‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ by Benjamin Labatut (Review – IBP 2021, Number Ten)

After a short break for other things, we’re back on the road today, and even if our most recent International Booker Prize longlist journey, taking us back in time to an era of revolt, may not have been to everyone’s liking, that isn’t stopping us from heading back to the time machine today for another history lesson.  This time around, though, we’re focusing less on one person than on an idea, and today’s choice will be taking us from time to time, and place to place, as we attempt to work out what it’s all about.  What, exactly?  Well, the world, of course…

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut
– Pushkin Press, translated by Adrian Nathan West
(digital review copy courtesy of the publisher)

What’s it all about?
Labtatut’s book comprises a series of short pieces, each introducing one or two famous scientists and their struggles to advance human knowledge, even at the cost of their own health (not to mention their sanity).  The reader is taken all over the world, learning about the mysteries of quantum physics, chemistry and advanced mathematics, which may sound a bit much for such a short book.  Don’t worry, though – you’re in safe hands here, and it’s more of a beginner’s guide to science than any advanced course.

What the writer is really concerned with, though, is the consequences of the human race’s thirst for knowledge and desire for progress.  While the handful of geniuses featured in the novel expand the boundaries of human understanding, the cost isn’t always restricted to those making the discoveries.  Artificial fertiliser was undoubtedly a much-needed breakthrough, but we probably could have done without mustard gas, another brainwave from the same man.  And as we push further into the unknown, both the risks and rewards become ever greater, leaving us to wonder whether it might be better for humans not to meddle with things we don’t really understand.

When We Cease to Understand the World is a fascinating book, with a compelling series of short pieces that jump around in time.  Labatut uses history, and the backstories of those who shaped it, to support his central theme of the dark side of progress, setting out his case in the form of this series of warnings.  In terms of structure, it’s reminiscent of Luis Sagasti’s Fireflies in the way it jumps around between historical figures; however, Labatut’s take on the world is far darker, and much more pessimistic.

From the first piece, ‘Prussian Blue’, it’s clear to see where the writer is taking us.  Starting with mentions of the wave of suicides that crashed over the defeated Germany at the end of the Second World War, the story goes on to connect the cyanide used with the synthetic pigment Prussian Blue (a boon for all artists), but also with Zyklon-A, a slightly less welcome invention.  We then move on to ‘Schwarzschild’s Singularity’, in which a physicist unravels the secrets of the universe, but is also subject to terrible premonitions:

If matter were prone to birthing monsters of this kind, Schwarzschild asked with a trembling voice, were there correlations with the human psyche? Could a sufficient concentration of human will — millions of people exploited for a single end with their minds compressed into the same psychic space — unleash something comparable to the singularity? Schwarzschild was convinced that such a thing was not only possible, but was actually taking place in the Fatherland.
‘Schwarzschild’s Singularity’ p.56 (Pushkin Press, 2020)

Alas, the longest piece, ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’, only serves to prove Schwarzschild right.  Exploring the lives and thoughts of two German-speaking scientists, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, this section jumps between the two men as they come up with very different ways of describing the subatomic realm.  Strangely enough, both were to be proved right, in a way, but their work, undertaken to further human knowledge of the universe, also came to threaten our world, leading to the first atomic bombs.

A major theme of the book, then, is the inherent risk involved in scientific research, and this is summed up nicely in the closing piece, ‘The Night Gardener’, where a retired mathematician muses on the dangers of exploring the mysteries of the universe:

“Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.”
‘The Night Gardener’, p.187

Surely, given the risks involved, it’s better not to meddle?  Unfortunately, human curiosity usually gets the better of us, and few have the ability, or the desire, to step back before it’s too late, but the remaining story, ‘The Heart of the Heart’, is the odd one out.  Here we learn about the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, and his realisation that the pure wonders of maths are being used to bloody ends.  In an unexpected twist, he runs away, turning his back on it all, asking only that he be left in peace – and that his work be destroyed…

A common thread linking all the scientists featured in the novel is the effect of deep thought on minds pushing at the edges of human knowledge.  Most of the geniuses here suffer for their successes, both physically and mentally, yet even as they’re falling apart from overwork and sheer neglect, they’re determined to pursue a thought, or complete a theorem, even at the expense of their sanity.  As someone who struggles to get out of bed in the morning (and has been putting off writing this review for days now…), I do find it hard to empathise fully with their obsession, yet Labatut describes it perfectly, showing us a group of people determined to crack the code of reality, or die trying.

When We Cease to Understand the World is certainly an enjoyable read, and I was more than happy to put myself in Labatut’s hands as he carefully guides us through the sketches.  In each section, fact leads to fact, with a Sebaldian progression of seemingly unrelated details gradually building to a coherent whole.  I’m not convinced that the book could really be described as fiction (let’s say fictionalised), but there are passages where the writer is certainly using his imagination.  This is probably most apparent in the longest piece as we see Labatut abandoning facts to speculate, describing Heisenberg’s torture as he lies sick in bed, fighting against those who want him to see a doctor – and perhaps lose his chance at solving the mysteries of the subatomic realm forever.

Labatut’s work is certainly an engrossing read, but also a sobering one, as we are forced to acknowledge that while scientific advances might bring benefits, they also throw up great risks.  If there’s a point the writer is trying to make, it’s that every now and then it’s important to take a step back and ask what it’s all for.  Progress is a fine word, much thrown about, but progress towards what?  Is there a destination?  And if so, do we really want to get there?  I suspect that’s something Labatut is dubious about…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Definitely.  Labatut’s book was mentioned frequently before the longlist announcement as a possible contender, and dissenting voices have been few and far between.  This is one I enjoyed immensely (although I do regret not having a paper copy as that would have made the reading experience even better), and it’ll be near the top of my list when we come to thrash out who takes the main prize.

And yet…  All of this was written after my first read, and after revisiting the book, I’m not quite as convinced.  In truth, the second run-through made the non-fiction nature of the book stand out more, and it seemed a plainer, duller novel than I remembered.  It’s still good, still one of the best of the year’s longlister’s, but it’s slidden down my rankings ever so slightly.

Why did it make the shortlist?
Because it’s very good, of course, and because the opposition isn’t really as strong as it might be.  The truth is that that this is one of the few real contenders for this year’s prize, and I’d guess that it will be vying with the likes of In Memory of Memory and At Night All Blood is Black for the big lump of glass.

Then again, a quick look at my predictions post will tell you that my guesses are not to be trusted 😉

Well, we still have no clue what makes the world go round, despite Labatut’s best efforts to teach us, but our time here has run out, and we need to get moving towards our next destination – or better, destinations.  You see, next time around, we’ll be dotting around again, visiting the South Seas, Ancient Rome and the German coast in search of something we may have lost, something the writer thinks we should remember.  More memory games, then?  Come back next time to find out…


2 thoughts on “‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ by Benjamin Labatut (Review – IBP 2021, Number Ten)

  1. Nice review Tony. I just finished my second read. While I was not as “blown away” as I was at the end of my first read, it remains my number 1 choice for the win. I was taken by your focus on “progress,” I had not thought of progress as separate from the thirst for knowledge or discovery, rather I think of progress as something that might, or might not, result from the desire to explore the unknown.


    1. Linda – I think of ‘progress’ as moving towards a better life for all – and mustard gas and A-bombs certainly don’t fit the bill there!


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.