When We Cease to Understand the World
Genre: Historical Fiction
- Trachtman, Howard
- Date of entry: May-09-2022
When we think of genetics and pedigrees, we expect our traits and characteristics to be passed down in a predictable pattern from parents to children. In his book Far From the Tree , Andrew Solomon labels this transmission from one generation to the next as vertical identity. However, his book focuses on circumstances where inheritance follows what he calls a horizontal pattern. In these cases, the offspring have an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to their parents. They land far from the anticipated spot under the tree canopy and are dramatically different from their parents. He or she must acquire their identity from a peer group that is outside the parents’ experience. One chapter in Solomon’s book focuses on genius as seen through the lens of the violinist Joshua Bell and his family. Most of us would gratefully welcome a child of genius whether in science, architecture, or music and embrace the apple that landed far from the tree. Reading Benjamin Labatut’s riveting book might cause you to rethink this thought experiment.
Nothing will quite prepare you for the literary world that Labatut has invented. It is a unique blend of fact and fantasy, an incremental layering of fictional conceits on known historical details. A stream of people from history pass through the book, some deservedly famous and others more obscure. But all of them are possessed of genius. All of the characters lived through the turbulent first third of the 20th century when quantum mechanics revolutionized the traditional understanding of physics. They confronted the challenge that this new knowledge presented to the grand view that people had held about how the universe was designed and operated.
The book opens with Fritz Haber, whose research on nitrogen fixation chemical reactions provided the basis for the production of fertilizers, pesticides and explosives. Haber’s work had diametrically opposite effects on the course of history. On the one hand, he enabled dramatic increases in agricultural crop yields and prevented global hunger. At the same time, his discoveries increased the carnage in World War I and yielded compounds that led to innumerable deaths by asphyxiation in the trenches in no-man’s land and, later, in the Nazi death camps. There is Karl Schwarzschild who was able to solve Einstein’s equations in the general theory of relativity while fighting in the German front lines during World War I. He identified the potential existence of black holes, Schwarzschild singularities, long before Stephen Hawking made them famous. Alexander Grothendieck, considered the most influential mathematician of the last hundred years, also passes through the pages of Labatut’s book. After an extraordinarily creative career in which he totally upended established concepts in geometry and number theory and other mathematical fields, he ended up abandoning his life’s work. He devoted himself to Buddhism and, retreating to a secluded village in the Pyrenees, he lived out his last years alone and unrecognized. Erwin Schrodinger is forced to enter a Swiss sanatorium to convalesce from tuberculosis. While there, under the influence of a teenage girl similarly afflicted with tuberculosis, he derives his wave equation and the Psi function to explain the wave-particle duality of light and matter. Even Schrodinger is perplexed by this discovery. He cannot reconcile himself fully to the truths of quantum mechanics and spends the rest of his scientific life trying to unify it with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Finally, towering over the narrative is Werner Heisenberg. He agonizes over the discrepancy between the Newtonian physics that he has learned in the university and what he is uncovering in his research into the subatomic realm. He is overcome in a semi-mystical vision and articulates the uncertainty principle. Heisenberg realized that his matrix mathematics put an end to the stable universe created by the Enlightenment in which everything is governed by rational laws of nature and observable cause and effect.
By focusing on these men (sadly, not a woman among them) of uncommon genius, Labatut vividly illustrates how the gift of deep insight drives intense scientific creativity but also agonizing psychic pain. It is as if the awareness of hidden truths is inextricably linked to human suffering. This summary may sound pedantic and unbearably heavy. Only if you enter into Labatut’s unique literary space will you appreciate the inventiveness and intelligence of this overpowering book, all 191 pages of it. It is well worth the trip.
New York Review of Books