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Review: When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (2020)

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut

Benjamín Labatut was born in Rotterdam in 1980 and grew up in The Hague, Buenos Aires and Lima. He has published two award-winning works of fiction prior to When We Cease to Understand the World, which is his first book to be translated into English from the original Spanish. This intriguing and complex work was shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. 

On the face of things this is a book about the development of Quantum Theory. However, as we read through the book it becomes obvious that while there is some, though very small, reference to Physics, this is not the purpose of the book.

The author begins with some of the deadly developments in gas warfare during the First World War and relates how the gases were developed by the Nazis to further their gas chamber atrocities. We then get on to the personal histories of a number of eminent physicists, starting with Werner Heisenberg.

This poor chap seems to have had many periods of brilliance interspersed with periods of severe depression. His innermost thoughts are shared with us, but we soon begin to wonder whether he would really have recorded these thoughts and how the author could have access to them.

It is then we remember that Heisenberg is famous for his Uncertainty Principle, which states that you cannot determine the position of a subatomic particle without disturbing its velocity and vice versa. It is now that we appreciate how the author has used this uncertainty in the experiences of Heisenberg to create a work of mainly fiction, mirroring his real world achievement.

The story moves on to Erwin Schrödinger and once again we have an account of his innermost feelings: in particular the detailed description of his inappropriate lustful thoughts regarding a sixteen-year-old girl, the niece of a colleague, whom he has been tutoring in Maths. We ask ourselves, would any sane person document these dangerous thoughts which could place him in serious breach of his position of trust, in charge of a minor?

Schrödinger was famous for his Wave Equation which basically said that it is impossible to pinpoint a particle such as an electron to a point in space. Instead, we must think of a nebulous gas circling a nucleus and somewhere in there is the probability of there being a particle. Leading on from this, all particles behave like waves as well.

This again mirrors the fiction in the book regarding his private, nebulous thoughts. When Heisenberg was being mentored by Neils Bohr, the father of Quantum Physics, there were incredible rows between the pair and this led Bohr to make the famous statement, ‘If you think you understand Quantum Theory, you have not read it properly.’

This of course exactly reflects the title of the book – When We Cease to Understand the World. This does not mean Quantum Theory is wrong but merely serves to tell us that using our everyday experience is unhelpful in trying to comprehend the weirdness of sub-atomic reality.

This clever book is therefore a work of fiction with a tiny anchor in real events, and well worth a read by all. No need to think Oh no! not that dreaded Physics again!

Reviewed by Library Member