When We Cease to Understand the World 
by Benjamin Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West.
Pushkin, 192 pp., £8.99, May 2021, 978 1 78227 614 2
Show More
Show More

Benjamin Labatut​ ’s When We Cease to Understand the World is a skein of non-fiction stories or narrative essays unified by their subject matter, the mostly 20th-century breakthroughs in physics and chemistry that shook both those disciplines and the wider world. (The judges of last year’s International Booker Prize, who shortlisted the book, must have concluded that the fictional element predominates, though it amounts to embroidery in the gaps between facts.) The title sounds lofty, and presupposes that at some stage ‘we’ did understand the world, but the tone is insistently dark.

The first piece, ‘Prussian Blue’, begins with the discovery on the eve of the Nuremburg Trials that Hermann Göring’s fingers and toes were stained 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.

The phrasing makes it seem as if Burroughs was involved in the process, highly unlikely given that he was living in New York after being discharged from the army, on the basis that his mental instability should have prevented him from enlisting in the first place. Despite the implication of that ‘so’ there is no logical link between Burroughs’s assessment of the drug’s effects, with its hints of connoisseurship, and the Allies’ decision to detoxify their enemy before trying him. On the other hand, dihydrocodeine doesn’t have many celebrity users. Perhaps that’s reason enough to include Burroughs, who appears with Göring on the drug’s Wikipedia page, though this hardly suggests the struggle ‘over every little detail’ recorded by Labatut’s acknowledgments page.

‘Prussian Blue’ jumps back and forth in time as it weaves together themes of paint and poison. Prussian Blue was the first synthetic pigment, from which cyanide was isolated in 1782 by Carl Scheele, who stirred a spoon bearing traces of sulphuric acid into a pot of the stuff. The effect of the leapfrogging narrative is reminiscent of Dickens’s Mr Jingle, but a Jingle with access to the internet:

Scheele tasted the substances he made – died aged 43 – ravaged liver, purulent blisters. Thousands of children who played with toys made using his paints – same symptoms – arsenic. Emerald green – Napoleon’s favourite colour, used to decorate Longwood – house in St Helena. High levels of arsenic found in his hair – stomach cancer the size of a tennis ball. Longwood servants also affected – doctors, gardeners – nevertheless fought over dead emperor’s bloodstained sheets.

Rasputin comes hot on the heels of Napoleon, Alan Turing chases Rasputin. So much loosely connected information clogs the mind rather than opening it up. There’s a passage in Alasdair Gray’s novel 1982, Janine where the word ‘poison’ begins to overwhelm the text: ‘Today the Prime Poisoner declared in parliament that recent falls in the poison rate had had an adverse effect upon Britain’s already unhealthy balance of poisons. She said that if the national union of poison workers persisted in its demand for a 15 per cent poison increase for its members it would poison the country right out of the European poison market.’ Reading ‘Prussian Blue’ produces the same numbing effect, without the literary finesse.

At this low level of cogency the fact that Turing, who suffered from hay fever, wore a gas mask while riding his bicycle when the pollen count was high somehow justifies an excursion into the minds of British schoolchildren issued with gas masks during the Second World War. They were required to use ‘the Mickey Mouse model: this grotesque nickname attempted to mitigate the horror the little ones felt upon hearing the wooden rattle calling them to cinch the plastic straps around their heads and breathe through the stinking rubber on their faces while they followed the instructions from the Ministry of Home Safety.’ Plastic straps seem unlikely for this period, though this may be a fault of Adrian Nathan West’s translation. He could certainly have done better with the ‘Ministry of Home Safety’. Such an institution would presumably concern itself with such things as electrical insulation and the flammability of soft furnishings, potentially life or death matters but not a concern of the wartime Ministry of Home Security. In any case, the note of curdled sympathy is unappealing. Labatut can hardly be saying that, just because no gas attacks ever happened, the authorities should have spared the country’s children the unpleasant sensations that went with the only protection they had.

This limitation on foresight is the basis of a rather desperate strategy for unifying a mass of miscellaneous material, the little-did-they-know segue. What Scheele could not imagine, for instance, ‘was that two hundred years after his death, well into the 21st century, its industrial, medical and chemical applications would be such that, each month, a sufficient quantity would be manufactured to poison every person on the planet’. The little-did-they-know segue comes in various sizes (that was a medium). This sentence ending would qualify as a small: Einstein, replying in 1915 to a letter from Karl Schwarzschild, was ‘unaware that he was writing to a dead man’. It’s a true statement – if Einstein had known he was writing to a dead man he would presumably have stopped – but the piquant hint of mystery is misleading. Schwarzschild was commanding an artillery unit on the Russian front, and the letter Einstein received (extending the theory of general relativity, only weeks after it had been published) was dirty, torn and bloodstained. Einstein must at least have considered the possibility that scientists are not immune to bombs and bullets.

