Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Benjamin Labatut is quickly proving himself a unique author defying traditional classification, a notion he reinforced most recently when he published his third novel, When We Cease to Understand the World. In short, it’s a fictional examination following the lives of numerous real-life scientists and mathematicians, with an emphasis on the earth-shattering discoveries they’ve made and the repercussions those have had on the world, both beneficial and destructive.
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Benjamin Labatut Studies the Scientific Architects
Certain minorities might still exist which deny scientific progress, but I think it’s safe to say that on the whole, we’re at a stage in human history where most of have accepted its place in modern life. After all, virtually all the material objects and belongings we benefit from are, in some form or another, rooted in scientific discoveries. While many of these discoveries have turned out beneficial for humanity, others have proven horrifyingly destructive, and in his novel When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut examines the lives of some people responsible for some of the most impactful scientific revelations in modern history.
This is a novel which certainly doesn’t lend itself to a traditional examination, being more akin to an anthology of short stories closely-knit together by their themes and the fact that their protagonists are real historical figures.
There is no real overarching story, so-to-speak, instead being more of a fictional exploration of the people who are in large part responsible for the technological advancements humanity has been able to make. More precisely, he places his focus on the great dilemma which comes with being a genius, the question as to whether or not one’s discovery will be used for evil, and the moral responsibility it places on their shoulders.
The narration moves along in chronological order (for the most part), first beginning with the introduction of C. W. Scheele, who discovered Prussic acid in 1782, as well as various basic elements, such as oxygen. From there we move on to Fritz Haber, winner of the Nobel prize for his work on artificial fertilizers, and head of German research during WWI focusing on the production of deadly gases.
After a relatively grim introduction, we move further into the realm of physics and mathematics, beginning with K. Schwarzschild, an astronomer who, in 1915, sent a letter to Einstein detailing the exact solution to his General Relativity equations. From there on out we meet plenty of other influential individuals, including Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and de Broglie, witnessing their own personal struggles, both as geniuses on the threshold of life-changing discovery, and as regular human beings, prone to the same pitfalls as the rest of us.
The Jagged Narrative Stream of When We Cease to Understand the World
As I said at the start of the review, this is a novel which is quite difficult to examine in the traditional sense, especially since it teeters in the strange no-man’s-land between fiction and reality without following a concrete narrative structure all the way through. This is the first element which I would like to talk about, especially since it might put off certain readers. If you’re one of them, I’d urge you to stay a little while longer, because it’s a hill very much worth climbing for the sight that follows.
To begin with, the narrative starts in a rather digestible way, moving along chronologically and presenting us with life stories centred on the theme of poisons. The chapters are neither too short nor too long, and Benjamin Labatut tries to place an equal amount of focus on the scientific and personal aspects of the lives of the people he is exploring.
For the most part, it moves along in a way we can definitely follow, but the connections between the various people aren’t overtly stated, meaning we’re pushed to make those on our own. Most of the time, they are quite obvious and easy to make, at least in my opinion, but I still applaud When We Cease to Understand the World for nudging its readers to think for themselves.
The way in which we jump from one person to the next, and sometimes from one topic to a completely new subject, can be a little disorienting at times, but there’s a pleasant rhythm to it, keeping the events moving along before we become engrossed into any particular domain for too long. In other words, it takes some getting used to, but the narrative structure works perfectly as intended, allowing us to take glimpses into the lives of many people in a short amount of time.
Ultimately, the narrative doesn’t lead to any concrete place, there are no grandiose final plot twists or indisputable revelations bound to turn your life upside down. It leaves us with more questions than answers, as well as a solid dose of existential dread stemming from our lack of understanding of the dangerous tools we’re playing with as guests in a universe we still know almost nothing about.
The Greatest Highs and Deepest Lows
Now that we’ve discussed the structure of the narrative and its purpose, I think it’s time to take a look at the actual stories Benjamin Labatut tells us. While on one hand he does assure us at the start of the book that pretty much nothing is fiction, there are still certain moments which have definite fictitious elements to them. On the whole though, based on what I know personally, I do believe the author can indeed by trusted for the big and important facts, the kind which can be verified with documentation.
On one hand, he looks at the lives of the geniuses I’ve mentioned earlier, trying to bring them down to our size, showing how much in common they had with regular folk despite the pedestals they were hoisted upon. We get to see how Heisenberg nearly lost his mind working on quantum theories, Schrodinger recovering from tuberculosis, and Schwarzschild dealing with necrotic gingivitis, just to name a few. In other words, he makes it clear they were just as prone to failure and misery as us, if not more.
On the other hand, the author also dedicates a fair portion of his book to the scientific discoveries these people have made. I was immensely glad to see the author’s explanations on the complicated subjects he chose to tackle, including chemistry and quantum mechanics, were simple and elegant, illustrating the main points concisely with minimal complications.
Going further than simply explaining these discoveries, Labatut takes his time to show us the many ramifications these scientific advancements had on society, from the widespread use of electricity to the creation of the atom bomb. I think he did quite a solid job at reminding us just how precariously we’re teetering on the tightrope of knowledge, constantly in danger of being swept away into the precipice by our own hands.
Additionally, I thought Benjamin Labatut did an equally-respectable job when it came to examining the immense moral burden of making the types of discoveries which can potentially wreak havoc and claim millions, if not billions of lives. He shows us how various geniuses throughout history have coped with and rationalized it, making for some rather eye-opening bits and pieces of insight into the self-serving nature of human psychology.
|192||New York Review Books||Sept. 28 2021||978-1681375663|
The Final Verdict
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut might not be your traditional literature and fiction novel, but it certainly deserves your attention for the profound examination it offers on the subject of people and discoveries responsible for shaping the modern world.
If you’re interested in learning about the lives of great scientists and mathematicians and are interested in studying both the technical and moral aspects our recent technological advancements as a civilization, then I think you’ll really come to appreciate what this book has to offer.
Benjamin Labatut (born in 1980) is a Chilean writer who began his career as a published author with La Antartica empieza aqui, which won the Premio Caza de Letras 2009, as well as the Santiago Municipal Literature Award in the short story category in 2013. His second novel, After the Light, came out in 2016, followed by his third award-winning work, When We Cease to Understand the World.