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In the 1970s science broadcasterJames Burke wrote and presented a TV series called Connections in which he sought to identify linked chains of technological and scientific development across history. In When we Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut starts with the same concept but then adds a veneer of fiction which borrows greatly from the gothic imagination of Mary Shelley.
The book consists of five interlinked short stories, in the last of which the author draws metaphorical conclusions from that which has gone before. The first three sections are relatively short. The first tracks from the invention of the pigment Prussian Blue, through mustard gas in the first world war, to Zyklon B and the holocaust. The second tells of Einsteins astonishment at Schwarzchild’s rapid solution of the equation of General Relativity and postulation of the existence of black holes. The third charts the journey of mathematician Grothendieck from inspiration through madness to exile and isolation from his field of study. These three, in exploring themes of the responsibility of science, madness and modern physics lay groundwork for the story which takes up most of the book, that of Heisenberg, Schroedinger, and the battle for supremacy between the former’s matrix mechanics and the latter’s wave equation as a route to understanding the quantum world.
This is, accurately and reliably, set in mittel-Europe but in a world of remote sanitoria, madness and illicit sexual desire. This is definitely a gothic environment of high emotion, wild passions and supernatural occurrence, rather than cold rationality and sober scientific investigation.
It is this which sets this book in a strange place. At one end of the spectrum one might find the excellent Manjit Kumar’s Quantum, Einstein Bohr and the great debate, a fascinating factual account. At the other end is Mary Shelley’s allegorical warning about science and technology over reaching themselves. Labatut places himself in a position which I found difficult to reach. In telling a story about real people, based in fact, but then adding a fictional element, the author blurs the line in a way which I found infuriating. I want to learn about Heisenberg, I don’t want to read about a fictionalised Heisenberg about whom I don’t know which bits are true and which bits are invention. Now it may be that Labatut is doing something clever in introducing uncertainty, in creating a sort of Schroedingers Herzenberg, both true and not true at the same time (unfortunately we don’t know which when we open the box) and an uncertain Schroedinger. But sadly in that direction lies quackery, and those who seek to find mysticism in the strangeness of quantum theory. It would also seem to me to be confusing semantics and scientific precision.
If we look at the book as being allegorical, there is further difficulty to be found. If anything, Labatut seems to be saying that the sheer weirdness of quantum mechanics means that it must be the product of madness. There also seems to be scepticism about the scientific method in a book which appears to value deranged inspiration over careful deduction.
Labatut has written an interesting book which does ask searching questions about the nature of the creative process, and about the moral responsibility of the scientist for the consequences of his or her discoveries. However, the author finally lost my sympathy in the final chapter when he reveals the identity of Frankenstein’s monster. It is mathematics both in the esoteric nature of modern developments, and as the driving force behind the sciences. This is a similar if some what inverted argument to that which sees mathematics as the queen of the sciences. However blaming mathematics for humanity’s misuse of technology is a bit like blaming the miner digging the lead from the ground for the gunshot wound.
I am trying to be objective about a book which throws up some interesting thoughts, and to be fair, Labutat does recognise some benefits of science, but ultimately he rather throws the intellectual development baby out with the technophobe bathwater.
I was drawn to this book by Stephen Fry extolling its virtues in a recent interview. In fact it’s nowhere near as fascinating as Fry says. It’s ok but not a page turner. I started it with gusto but ran out of steam very quickly.
This is not the sort of book I'm particularly looking for. It mixes scientific fact and fictional elements to make its point. It does this through biographies of a mix of scientific geniuses, particularly in the field of quantum physics, It emphasises the role in their work of their illnesses physical and mental. The fantasy elements increase as the book progresses. If the author had concentrated on these individuals and the influence they had on each other I think he could have made his major point ( which I won't spoil )without the fantasy. The book is interesting as in parts it introduces ideas and personalities I know little about but I find my self skimming those fantasy bits; though I have to admit often I can't tell where actual biography or story fact ends and the fantasy begins. That's annoying..
The author noted in his acknowledgements that he started with little fiction and it grew as the stories progressed. At first the fiction only seemed to be used to keep the the stories personal, as though a friend of the scientists were relating the stories. But toward the end, the accounts of the scientists feeling and inner thoughts could not have come from even the closest friend or lover. I feel the author went to far and lost sight of the science although he did get back to it. Overall, he did convey the profound realization that these men contributed to science some of the most unfathomable concepts of how our universe works in both the macro and micro worlds. For those of us that are but laymen to science these are hard concepts to wrap our minds around. But this book gives a glimpse of how these concepts affect the minds and lives of those versed in the mathematics and experiments associated with them. The last set of stories in the book seemed out of place to me. I felt the author may be trying to tell me more about the relationship of these ideas to my everyday life, but I failed to see it.
Not sure what I expected - perhaps a coherent story. However the author has presented a series of vignettes which purport to show how brilliant but often manic minds have made scientific discoveries. The discoveries are hinted at, but never expressed in terms that I could understand. And the stories about scientists in the 19th and 20th century describe behaviors that often make no sense and have nothing to do with the science.
It's actually a nice introduction to the intricacies of quantum physics. However, either all the intellectual giants (Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli, etc) had depressingly similar and insane lives, or perhaps the author needed to expend a little more effort on not making all these scientists crazy in the same way. Interesting, and fast read.