It’s artfully done, and chilling in its conviction. Modish, too, in the way it interlaces fact and fiction. It’s also laughable, and for a couple of reasons. First, it seems a bit cheap of Labatut to treat all science and mathematics as one thing. If you want to build a book around the idea of humanity’s hubris, you can’t just point your finger at ‘boffins’. The other problem is Labatut’s mixing of fact and fiction. He’s not out to cozen us. But here and there I was disconcerted enough to check his facts — and where else but on Wikipedia?
For obvious reasons it is hard to write about quantum physics for the lay reader. Labatut’s solution — to sugar the pill with fiction — is understandable and admirable. Unfortunately the fact-based essays work better. What Labatut mostly “adds” to the later chapters is extended description of his geniuses’ inner worlds at the time of their breakthroughs. Drug trips, sleep deprivation, intellectual epiphanies: these are all difficult states to narrate well, and Labatut isn’t quite up to it.
Books of popular science usually celebrate the wondrous achievements that applied mathematics has wrought in the realms of physics, chemistry and cosmology. Labatut, born in Holland and resident in Chile, will have none of it. When We Cease to Understand the World (translated by Adrian Nathan West) is his ingenious, intricate and deeply disturbing “work of fiction based on real events”, though it might have been better to call it a nonfiction novel, since the majority of the characters are historical figures, and much of the narrative is based on historical fact... Labatut has written a dystopian nonfiction novel set not in the future but in the present. Has modern science and its engine, mathematics, in its drive towards “the heart of the heart”, already assured our destruction? As Grothendieck put it: “The atoms that tore Hiroshima and Nagasaki apart were split not by the greasy fingers of a general, but by a group of physicists armed with a fistful of equations.”