When you say that A is unaware of B, you establish a link between A and B on the level of language but unsupported by any other reality (and contradicted by the meaning of the sentence). What makes this more than an annoying mannerism in Labatut’s book is that he is writing about scientists who in their work addressed the limits of knowledge, and some of whom were preoccupied with the real-life consequences even of theoretical ideas. The mathematician Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014), for instance, was politically engaged before becoming a recluse determined not only to reduce his carbon footprint (he lived at one point on dandelion soup) but his intellectual impact, by retracting publication of his own work.

The little-did-they-know segue always brings a quantum of irony, and sometimes a massive dose, as in the passages about Fritz Haber. Haber is remembered as the man who masterminded the first gas attack, at Ypres in 1915 – ‘a man of genius, and the only one, perhaps, capable of understanding the complex molecular reactions that would blacken the skin’ of the five thousand soldiers who died there. After this triumph (which earned him a promotion and dinner with the Kaiser) he returned home to Berlin, where his wife, Clara, accused him of ‘perverting science by devising a method for exterminating human beings on an industrial scale. Haber ignored her: for him, war was war and death was death, regardless of the means of its infliction.’ During his furlough he threw a party, at the end of which she killed herself.

In 1918, when Haber was living in Switzerland after being declared a war criminal, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the synthesis of ammonia, a process he had worked on between 1894 and 1911. ‘Had it not been for Haber, hundreds of millions of people who until then had depended on natural fertilisers such as guano and saltpetre for their crops would have died from lack of nourishment.’ This classically ambivalent status, either life-giving mass murderer or saviour with blood on his hands, would make him a fine central subject for a better organised essay (or story, if you insist). Ideally, its irony would be discreet rather than strident, particularly since Haber’s career had a third act. Back in Germany, as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, he produced a pesticidal fumigant so potent it was named Zyklon (the word means ‘cyclone’). He was promoted to the post of national commissioner for pest control, working particularly on moth infestations of flour, ‘unaware that [his superiors] had already begun the persecution of all those who shared his Jewish roots’, whom they regarded as a similar infestation.

Haber had converted to Christianity long before, not telling his sons of their racial heritage until it required them to leave the country. In a final burst of unawareness he died in Basle in 1934,

not knowing that, years later, the Nazis would use in their gas chambers the pesticide he had helped to create to murder his half-sister, his brother-in-law, his nephews and countless other Jews who died hunkered down, muscles cramping, skin covered with red and green spots, bleeding from their ears, spitting foam from their mouths, the young ones crushing the children and the elderly as they attempted to scale the heap of naked bodies and breathe a few more minutes, a few more seconds, because Zyklon B tended to pool on the floor after being dropped through hatches in the roof.

What is being said in this passage, and what is being felt? It’s hard to miss the element of nihilistic gloating, even if it’s also hard to decide who is on the receiving end of it. Would Haber have felt the slaughter of his relatives more keenly if he had known his discoveries were involved in its implementation? He has already been quoted as saying that death is death, whatever route it takes. Would his relatives have resented their extinction more if they had known that its means had been prepared for by a family member? If we’re being encouraged to imagine the feelings of the dead, we are entitled to think they are being further degraded in their extremity by this festival of grotesque irony.

Chemists like Scheele and Haber at least dealt with materials that could be touched and smelled, and even tasted, if they were foolhardy enough. Mathematicians and theoretical physicists, who are the subjects of most of the pieces in the book, are much harder to write about. These people find the meaning of their lives in abstract thought, an unspectacular activity even when the ideas involved are influential. They think, they confer with colleagues, they prepare and submit papers, they devise experiments, they apply for jobs and grants. Nothing to see here! No one doubts the assertion, reported by Stephen Hawking in the preface to A Brief History of Time, that every equation in a book of popular science halves its readership. The same is true of notation in a book about music. These mark the point at which readers admit that they don’t understand the propositions being made, certainly not to the point of being able to join a technical discussion at however basic a level, but are just nodding along. If they understand, they understand by analogy. It seems unlikely that Labatut has technical knowledge of the scientific domains about which he writes. He struggles to meet the much lower standards of rigour that apply to mounting a convincing argument. He can’t seem to avoid literary flourishes that flatly contradict the core assumptions of the scientists he has chosen to write about.

