When We Cease to Understand the World

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (translated by Adrian Nathan West) is one of the books on the International Booker long list (and now the shortlist) which seems at first to be more non-fiction than fiction. It provides a selective history of twentieth century science, dramatizing the discoveries of famous figures such as Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzchild, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, while at the same time demonstrating their intrinsic links with war and madness. However, it is the tools of the novelist which Labatut brings to this task in a fusion of discursive ideas and traditional character creation and scene setting.

The book is divided into five sections, the first of which, ‘Prussian Blue’, is the most discursive. Its focus is German chemist Fritz Haber, but it begins with Herman Goring, cyanide, Zyklon A, and the accidental discovery in the 18th century of Prussian Blue (of which cyanide is a by-product). Prussian blue is later used to colour the uniforms of the Prussian army, “as though something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence”. It is our first indication that science and war will walk hand in hand throughout the novel. Indeed, when we meet Haber he is overseeing the first gas attack of the Great War, at Ypres in 1915:

“What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive. All of the animals had come out of their holes to die.”

His wife, Clara, also a chemist, accuses him of “perverting science by devising a method for exterminating humans on an industrial scale,” and later kills herself. Haber goes on to discover a method of extracting nitrogen from air to use as fertilizer:

“Had it not been for Haber, hundreds of millions of people who until then had depended on natural fertilizers such as guano and saltpetre for their crops would have died from lack of nourishment.”

Rather than attempting to judge whether this life-saving discovery outweighs Haber’s previous use of chemicals to kill (which links directly to the Nazi death camps in which many of Haber’s relatives will later die), Labatut seems instead to be portraying science as amoral, inhuman, and indifferent to consequences. Discovery is all that matters.

This drive to discover is also highlighted in the next section when we encounter Karl Schwarzchild: “Physics was not enough for him. He aspired to the type of knowledge the alchemists had pursued.” It is 1915 and he is wrestling with Einstein’s theory of general relativity on the front line. It is here he predicts a singularity, a black hole, “an inescapable abyss permanently cut off from the rest of the universe.” From the danger scientific discoveries might pose to human life, we now encounter the damage they might cause the human mind. Physics for Schwarzchild is a search for certainty:

“Just imagine how far we have fallen into uncertainty if the human imagination cannot find a single place to lay its anchor…”

But not only can we not see the singularity (because no light can escape), “nor could our minds grasp it… Physics no longer had any meaning.” This sense that our attempts to understand are only leading us towards a dangerous incomprehension is continued with mathematician Alexander Grothendieck:

“After spending so long gazing down at the foundations of mathematics, his mind had stumbled into the abyss.”

Grothendieck retreats from mathematics, and the world in general.

The longest section of the book, which deals with Schrodinger and Heisenberg’s different interpretations of the quantum world, also emphasises the need to understand alongside the possibility that understanding may be beyond us. Schrodinger believes he has “reined in the chaos of the quantum world” whereas Heisenberg believes the answer is not as neat:

“Heisenberg understood that to apply concepts of classical physics to… a subatomic particle was sheer madness. That aspect of nature required an entirely new language.”

Heisenberg’s story is related in detail, and with the craft of a novelist, and we see, not for the first time, the relationship between obsession, illness, madness and discovery:

“In his delirium his mind would establish strange connections that allowed him to achieve direct results, foregoing any intermediate steps.”

At one point Heisenberg becomes lost in a fog, and the scene is later repeated in a dream (Labatut’s frequent use of dreams is one sign the book is not non-fiction):

“He ran without knowing where to, lost in the fog with his arms outstretched in front of him, groping in the air like a blind man.”

The dream suggests that, for all our knowledge, we are still lost, travelling blind. The danger of this is also emphasised in the dream:

“Countless men and women with slanted eyes, their bodies sculpted of soot and ash, were stretching out their arms to try and touch him.”

Labatut ends the novel with war, just as he began it, every scientific discovery within interlinked with atrocity. When We Cease to Understand the World is a book which questions the foundations of western thought, of science as progress. The final few pages provide a coda, a ‘night gardener’ who was once a mathematician. At the end he tells the narrator that the only way to tell the age if a tree would be to cut it down; “But, really, who would want to do that?” Sometimes, the pursuit of knowledge can be more damaging than the ignorance which precedes it. This is a book that is likely to stay with you long after you have put it down. It is with certainty a potential winner of this year’s International Booker.

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6 Responses to “When We Cease to Understand the World”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    This sounds like a very intriguing work. It doesn’t come out here until September so I’ve added it to my wishlist!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    How fascinating! Oddly enough, I’ve seem quite a lot of praise for this book on social media and the like without really having a feel for what it’s all about – so, in that respect, your review is very illuminating. It does sound like a potential prize winner, sufficiently dazzling and well executed to capture the judges’ imagination.

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s not an easy book to some up because it tells so many stories – certainly not easy to sum up in a tweet! I think it might well win as I think The Employees is too focused and In Memory of Memory is too unfocused and will divide the judges.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds wonderful, Grant, and definitely the book I’m most drawn to on the list. Your review is excellent and as Jacqui says, very illuminating. The linking of science and war is a really interesting angle – I suppose science=progress and that always seems to enable conflict…

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