhaps all we can do is hug those closest to us as hard as we can. ( )
  breathslow | Jan 27, 2024 |
I wasn’t impressed with the way Labatut mixed the facts with the fiction. Otherwise, could have been an interesting overview of 20th century science, its successes and its faults. ( )
  VictorHalfwit | Dec 12, 2023 |
Really very good. Fascinating history and fictionalized account of how physics proved our inability to ever understand the world (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle proving that we can never know the whole. Any part that is pinned down necessarily drives other aspects away) we can not grasp it. The closing chapter, swinging out to the author’s own minor experience with a former mathematician’s rejection of the world (the math world at least—he is a night gardener) is very good. The lemon tree, dying from a last excess of abundance does a nice job of forecasting humanity. Do we know when the lemon tree will die in this excess of bounty? Not unless we cut it open. But who would want to do that? Who indeed.
  BookyMaven | Dec 6, 2023 |
Definitely more than a little weird. ( )
  quavmo | Oct 26, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
 

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Labatut, Benjamínprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
West, Adrian NathanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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We rise, we fall. We may rise by falling. Defeat shapes us. Our only wisdom is tragic, known too late, and only to the lost.
Guy Davenport
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In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremburg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Göring's fingers and toes stained a furious red, the consequence of his addiction to dihydrocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day.
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If everything that occurred was the direct consequence of a prior state, then merely by looking at the present and running the equations it would be possible to achieve a godlike knowledge of the universe. These 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.
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"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 Schrodinger: these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Labatut's book 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 to 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, Benjamin Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible"--

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