Review of ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ by Benjamin Labatut

This is a strange book. It is well written, articulate, interesting and educational. It begins as a non-fiction discussion of poisons like potassium-cyanide and arsenic, and the use of cyanide in the first world war, then in the death camps of the Nazis, and a postulation that Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning from the green dyes he seemed to adore. Facts, as far as I know. But then Labatut starts to mix in fiction, or at least things he couldn’t have known.
The book covers some famous and important episodes in physics and mathematics. Schwarzchild being one of the first to understand Einstein’s Relativity and developing the mathematics that defined the Schwarzchild Singularity which is the theoretical underpinning of understanding Black Holes. I found it interesting that originally Einstein thought there must be a mistake in Schwarzchild’s math. But more interesting I thought was Schwarzchild’s idea that the mathematics of mass bending space to create these black holes was his idea that the ideas of physics could be applied to social systems and masses of humanity. A certain critical mass of believers, supporters, enablers and amplifiers could create a similar collapse of society into a space where nothing from outside reaches and where there is no escape from the beliefs, actions and behaviours of others in the group. It becomes a closed system that draws people in and from which escape is near impossible. Schwarzchild thought the society of World War 1 Germany had succumbed to such a phenomenon, but a similar case could be made for the MAGA Republicans, the Q-Anon/Fox News/OAN/Evangelical Trump followers who are leading America to some sort of promised land.
A theme of the book is madness. A good portion is focused on mathematician Grothendieck, a Field’s Medal winner, who may have gone insane. I struggled with understanding what the point of that long section was. And as Grothendieck voyaged from sanity to madness, so this book moves from fact, to fiction, to magical realism to something unknown. It is not a novel, as there is certainly no plot or story.
It is a short book, maybe 200 pages, but a difficult read. Close to half of our book club group failed to finish it. I have some university level education in physics, math and chemistry, and there was nothing presented here I couldn’t understand. Which made me think this was really only a surface dealing with the issues.
My knock on the book would be its magnifying an old, mistaken trope that brilliant people always end up in madness. The tortured souls cliche. That artists and scientists are pigeon-holed by such mistaken beliefs does society a disservice.
Review of ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ by Benjamin Labatut
September 18, 2022
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