Some of the physicists in his book themselves theorised with the help of analogies and visual images, taking it as axiomatic that quantum physics should be intuitively intelligible. Erwin Schrödinger, for instance, is quoted as saying that there were things in the world not susceptible to analysis through common-sense metaphors – ‘but the internal structure of the atom was not one of them’. Werner Heisenberg reached a different conclusion, arguing that the only adequate description for such a structure was a set of numbers. Scientifically illiterate readers will automatically side with the visualisers rather than the number and matrix-crunchers, choosing not to notice that they are no closer to understanding the technicalities involved. General readers are no more likely to be able to describe the second law of thermodynamics than they were in 1959, when C.P. Snow lamented the gap between the ‘two cultures’, but much better able to keep their ignorance hidden behind a rampart of popular science books.

The title piece of the collection, which accounts for about half the book, addresses this difference of approach in quantum physics, which led to controversy and factionalism. As a piece of literary construction it is broken-backed: it starts with Heisenberg disrupting a lecture of Schrödinger’s in 1926 to denounce his theories (he was told to leave) then flashes back to give a sketch of the personalities involved and their approaches – not just Schrödinger and Heisenberg, but Bohr, Einstein and de Broglie. Heisenberg’s ideas gradually gained the ascendancy, though Schrödinger and indeed Einstein did all they could to resist someone whose approach amounted to gouging out ‘both his eyes in order to see further’. A lot of the writing in this section has a forced journalistic immediacy – ‘Einstein sensed that if one followed that line of thinking to its ultimate consequences darkness would infect the soul of physics … Someone had to stop him. Someone had to smash the box in which Heisenberg had trapped the atom.’ Tabloid breathlessness isn’t really an improvement on the flat exposition of other passages: the 29 physicists crossing the ‘frost-caked lawn of Leopold Park’ in Brussels for the opening of the fifth Solvay Conference in October 1927, for instance, ‘unaware that five days later they would shake the very foundations of science’.

Labatut gives an outline of the key figures, but no real sense of the scientific culture. The absence of historical context makes these supposed geniuses seem like dullards. How could Einstein not immediately grasp the reality of black holes, which I understand so well? It’s a wonder he could hold down that job in the patent office when he doesn’t even know about wormholes. If these really are stories rather than essays, Labatut needs to make his people come alive, as Guy Davenport does in his hybrid essay-stories. Though the cultural figures Davenport impersonates aren’t separated from us by the razor wire of technical language, it doesn’t follow that their sensibilities are easy to render. ‘If it were a lucky afternoon, the troll would be in the wood. Mr Churchyard knew that this troll, so strangely beautiful in a mushroomy sort of way, was a figment entirely in his mind, the creature of overwork, indigestion, or bile, perhaps even original sin, still it was a troll.’ Mr Churchyard = Kierkegaard. And here’s Kafka praying after his fashion:

It is absurd, I know, for one insignificant creature to cry that it is alive, and does not want to be hurled into the dark along with the lost. It is the life in me that speaks, not me, though I speak with it, selfishly, in its ridiculous longing to stay alive, and partake of its presumptuous joy in being.

These are mediated portraits that nevertheless seem immediate.

Labatut doesn’t take the plunge, barely dipping a toe below the surface. Immersion is much more difficult than, say, vague allegorising. He suggests, for example, that between the wars Schrödinger suffered ‘many of the afflictions that plagued Europe as a whole: he went bankrupt, fell ill with tuberculosis, and in a matter of years had lived through the decline and death of his father and grandfather, along with a series of personal and professional humiliations that had ruined a once promising career.’ Those humiliations do indeed seem generic, but reminiscent of American television rather than European history:

Schrödinger returned home with his tail between his legs. Debye may have been right, but his comment was crude, pedantic and malicious. He had always detested that goddamned Dutchman. It was enough seeing how he looked at Anny. Not to mention how she looked at him … ‘Son of a bitch!’ he screamed, shut up in his studio. Leck mich am Arsch! Friss Scheiße und krepier! He kicked over his furniture and threw his books against the wall.

