When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated by Adrian Nathan West

A fast-paced, mind-expanding literary work about scientific discovery, ethics and the unsettled distinction between genius and madness.

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front of World War I. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that it contains a monster that could destroy his life’s work.

The great mathematician Alexander Grothendieck tunnels so deeply into abstraction that he tries to cut all ties with the world, terrified of the horror his discoveries might cause.

Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality, revealing a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.

Using extraordinary, epoch-defining moments from the history of science, Benjamín Labatut plunges us into exhilarating territory between fact and fiction, progress and destruction, genius and madness.


I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. All thoughts are my own.


I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve wanted to read a non-fiction piece, and yet here I am, finding excuse after excuse of manual labor so I can keep listening to this audiobook. When We Cease to Understand the World is essentially a collection of short biopics, detailing the lives of various mathematicians and physicists in the 20th and 21st centuries who either went down the spiral of madness due to his discoveries, or used that madness to fuel them. Described as literary non-fiction, I found myself absolutely enthralled by the sheer absurdity and bizarreness of the lives of these men and how single events changed the landscape of mathematics and physics as we know it.

What really captivated me is that as an engineering student, every equation, every scientist who’s stories are told are people that I’ve had to learn and work with and it was both fascinating and a little horrifying (as a first year PhD student) to learn that yeah, those theories and equations that shook the entire field to its core? The guy who discovered them spent three months in a fever-dream and once lucid, had no idea how he’d reached the conclusions he did. And while the author admits to embellishing here and there (do we know for certain Heisenberg’s feverdream discovery of the Uncertainty Principle really culminated with hallucinations of Goethe sucking off the still hard erection of the corpse of Hafez, an Islamic poet he’d much admired? Probably not, but the imagery is very striking), the biopics themselves are largely factual.

Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. Bizarre yet enthralling. Labatut paints a grim picture of a future where, we, as humanity, can no longer truly comprehend the laws governing our natural world. Yet, the laws of physics do no change because we refuse to look at them. So is it better to know and confront madness, or stay sane but ignorant?

Publication Date: 3 September 2020
Publisher: Pushkin Press 
Format: audiobook, ARC
Pages: 192
Word Count: N/A
ISBN: 9781782276128
Buy It Here: Amazon | Google Books | Barnes and Nobles | Goodreads

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