When We Cease to Understand the World

Labatut, Benjamin

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Historical Fiction

Annotated by:
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.


So much has been written about how quantum mechanics has wreaked havoc with our understanding of how the world we live in works.  On the scientific level, nature is changed from an orderly system governed by unchanging laws that are “out there” and discovered to be instead a probabilistic scheme that is ruled by chance. Action at a distance, Schrodinger’s cat, and parallel realities are all demonstrable outcomes of quantum mechanical theory. The philosophical implications are just as profound – determinism is out, blind chance is in. Labatut certainly grapples with these issues. But the vitality of his book emerges from his exploration of the disruptive forces generated by this singularity in the history of science through the lives of the geniuses who made it happen.

Geniuses live lives in tension, torn between the relationship to their loved ones and their attraction to the pursuit of science. Andrew Solomon examined the relationship of Jason Bell to his parents and his family. Biographies of geniuses examine the intellectual origins of their creative efforts. Labatut is unique in drawing portraits that vividly display the full array of forces acting on the geniuses in his literary work. The pull of knowledge distorts the relationships of geniuses to those around them. In Labatut’s hands, the human side is often disfigured, even monstrous. But none of the men in this book were able to fully extricate themselves from their social context and this in turn molded how they framed their scientific discoveries. Labatut suspends his geniuses in the space-time warp of general relativity while recognizing their intrinsic gravitational power to modify the topology of space around them.

Labatut’s book is like an imaginative midrash or commentary on the lives of Heisenberg and his fellow physicists and theoretical mathematicians. There is a well-known text in the Talmud, Tractate Hagigah that describes four famous rabbis who ventured into the pardes, a rabbinical metaphor for esoteric knowledge. One died in the effort, one became deranged, one became an apostate, and only one emerged unscathed. In Labatut’s world of scientific genius, quantum mechanics is the forbidden metaphysical arena and there is a parallel human narrative. Schwarzschild died, Gronthendieck became unhinged, Schrodinger converted, and only Heisenberg and Bohr emerged relatively intact. There is one monumental character in the story who I have left out of this review – Albert Einstein. Einstein is famous for steadfastly believing that God does not play dice with the universe and that there had to be something missing in the theory of quantum mechanics. I am uncertain where Einstein fits into Labatut’s literary reconstruction or the Talmudic story. This only underscores the richness of both narratives.


New York Review of Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count