Books

A thing of beauty, not of this world

Benjamin Labatut blended fiction into fact to examine seismic moments in science

Benjamin Labatut writes about a thing of beauty, not of this world. Illustration: Joseph Joyce

Three men, lost in the fog of the First World War, fighting for the Kaiser.

One is a lieutenant and an astrophysicist: he is on the brink of death, his body covered in blisters, his skin eaten away by a necrotizing disease, and yet he somehow manages to find the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, and sends it to Einstein, before dying. 

The second is a captain, a chemist, a genius, and a monster: before the war, he had created a process to extract nitrogen from the air, feeding millions, but now he is the first person to deploy gas as a weapon, killing thousands of soldiers, who clawed at their throats as the gas reacted with their mucus membranes, creating acid in their lungs, drowning them in utmost agony.

The third is a physicist, an artillery officer sent to the mountains of Italy, where his mind – stuck in the heady miasma of the dog-days of war – slowly unravelled from sheer boredom, a breakdown which was merely the first of many personal and professional setbacks which he suffered for years before a sudden spark of inspiration burnt his name into the annals of science.

I was drawn to these stories, because I am fascinated by reason pushing past its limits

The three men were Karl Schwarzschild, Fritz Haber and Erwin Schrödinger, and their lives are part of the stories I tell in When We Cease to Understand the World, along with several others, such as Alexander Grothendieck, a man who sought to touch the beating heart at the centre of the mathematical universe before descending into silence, craving nothing but total isolation, and giving himself over to madness, or Werner Heisenberg, whose quest to find a new language to describe the void inside the atom birthed the first version of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (Pushkin, £14.99) is on the Booker International longlist.
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When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (Pushkin, £14.99) is on the Booker International longlist.

I was drawn to these stories, because I am fascinated by reason pushing past its limits, and I tried to show some of the strange vistas that science opens up on our inner and outer worlds. Thanks to Schwarzschild’s agonic epiphany, for example, we got our first glimpse of that wondrous blind spot at the core of general relativity, where Einstein’s equations break down, and time and space seem to lose all meaning: the black hole. Schrödinger gifted us his famous equation, but the real nature of its most important term – the wave function – one that has forced us to consider astonishing ideas, such as particle superposition and parallel realities, remains a complete mystery, 100 years after its discovery.

Where sense fails us, where mathematics become singular, we stray into the territory of art and literature

What are the limits of rationality? How far can science take us before we come face to face with the mad dreams of reason? Can we still aspire to comprehend what our own minds have uncovered about this world, or have we lost ourselves in our rush towards the future, becoming Halcyons, kingfishers full of rage and speed but lacking any true understanding, bursting blind into the waters below?

While I am undoubtedly seduced by the many wonders and horrors of science, in this book science is really an excuse to write about the strangest aspects of reality, those that are resistant to equations. Where sense fails us, where mathematics become singular, we stray into the territory of art and literature, because it is through the mechanisms of fiction that we can delve into deeper, stranger meanings. To reach that most rarefied substrate – which, in a sense, is the same deep dark earth that the scientists I wrote about thrust their minds into – I used a blend of fact and fiction.

I chose to write about certain scientists who pulled on its threads and came face to face with realities that defy common sense

This was necessary to weave a web that made many hidden connections clearly visible: its centre, where all strands point to, is that aspect of science that we do not, and perhaps cannot, understand. But I must warn the reader, my book is a literary construct, so these coincidences, while marvellous, could be absolutely meaningless. As many of us suspect, the world may have no hidden order, and perhaps the entire maze of associations that science offers up is nothing but a dream-like web, one that purely mirrors the shape of our minds. Whether real or not, it binds us all, because it creates the one illusion that humankind cannot live without: meaning. However, this wondrous fantasy continuously betrays us; I chose to write about certain scientists who pulled on its threads and came face to face with realities that defy common sense, and that would eventually put our entire worldview into question.

These ideas that our minds are simply not built to withstand, these experiences that drive us past the edge of knowledge and into the strange wilderness of the irrational, where a strange beauty trickles into our world, are what I hold most dear, and they are the lifeblood of When We Cease to Understand the World.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (Pushkin, £14.99) is on the Booker International longlist. The winner will be announced on June 2

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