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When We Cease to Understand the World by [Benjamín Labatut, Adrian Nathan West]
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When We Cease to Understand the World Kindle Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 347 ratings

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Shortlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Selected by President Barack Obama for his Summer 2021 Reading List

“Absolutely brilliant. I was utterly gripped and wolfed it down. It feels as if he has invented an entirely new genre.” —Mark Haddon

“A thrilling account of theories of physics, and as a series of highly-wrought imaginative extrapolations about the physicists who arrived at them.” —Geoff Dyer

“When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut is the strangest and most original book I’ve read for years. It hovers in a state between fiction and non-fiction, or wave and particle, and makes an account of modern mathematics and science into something as eerie as a great ghost story.” —Philip Pullman, New Statesman, ‘Books of the Year’

“A dazzling associative caper full of graceful arabesques linking continents and centuries and ideas.” —The Sunday Times Culture

“Remind[s] us of fiction’s power to take us to another world and expand our understanding of this one . . . When We Cease to Understand the World showcases the minds seeking to pierce the mysterious heart of mathematics.” —The Guardian, ‘Biggest books of autumn’

“It may be possible to actually feel your brain getting bigger as you read.” —Evening Standard

“Labatut has written a dystopian nonfiction novel set not in the future but in the present.” —John Banville, The Guardian

“An exquisitely written and continuously fascinating hybrid work of fiction and history.” —Catherine Taylor, The Irish Times

“Wholly mesmerising and revelatory . . . Completely fascinating.” —William Boyd

“Using epoch-defining moments from the history of science, from Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity to Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg’s opposing views on quantum mechanics, Labatut uses fiction to crack open the stories of scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible, while also presenting them as human, all too human.” —Dazed

“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

“A gripping meditation on knowledge and hubris. . . . [Labatut] casts the flickering light of gothic fiction on 20th-century science. In five free-floating vignettes, he illuminates the kinship of knowledge and destruction, brilliance and madness. . . . His prose is masterfully paced and vividly rendered in Adrian Nathan West’s magnetic translation.” —Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, The New York Times Book Review

“Darkly dazzling. . . [Labatut] illustrates the unbreakable bond between horror and beauty, life-saving and life-destroying. . . . This book—as haunting as it is erudite—stubbornly insists on connecting the wonders of scientific advancement to the atrocities of history.” —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

When We Cease to Understand the World fuses fact and fiction to turn the modern history of physics into a gripping narrative of obsessed scientists, world-changing discoveries, and the ultimate results—often quite dark—of our drive to understand the fundamental workings of the universe.” —John Williams, The New York Times Book Review Podcast --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

About the Author

Benjamín Labatut was born in Rotterdam in 1980 and grew up in The Hague, Buenos Aires, and Lima. He published two award-winning works of fiction prior to When We Cease to Understand the World, which is his first book to be translated into English. Labatut lives with his family in Santiago, Chile. 

Adrian Nathan West is a novelist, essayist, and translator living in Spain. His criticism has appeared in the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications. He has translated books from German, Catalan, and Spanish, including Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Country Doctor (NYRB Classics) and Pere Gimferrer (NYRB Poets). --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

Product details

  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B08QM8VHRT
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ New York Review Books (Sept. 28 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • File size ‏ : ‎ 1661 KB
  • Text-to-Speech ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Screen Reader ‏ : ‎ Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • X-Ray ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Word Wise ‏ : ‎ Enabled
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 193 pages
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.3 out of 5 stars 347 ratings

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Customer reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5
347 global ratings

Top reviews from Canada

Reviewed in Canada on October 1, 2021
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Reviewed in Canada on October 27, 2021

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P. G. Harris
3.0 out of 5 stars James Burke meets Mary Shelley
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 28, 2020
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57 people found this helpful
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Gumble's Yard
5.0 out of 5 stars A complex book which is simply outstanding
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 6, 2021
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16 people found this helpful
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2.0 out of 5 stars Fictional biography- where does fact stop and fiction start???
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 3, 2021
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7 people found this helpful
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Kid Ferrous
4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful book about the dangers of wanting to know everything
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 25, 2021
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4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful book about the dangers of wanting to know everything
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 25, 2021
This is a Booker International Prize shortlisted collection of, to varying degrees, semi-fictionalised stories about scientists who were prepared to go as far as necessary to understand reality. And sometimes too far. It’s not so much a novel, more a kind of “true fiction”.
The first chapter is a fierce statement of intent as it describes the development of chlorine gas by the same man, Fritz Haber, who also invented a means of obtaining nitrogen from the air to use in fertiliser; this comes full circle in the last story in the book. Labatut doesn’t flinch from the details when describing the horrors of chemical warfare during the First World War. As one would expect, this part is the least “fictionalised” according to the author’s note at the end of the book. More “liberties” are taken as the book progresses, but these are not mere flights of fancy; they are vivid, riveting accounts of the often terrifying power of the human mind, with fact and fiction blurring together.
The genesis of quantum physics is played out as Heisenberg retreats to the island of Heligoland - a popular subject for writers these days it seems - while other famous boffins battle to put their own mark on the field. This tale forms the longest section in the book, where Labatut’s writing is at its best, and could be expanded to a book in itself. In a story that is becoming increasingly well-known, the “superstars” of quantum physics make an appearance, namely Einstein, Bohr and Schrödinger, who has his own epiphany at a tuberculosis clinic. If none of this is actually true, then it should be.
This is a well-written and interesting book and much more than just a collection of stories about scientists and mathematicians who pushed themselves to, and often over, the limit to understand the universe. It is a very profound work. Scientists themselves have often warned of the dangers of science during their lifetimes but I don’t think the book itself is anti-science, just cautious about the cost of looking too deeply and of the dangers of trying to understand everything.
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2 people found this helpful
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Ransen Owen
5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing page turner
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 26, 2020
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3 people found this helpful
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