Sometimes Labatut allows himself greater liberties, often when a physicist is wrestling with technical difficulties in solitude and there’s little or no documentation that might contradict his version of events. In these passages he doesn’t so much dramatise the life of the mind or investigate character as conjure up expressionist phantasmagoria. In the summer of 1925, for instance, Heisenberg went to Heligoland, a resort destination at that time of year but also a barren place that wouldn’t trigger his allergies. He worked for days on end in a sort of trance, and the landscape dutifully mimics his loss of intellectual bearings:

It was impossible to illuminate the atom by darkening it in such a manner. A wave of self-pity had begun to well up inside him when a gust of wind parted the fog, revealing the path down to the village. He jumped up and ran, but the fog returned as quickly as it had dispersed. I know where the trail is, he told himself, I just need to get a little closer.

A few days later, as he wanders down by the port, he has an apocalyptic vision.

The shops along the promenade looked like carbonised ruins left behind by a massive firestorm. A multitude of strangers thronged around him, their skin charred by a fire only Heisenberg could see; small girls ran with their pigtails ablaze, couples laughed as they burned together like kindling on a funeral pyre, their arms interlaced, flames licking their bodies and stretching up into the heavens.

This vision of a firestorm in 1925 may seem abrupt, but it has been prepared for – in a manner of speaking – by a passage three pages earlier. Heisenberg was throwing rocks into an abandoned quarry, where they shattered into a thousand pieces, as the laws of nature dictate, but these rocks were ‘foreshadowing the violence the British would unleash on Heligoland after the end of the Second World War, when they piled up all their unused munitions, torpedoes and mines and detonated the most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history … pulverising the hillside Heisenberg had scaled twenty years earlier to see the sunset’. Grinding of gears seems an inadequate description for this malfunction of the narrative mechanism. If a dropped rock can foreshadow a gigantic explosion (in fact, one without human casualties), why shouldn’t a sneeze foreshadow Chernobyl or Nagasaki?

Heisenberg’s visions that summer become more elaborate and obscene, populated not only by Goethe but by Hafez, the 14th-century poet who inspired Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan. As Heisenberg’s fever breaks, the hallucinations don’t so much disappear as become invisible: ‘neither of them could see Goethe there, straddling the corpse of Hafez, now drained of all its blood, and yet still capable of maintaining a glorious erection, which the German poet attempted to invigorate with his lips, like a man blowing on the embers of a dying fire.’ Heisenberg’s mind is now ‘exceptionally clear’, but by Labatut’s account his lucidity merely registers that he has solved all the problems he set himself, even if he doesn’t now know how he managed it. His fever was not an aberration, but the creative process itself. Despite Heisenberg’s fierce opposition to analogies, his non-analogical feat can only be made intelligible with the help of one: ‘It was like deducing all the rules of Wimbledon – the number of sets, the length of the grass, the tension of the nets and even the mandatory white that players have to wear – from the few balls that flew out of the stadium, without ever having witnessed what takes place on the court.’

In​ ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ Erwin Schrödinger, Heisenberg’s adversary (I almost wrote arch-enemy and would-be nemesis), has a similar set of experiences while staying in an Alpine clinic in an attempt to cure his tuberculosis. As soon as he arrives he is struck by inspiration and works all night on an elusive idea, not even taking off his coat and hat, but the next day he can make no sense of his calculations. He agrees to give maths lessons to Miss Herwig (no first name is given), the daughter of the director. He becomes obsessed with her, masturbating the moment their lessons end, though she is not only very young but gravely ill. The goddess Kali features in his nightmares, her skin black, wearing her necklace of human heads. He works frantically on his equation, troubled that in his attempt to simplify the atomic world he has only managed to complicate it further.

He sees his future life in all its possible permutations, ‘simultaneous scenes opening like a fan and leading off in all possible directions’. His health gets worse. A blizzard threatens to cut off the clinic from the world. The wave function he has intuited – ψ – continues to baffle him. Its nature is entirely separate from the world it describes with such accuracy. Giving Miss Herwig one last lesson, he tries to explain his difficulties but she falls asleep. Surreptitiously, he caresses her. Then suddenly

she threw off the sheet that covered her and he saw her transformed into the goddess of his dreams, a black-skinned corpse covered with suppurating wounds and scabs, her tongue lolling from her smiling skull while her hands pulled open the shrivelled lips of her vagina, where the legs of a massive beetle flailed, trapped in a tangle of snow-white hairs.

He leaves without paying his bill, but back in Zurich he recovers his physical and intellectual health, writing five papers over six months, each ‘more brilliant than its predecessor’, getting Likes (or the equivalent) from quantum influencers such as Paul Dirac and Max Planck.

