A brief note on this piece: I wrote this last year for a different venue, where it was not accepted. Having hit a particularly bad patch for writing lately, mostly due to work commitments, I’m going to put this out as both an apology for the lack of material lately, and because I still like this review. I’ve added some AI art, all prompted by myself. Happy reading!
When We Cease to Understand the World
By Benjamín Labatut
Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West
New York Review Books (2021)
My Worst Subject
There are some subjects that I’ve never been able to understand, no matter how much time or tuition I pour into it. In this sad list that only grows longer with time, positioned somewhere above Russian grammar and trigonometry but below my absolute inability to roll my Rs, is the science of quantum mechanics. A pile of books and three different teachers have all failed to describe the motion of subatomic particles in a way that makes sense to me: I can distinctly remember standing in a university lab on a rainy Monday morning, hungover and slack-jawed, watching my professor flipping switches and dials to tumble photons through a maze of slits and photovoltaic receptors, sticking his hand in the light’s path, explaining how this revealed the secret architecture of the universe. The professor pointed the same photon-battered hand at me and asked what we just witnessed.
“Um,” I said, grasping for a word, and settled on the title of the day’s lecture. “Entanglement?” The professor nodded and launched into an explanation on entanglement in action. I had no idea then--I have no idea now--what quantum entanglement means. I got a B- in that class.
To be fair, as the professor warned us at the beginning of the term, what we were getting in this course on quantum mechanics for non-science majors wasn’t the real QM (as they call it), but only a collection of reductive metaphors and partial truths that obscured nearly as much as they explained. Real QM, the professor said, was pure mathematics, irreducible to human language. There is no English translation for Ѱ or ħ. This was more than the professor’s opinion: it was the official position of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, creators of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, the dominant model of subatomic physics going on a century now. Electrons, Heisenberg said, “are not things, but possibilities. The transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘real’ only occurred during the act of observation or measurement,” all of it expressible, if at all, in a series of deviously complicated mathematics.
Quantum mechanics was the culmination of a long change that began slowly with Ernst Mach’s work in the 1890s, exploded into public view with Einstein’s papers on relativity in 1905, and culminated in Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics in 1927. The specifics of what they discovered about energy, spacetime, and subatomic particles are beyond my pay grade, scientifically, but their broader significance is the great scandal of modern science: simply put, physics started raising more questions than it answered. At the largest and smallest possible scales of measurement, the universe and all its particles that make up you and I and my dog and the Moon are, upon examination, only a frothing whirl of probabilities hurtling through curved space.
That all this happened in less than thirty years, that it happened almost entirely in German-speaking countries, and that it all happened in the middle of a catastrophic military defeat and the run-up to a continent-spanning genocide is baffling to consider. Around the same time Central Europe fell apart, its scientists were proving beyond a doubt that the natural world didn’t make any sense. This revolutionary era is at the center of Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, a collection of stories about the discovery and meaning of black holes, chlorine gas, quantum uncertainty, and other 20th century fruits of science and mathematics.
Labatut admits, in an afterword, that although the book’s stories follow real people and real science, he has freely added scenes, speeches, confrontations, dreams, dialogues, and other tricks of fiction to the history. It would be best to think of these stories in the same way we think of Hollywood biopics like The Theory of Everything: we know these are actors presenting a heightened version of the real story, with scenes added and rearranged for dramatic effect, even as we learn things about these figures and their work that are broadly true.
And so Labatut spins fiction out of history. Erwin Schrödinger really did develop his theory of wave-functions in a Swiss sanitarium, though God only knows if seducing a pretty, tubercular girl was involved. Karl Schwarzschild really did scribble the first solutions to Einstein’s field equations in a trench in 1915, and this really was the first inkling anyone ever had of black holes and their nature, though whether or not this had anything to do with the fatal pemphigus sores that erupted all over his body around the same time is speculation. Fritz Haber really did win the Nobel Peace Prize the same year he was declared a war criminal. The ghosts, apocalyptic hallucinations, and math-induced pyromaniaLabatut introduces are only picking up on hints that the real history suggests: 20th century science is easier to explain as a Gothic tale. What else are black holes and electron clouds but a kind of new, terrible sublime?
But to just call these horror-inflected historical fictions misses Labatut’s other trick: all his stories are interlaced with documentary evidence, astonishing asides, and remarkable facts. “Prussian Blue,” the knockout story of the collection, begins with this tour de force:
In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremberg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Göring’s fingers and toes stained a furious red, the consequence of his addiction to dihydrocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day. William Burroughs described it as similar to heroin, twice as strong as codeine, but with a wired coke-like edge, so the North American doctors felt obliged to cure Göring of his dependency before allowing him to stand before the court. This was not easy. When the Allied forces caught him, the Nazi leader was dragging a suitcase with more than twenty thousand doses, practically all that remained of the drug in Germany at the end of the Second World War.
And from here, Labatut is off with an avalanche of facts and anecdotes, going from the state-sanctioned use of amphetamines by German SS officers to the uniformed Hitler Youth handing out cyanide potassium capsules from flower baskets to Nazi high command while the Berlin Philharmonic played its last wartime show. This is all in the first three pages: the next twenty weave together medieval alchemy, nitrogen manufacturing, Napoleon, and the Holocaust, all of it circling around Prussian blue dye, which can be a medicine, pigment, and toxin all at once. Historians can quibble with how Labatut ties it all together, but I read the whole thing in a single gulp, gasping and disoriented.
Labatut is Chilean, and this is his first book translated into English. Judging by a quick peek at the Spanish version on Amazon, Adrian Nathan West’s translation is faithful to the original’s long, surprising sentences and deadpan tone, and the few pages I could find of Labatut’s two other books suggest that there is more in this style. Demand for further translations is guaranteed: When We Cease to Understand the World appeared on Barack Obama’s 2021 summer reading list, and was shortlisted for the Booker International Prize and the National Book Award for Translated Literature. Awards and celebrity endorsements are usually so much hot air and marketing voodoo, but this time they’re on the mark: this is the best book I’ve read this year, and I will read anything else Labatut and West care to put out in English.
Though I must add, sadly, that this is yet another book on quantum mechanics that has failed to really explain what entanglement is or how it works. This one, at least, is honest about the futility of trying, and I take comfort in that.
Meanwhile, on Musement
It’s been a while since I wrote a proper Bibliophilia post. You can find weekly link round-ups to bookish and book-tech articles I found especially interesting. I also wrote a little bloggy post about TikTok’s weird cultural insularity, relative to other social media, mostly piggybacking on a Cal Newport article.
And that’s it. Happy reading!
Shinichi Mochizuki, who is still alive, may have grounds to sue, if he ever breaks the vow of silence he’s taken since publishing his last papers in 2012.