When We Cease To Understand The World Review

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there - Richard Feynman

I do not know madness even from afar, but since I was a child, I always had the suspicion that there was something fundamentally twisted, something very extraordinary just under the skin of things - Benjamin Labatut

Nearly a century ago Schrödinger introduced his landmark eponymous wave function. The discovery spurred the development of quantum mechanics, and today this has reshaped our world. The computer in every pocket and the most destructive weapons of all time are only possible because of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger’s work is at the heart of it all. But here is a strange truth: not a single soul has ever really understood what Schrödinger created. Not even Schrödinger himself.

Today physicists speak of interpretations of Schrödinger’s wave function. That is because our understanding is limited to just that: interpretations. Decades after Schrödinger’s discovery we don’t really know what it means although we have used it to transform our world. In this way the wave function feels a bit like magic, or a technology from an alien world. How can it possibly be that we have this knowledge that we don’t understand but which has helped us transform the world? How did Schrödinger, who himself offered immediately dismissed interpretations of his work, bring these ideas into the world? What does that teach us?

When We Cease To Understand The World by Benjamin Labatut is a book about these questions and the many other things about scientific knowledge that we don’t really understand. It is a strange work that combines unbelievable scientific and historical facts with imaginative fiction to bring the mysteries, miracles, and catastrophes of science into sharp illumination. In reading this book our eyes are reopened to the profound mysteries that lay at the heart of the world, and to the danger that wielding their secrets brings.

Labatut’s vision of physics is on full display in this passage:

In the deepest substrate of all things, physics had not found the solid, unassailable reality Schrödinger and Einstein had dreamt of, ruled over by a rational God pulling the threads of the world, but a domain of wonders and rarities, borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.

That vision is a refreshing one compared to the sterilized physics of today. It might be my own biases, but when I think of contemporary science I think not of wonder, rarities, mystery, and epiphanies but instead of the bureaucracy of grants, the sclerosis of academia, and the stagnation of string theory. Imbuing physics with mysticism and wonder is powerful. I have found myself lost for hours in reading about physics again, as I once did as a child. One has to wonder what discoveries there are to find and how physics might change if this worldview was a widespread one.

Beyond only being a domain of rarities and wonder, When We Cease To Understand The World reveals how strange physics has become too. Eternal singularities, waves that are particles, fundamental uncertainty at heart of all things, equations we don’t understand, and particle entanglement that transcends the known limits of the universe. This is the physics of today. This is reality, or at least how we think reality works, and it is stranger than fiction.

The mastery of When We Cease To Understand The World is to use actual fiction with real events and science to help us see just how strange the real world is. Through stories of how famous discoveries were made, we are shown both the essence of the breakthrough ideas and the madness of those who discovered them. One of the more interesting parts of the book was repeatedly reading unbelievable anecdotes only to discover later on that they were real events. It seems like fiction that Einstein’s field equations - which even Einstein couldn’t solve - would be solved shortly after publishing by a German lieutenant fighting on the Russian front of WW1. But that actually happened. The book has many such anecdotes that you’ll be surprised to google and discover that they were fact, not fiction.

One of the strange parts of science and a theme of the book is that its discoveries are often fundamentally dual use. The right idea can unlock godlike powers to bring about unparalleled abundance and destruction. As an example quantum mechanics enabled both nuclear power and nuclear weapons; respectively an exceptional source of energy and the most destructive weapons ever devised. As another example, the discovery of a method for mass producing nitrogen led to modern fertilizers and in turn provided a foundation for the explosion of world population from ~1.5bn to 8bn people. But that same discovery led to the horrors of chemical warfare of WWI. Progress and peril seemingly go hand and hand.

Labatut seems to suggest that the horrors of the 20th century made humanity irreversibly aware of the dual nature of scientific discoveries. The rough argument is that after nuclear weapons a part of us recoils at the potential of newfound discoveries because they might be equally or even more destructive. In the book legendary mathematician Alexander Grothendieck is quoted as saying “The atoms that tore Hiroshima and Nagasaki apart were split not by the greasy fingers of a general, but a group of physicists armed with a fistful of equations.” For Grothendieck this awareness compelled him to leave mathematics at the height of his career and denounced the field altogether. By contrast Heisenberg could push ahead with his discoveries in the 1920s because their destructive potential had not been realized yet.

The thesis that as a society we are scarred from the horrors brought by scientific discovery and its applications is a compelling one. To see the lasting impact of this today one needs to only look at the latest news headlines. At the frontiers of knowledge, where our discoveries might be the most fruitful, we are anxious about progressing further. Whether it is AI or biotech we worry about new and told horrors that might be unleashed from the next discovery. This suggests one reason for why we have yet to go beyond quantum mechanics and why scientific and technological progress has slowed in the last decades. How hard would you push if you might be, in Labatut’s rendition of Grothendieck’s words, sleepwalking towards the apocalypse?

Our world is one of wonders and rarities. We have uncovered many of its mysteries and been rewarded with god-like powers that have transformed our world. But many more mysteries remain, some even more strange and terrible than anything that has preceded them or which we have ever understood. Paradoxically there are ways that we understand less about the world today than we did a century ago. The mastery of When We Cease To Understand The World is using fictional narrative to bring unbelievable truths to light and to inspire a newfound sense of marvel in the universe.

How humanity reconciles its ceaseless hunger for knowledge and the potentially apocalyptic nature of knowledge will continue to be a central challenge. So far we have been resilient in managing the destructive aspects of discoveries. And for all the danger that pushing forward might bring, a world where we don’t is not acceptable either. Truncating our knowledge would mean we never find cures for cancer or Alzheimer's, that we never create boundless energy, that we never end poverty.

Our eyes have been opened to the mystery and peril of the universe. We cannot stop seeking but we also cannot sleepwalk blindly forward. A middle way is needed. For scientists and technologists that means continuing to push limits but doing so with awareness, caution, and humility. For statesmen that means allowing for the pursuit of the universe’s secrets until mystery becomes monstrous. The narrow path of moderation may be what yields the best of all futures.

Altogether I highly recommend When We Cease To Understand The World. The content was thought provoking and reignited an interest in physics for me. Beyond the content, the literary style of mixing fiction and non-fiction was also excellent and genre defining. If there is a complaint I have about the book, it is that its style - so essential to imbuing physics with mystery - came at the cost of making physics seem apocalyptic. Regardless, the book is one of my favorites of all time. It is best for those interested in science, technology, or the great people who have pushed knowledge forward.


Thanks to Luke and Andy for reviewing a draft of this blogpost before publication, and to Tina for recommending this book and for our many walks talking about it.