Takeaway: When We Cease to Understand The World
Updated: Jun 16
I finished “When We Cease to Understand the World” a little over a week ago. The book is not long–just a little under 200 pages. Unfortunately, I knew I would not be capable of writing an adequate review.
While it’s extremely well-written, some of the information on quantum physics (despite the fact that author Benjamin Labatut does a decent job of knocking it down a level for the everyday reader) is too difficult to understand (at least for me.)
That being said, I wanted to highlight some of my personal takeaways from the book. Regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of any of the scientists mentioned or even Einstein, arguably the most influential physicist of all time, this is a very thought-provoking, at times painful, but ultimately enjoyable read.
The book is interwoven with different stories that connect several scientists and their contributions–some for good and some for bad.
First we meet Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, the first scientist to obtain nitrogen, the main nutrient required for plant growth, directly from the air; this saved millions of people from death by famine. Though he won the Nobel Laureate during World War I, he also came to be known as the “father of chemical warfare” for developing Germany’s poisonous-gas program.
Next we meet Karl Schwarzschild, a German physicist and astronomer who suffers from an auto-immune disease that may have been triggered by a gas attack. Schwarzschild worked to solve Einstein’s General Relativity Equations, specifically discussing “a black sun dawning over the horizon, capable of engulfing the entire world,” which may have been a prophecy for the rise of Nazi-ism.
Next is the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuiki and his predecessor of the master of abstraction Alexander Grothendieck. The mathematical concept focused on in this portion of the book is A+B=C.
The last portion of the book focuses on the interactions between Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg. While Schrödinger invented the Uncertainty Principle, which uses just one equation to “describe virtually the whole of modern chemistry and physics,” Heisenberg’s ideas and formulae are "exceptionally abstract, philosophically revolutionary, and complex."
Fact vs. Fiction
A criticism I’ve read of the book that really didn’t bother me much until the end is that it does blend fact with fiction; this was particularly true in the last section of the book, where it talked about Schrödinger and Heisenberg.
Of course, this is the “fictionalized lives of real-life scientists and thinkers,” so again… it didn’t really bother me. What annoyed me, for lack of a better word, was longer portions on Schrödinger’s obsession with a teenager he fantasized about while living in a sanatorium. The writing was fine. The fact that it was fictionalized was fine. I just didn’t care about this. I cared more about the science in the story, and his thoughts on that. However, this young woman did help contribute to his workings, so it was somewhat relevant.
Knowing Too Much
The book definitely isn’t anti-science, though I suppose it could be seen that way. Some of the scientists discussed died miserable and alone, were genuinely unhappy, never found what they were looking for, or weren’t really recognized. (Haber’s wife, for instance, killed herself in front of him at a garden party because she just couldn’t live with the knowledge of how many soldiers had died because of his work.)
To me, this book is about, as simply put as possible, their revelations, though short-lived, and the costs and possible dangers of exploring the unknowns in science. It’s wonderful to read but also exhausting to consider.
Nothing is Black and White
I’m a really empathetic person–not to the point that I would vote for an opposing party or say that a murderer should be set free. However, I always think about how that person feels–even if they made the wrong choice, (which is, of course, always influenced by so many different things, whether it be genetic, environmental, etc).
In today’s society, there’s no room for ignorance or any kind of mistakes. I think that’s good, to an extent. But people are not made of paper. Everyone, even someone you hate, has a lot of different dimensions.
Some of these scientists–they were geniuses and heroes; in other ways, they could be seen as mass murderers, lechers, or just plane nuts. Are they good people or bad people? I don’t really think you can, or I would say should, make a blanket statement like that.
You judge everyone by yourself.
"When We Cease to Understand the World" is a wonderful read. It's beautifully rendered and translated very naturally by Adrian Nathan West. I look forward to reading other works by this author (and maybe hope to even provide a proper review on one of his works in the future.)