It’s hard to decide which is more dismaying here, the romantic attitude to scientists or the mystical attitude to science itself. Theoretical breakthroughs are assimilated to ordeals suffered in solitude, wrestling bouts with monsters of the mind. St Anthony might not recognise his Egyptian desert in the inhospitable landscapes of Heligoland or the snowbound Alps, but he knew a Temptation when he saw one.

There was one more ordeal, and one more revelation, in store for Heisenberg, according to Labatut. When Niels Bohr, his mentor and academic superior at the University of Copenhagen, went away – the wrangles with his disputatious assistant were becoming intolerable – Heisenberg ‘was left alone with his demons, and soon he had become his own worst enemy’. He walked for hours in the park surrounding the university, losing track of time and taking refuge from the cold in the only bar that was still open, a rather bohemian one. A stranger accosts him, seeming to know who he is, and forces a drugged drink on him. The stranger harangues him, his rant working up to the title of the book: ‘To whom do we owe this magnificent inferno if not to you, to people like you? Tell me, Professor, when did all this madness begin? When did we cease to understand the world?’ He collapses and Heisenberg makes his escape. The landscape spins around him and he loses his balance, closing his eyes. When he opens them, he sees that tiny orbs of light are floating around him. Most of them disappear immediately, but some last long enough to leave a small trail. The drug-induced dilation of his pupils means that he sees these traces not as continuous lines but as ‘a series of individual points that seemed to be leaping from place to place instantaneously, without passing through the intermediate space’. He senses his mind merging with the things he observes. And so the uncertainty principle is born.

Immediately after the fireflies have passed on their message he finds himself surrounded by a legion of shadows, ‘countless men and women with slanted eyes, their bodies sculpted of soot and ash … stretching out their arms to try to touch him’. Labatut must feel that this reference errs on the side of subtlety, since he then spells things out in even larger type. Heisenberg tells the returned Bohr about the belligerent stranger, the spiked drink, but says nothing about ‘the thousands of figures who had surrounded him in the forest, as if wishing to warn him of something, before they were carbonised in an instant by that flash of blind light’. Still not sure what it’s all about? Not to worry, the word ‘Hiroshima’ appears a few pages later to clinch things.

Heisenberg was able to tell Bohr that there was an absolute limit to what can be known about the world, and at the Brussels conference he and his supporters made all the running, even pronouncing quantum mechanics a closed theory. The uncertainty principle itself was absolutely certain. Einstein was unable to disprove the principle, though he continued to resist it. As Labatut puts it, ‘the iconoclast physicist par excellence refused to accept such a radical change.’ He was invested in the idea of a universe that was in principle deterministic, with no inherent limitation on knowledge. Rather than mere probability, there must be free-standing cause and effect. The idea put forward by Heisenberg as irrefutable – ‘what was beyond our grasp was neither the future nor the past, but the present itself’ – was too much for Einstein to accept. Little did he know that Heisenberg was getting accurate bulletins about catastrophes from the future, meaning that events are not only predictable in principle (as he always believed) but already determined, in a way that annihilates the arguments Heisenberg was advancing in Brussels. Never mind that it also annihilates the entire scientific project – wouldn’t that have been a zinger of an argument for Einstein to make at the grand face-off of the physicists? If only he had known.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 44 No. 8 · 21 April 2022

Adam Mars-Jones refers to ‘Newton’s second law of thermodynamics’ (LRB, 7 April). The second law of thermodynamics is unusual among scientific laws in that it can’t be attributed to a single person, but we can be confident that Isaac Newton didn’t have a hand in it, if only because he died about a hundred years before it was formulated. Credit has to go to the tragically short-lived French scientist Nicolas Sadi Carnot (1796-1832), but the second law in its modern form is usually attributed to the German physicist Rudolf Clausius (1822-88), who in the process introduced the slippery concept of entropy. Other names (Kelvin, Carathéodory) are part of the complicated story. It may be true, as Mars-Jones claims, that ‘general readers are no more likely to be able to describe [the second law] than they were in 1959, when C.P. Snow lamented the gap between the “two cultures”,’ but a useful (if facetious) guide to all three laws of thermodynamics was offered in the American Scientist in March 1964:

First law: You can’t win, you can only break even.
Second law: You can only break even at absolute zero.
Third law: You can’t reach absolute zero.

Craig McFarlane
Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences