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When We Cease to Understand the World (2020)

by Benjamín Labatut

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
5612236,142 (3.98)35
"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 35 mentions

English (20)  Dutch (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (22)
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
Reveals and illuminates the often paper-thin fuzzy line between genius and madness, between dedication and obsession. This, like the people whose stories are told, is strange and wonderful, seamlessly blending nonfiction and fiction, often reading like a fever-dream, like the diaries of people who have glimpsed the disorder and chaos of the infinite, and who are profoundly changed by the experience, and whose observations have profoundly changed our world. This book is a wild and immersive ride, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. ( )
  RandyRasa | Sep 1, 2022 |
While I was reading it, and even after I’d finished, this book had me wondering. Where was the line between fiction and non-fiction? And was my reading of the book consistent with the author’s intentions?

Before I pursue those questions, I should say a few words about the book. It’s a series of five vignettes, hybrids of fact and imagination, about actual scientists and mathematicians. Although it begins by reaching back a few centuries, for the most part these men worked in the 20th century. In Labatut’s interpretation, their revolutionary work stemmed from, or triggered, deep personal crises. On another level, Labutat describes how much of this work also contributed to catastrophic consequences for mankind as it was adapted for military purposes.

I found a straightforward answer to the first question online. The initial piece, an essay about the scientific pathways to the development of cyanide, ending with Fritz Haber, is non-fictional except for one paragraph. From then on the balance changes. The factual framework remains in place, but there is a substantial amount of conjecture by Labutat about the inner lives of Schwarzschild, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, and Grothendieck. Einstein, Bohr and others make appearances as their work and opinions intersect but they are not center stage.

And what is Labutat’s message? Not, I think, simply that scientific and mathematical advances don’t necessarily equate to progress, although he’s clear on that point. No, he seems more interested in that gray space between genius and insanity. And of the sometimes terrifying potential of those advances to disrupt our sense of the logic of the world, leaving us unmoored, staring into the abyss.

Beautifully written. A worthy contender for the National Book Aware and International Booker. It reminded me in structure of Tokarczuk’s [b:Flights|36885304|Flights|Olga Tokarczuk|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1512417961l/36885304._SX50_.jpg|2014747], a far more positive book, and one which rates a half-star about this. ( )
  BarbKBooks | Aug 15, 2022 |
A work of fiction based on the lives of real men, all of whom were mathematical and scientific minds of the first kind, indeed geniuses. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schwarzschild, Schrödinger, and others depicted as they conjure up new understandings of how the universe works. Quantum physics and the basic workings of atoms, waves, and particles. Labatut, presents their world in a dizzying tale of theories, dreams, nightmares bordering on psychotic episodes.

“Schwarzschild complains of something strange that has begun to grow inside him: ‘I don’t know how to name or define it, but it has an irrepressible force and darkens all my thoughts. It is a void without form or dimension, a shadow I can’t see, but one that I can feel with the entirety of my soul’”.

In the end this is a fascinating unique mesmerizing work of fiction based on the lives of geniuses who dared explore the very essence of life and existence. ( )
  berthirsch | Jul 30, 2022 |
Toca temas que me interesan, asombran. Muy entretenido. Pasa de una historia a otra muy rápido. ( )
  Alvaritogn | Jul 1, 2022 |
An interesting collection of stories, but I'm not sure it would appeal to someone who didn't have some background in mathematics and physics. I wish this work did not serve to perpetuate the view that geniuses are always eccentric and not in touch with reality, even as the stories focus on the attempts of these geniuses to excavate to the bedrock of reality. And of course, the more they dig to find that bedrock, the further they distance themselves from the surface of reality that is so important for day-to-day functioning as a human being. My only quibble with this work is the occasional use of coarse language and descriptions of autoeroticism. In both cases, when they appear they are both jarring and distracting and serve no important function. ( )
  MarkLacy | May 29, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 20 (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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