peteg's blog - noise - books - 2023 11 22 Labatut WhenWeCeaseToUnderstandTheWorld

Benjamín Labatut: When We Cease to Understand the World. (2021)

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Kindle. Inevitable having read The MANIAC despite not being sold by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim's timely review nor its appearance on the New York Times list of the best of 2021.

This is a collection of shorts that end up being a bit of a sprawling mess. The MANIAC worked better as Labatut went narrower and deeper: all the ventriloquy centred on illuminating von Neumann. Here we're made to think that almost all of modern theoretical physics arose from fever dreams, that Einstein was the last sane man and that's only because he ran out of imagination in confronting the extreme weirdness of quantum mechanics. I think the central theme was that there's a void at the centre of everything (physics, mathematics, morality, so on); Labatut doesn't to know that there is a crack in everything, or more prosaically, that we're stuck in the realm of unsatisfying phenomena. Alexander Grothendieck's life gets embellished; we get merely a sketch of Shinichi Mochizuki. Erwin Schrödinger at a TB clinic in the Swiss mountains, philanderer, predator, opposed by unstable Werner Heisenberg. Fritz Haber: the process, the poison gas. Karl Schwarzschild's solution to Einstein's field equations of general relativity, black holes, wartime. It's too much and not enough.

Labatut writes well and moves us around fluently but to what end I know not. One of these years Francis Spufford will teach someone to write a masterpiece of this genre.

Goodreads. Most reviews recount the tales and gesture at the imponderable.