Feeling seriously crappy and out of sorts when I have not written anything for weeks. How could I let that happen? I was losing my mind with all that paper work and pedantic stuff. Now that I have managed to catch up with some of my reads, I can feel my brains again.
I finally caught up with reading When We Cease to Understand the World by Chilean writer Benjamin Labatut. It is a book that was written in Spanish and translated by Adrian Nathan West. It is a work of fiction based on true events and made up of twentieth century scientists and mathematicians including Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein,Erwin Schrödinger and Karl Schwarzschild . The story is about their troubled lives and how in their quest to find answers to questions of existence and the universe, they alienate friends and loved ones, and were driven to madness in their pursuits and how their genius make them suffer. While some of their discoveries revolutionise our world for the better, others pave the way to chaos and sometimes, even destruction. The book begins with the disturbing narratives on Prussian Blue and about how it was first synthesized by a young alchemist, Johann Conrad Dippel who presented himself as a Pietist theologian, a philosopher, artist and doctor. Dippel was wicked and bound by no principles. He worked on countless experiments claiming to have discovered the Elixir of Life and it was Dippel’s elixir that would eventually produce blue that shines in Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Cyanide was subsequently discovered by stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid. The other horrible account is about how in 1907, Fritz Haber invented modern-day nitrogen fertilizers and in 1915 he was also the first man who created the chlorine gas that caused mass destruction during the First World War.
In the story, on December 24, 1915, Albert Einstein received a letter from Karl Schwarzschild, a German astronomer and Mathematics who gave the world its first glimpse of the black hole. Through Labatut’s detailed narratives, Wiener Karl Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics is pitted against Erwin Schrödinger’s wave equation. On October 24,1927, twenty- nine physicists attended the Fifth Solvay Conference at the Physiology Institute, an institute ‘built for the purpose of demonstrating, insofar as possible the phenomenon of life should be explained by the physical laws that govern the universe, which we may know through observation and the objective study of the facts of the world.’ ‘Although the conference theme was “Electrons and Photons” , all present knew the true purpose was to analyse quantum mechanics, which was casting doubt on the whole edifice upholding physics.’
During the conference, two accounts of quantum mechanics faced off. Schrödinger defended his waves and multidimensional theory followed by Heisenberg and his mentor, the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr presented their vision of quantum mechanics known as the Copenhagen Interpretation. They said that reality does not exist as something separate from the act of observation. ‘A quantum object has no intrinsic properties. An electron is not in any fixed place until it is measured; it is only in that instant that it appears. Before being measured,it has no attributes; prior to observation, it cannot even be conceived of .It exists in a specifc manner when it is detected by a specific instrument. Between one measurement and the next, there is no point in asking how it moves, what it is, or where it is located, Like the moon in Buddhism, a particle does not exist : it is the act of measuring that makes it a real object.’
Heisenberg was saying that ‘There simply existed no “real world” outside that science was capable of studying’. ‘They live in worlds of potentialities, Heisneberg explained ; they are not things, but possibilities. The transition from the “ possible” to the “real “ only occurred during the act of observation or measurement. There was, therefore, no independently existing quantum reality’.
The duel between Einstein and Bohr dominated the conference and, in the end, Einstein had to yield. Labatut writes :
‘ He had not found a single inconsistency in Bohr’s reasoning. He accepted defeat grudgingly, and condensed all his hatred of quantum mechanics ‘in a famous phrase by him :
“ God does not play dice with the universe !” to which Bohr responded “ It’s not our place to tell Him how to run the world.” when he heard Einstein’s sniping remark. Schrödinger also came to detest quantum mechanics.
When We Cease to Understand the World is a fascinating and disturbing read. Its title is appropriate for the theme that runs through the story. The narration is fast pace, partly fiction but based on true events. The writer has woven together art, history and science and tells a story about the paradoxes about science, mathematics and its discoveries with some theories pitting against another. The world will continue to elude us.
I find the book mind expanding and simply brilliant even though all that blurb about theory of relativity and black hole are lost on me. I have zero knowledge about quantum mechanics and in school, I found physics a painful subject and was hopeless at it. In the story ,there is such a wealth of information about physicists, mathematicians and about how they quest for answers about the physical world and in so doing their personal lives suffered. The book is a blend between fiction and non-fiction, and the way the writer has written about these luminaries and their discoveries, you realise that there is just so much about the universe we cannot possible know. Things are not what you think they are and often they cannot be explained even with a scientific mind.
The author ends the book with the encounter and conversations with a night gardener who used to be a mathematician who now speaks of mathematics as former alcoholics speak booze, with a mixture of fear and longing. He decided to quit his career as a mathematician because he realized that ‘it was mathematics- not nuclear weapon, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant. Not that we ever did, he said, but things are getting worse. We can pull atoms apart, peer back at the first light and predict the end of the universe with just a handful of equations, squiggly lines and arcane symbols that normal people cannot fathom, even though they hold sway over their lives. But it’s not just regular folks; even scientists no longer comprehend the world. Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.‘
When We Cease to Understand the World was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. It is a book that asks us to questions about our limitations in understanding the universe.
The book is best summed up by the author , Benjamin Labatut himself when he was asked this question: Could you summarize your book in two sentences?
‘ This book is about what happens when we reach the edges of science; when we come face to face with what we cannot understand. It is about what occurs to the human mind when it pushes past the outer limits of thought, and what lies beyond those limits.’
The question to ask is : What is our reality? Do you know?