When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut
Trade paperback format. Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West.
Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize
When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction.
Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.
At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.
Labatut’s stylish English-language debut offers an embellished, heretical, and thoroughly engrossing account of the personalities and creative madness that gave rise to some of the 20th century’s greatest scientific discoveries. . . [Labatut’s] subject is the all-consuming human drive to discover, and the danger therein. . . Hard to pin down and all the more enjoyable for it, this unique work is one to be savored.
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
[When We Cease to Understand the World] rattles the prevailing narrative of heroic scientific innovators.
—Mark Athitakis, Los Angeles Times
[When We Cease to Understand the World] is as compact and potent as a capsule of cyanide, a poison whose origin story takes up much of the opening chapter—the first of many looping forays into the wonders and horrors unleashed by science in the past few centuries. . . . It is a meditation in prose that bears a familial relationship to the work of W. G. Sebald or Olga Tokarczuk: a sequence of accounts that skew biographical but also venture into the terrain of imagination. . . . The stories in this book nest inside one another, their points of contact with reality almost impossible to fully determine.
—Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker