Book Review - When We Ceased to Understand the World

Published on: 2023-06-13 02:19:18

The first thing I thought of when I saw this book's title is the mod for CK2 - when the world stopped making sense (WtWSMS). The second thing was how intriguing the title itself was. "When we ceased to understand the world." A good title is as important to a book as a good cover is because people always judge books by these metrics. You want to grab the reader's attention as soon as you can. This book certainly grabbed mine.

Without delving into any spoilers, this book is a blend of historical fiction and scientific fiction. Not science fiction, scientific fiction - fiction about science. In the beginning it reads like any non-fiction book about science. It is descriptive, tells us the what, why and the how and presents us with the conclusions. But slowly, we get into more details, and soon we get into narratives and people and motivations and then we get a plot. After that, each subsequent chapter is its own self-contained story, properly fictional yet fully real. Real-world fiction, to use another description. But these do not detract from the book or its message at all. The author, Benjamín Labatut, writes powerfully and is wonderfully descriptive. I could see Werner Heisenberg lying sick in his bed in Heligoland, feel the astonishment Einstein felt when he read the letter from Karl Schwarzschild from the front in Russia during WW1.

Beyond everything, this book is not about science, nor about history. It is about people. It is about how all these physicists and chemists and mathematicians who changed the world as we know it, from Fritz Haber and his Haber's process and the role he played in WW1 to Erwin Schrodinger and his wave equation which changed the way we look at the world, now neither continuous nor discrete, neither a particle nor a wave. These are but a few of the people who grace the pages of this book, but Benjamín Labatut's achievement is not in explaining the discoveries and inventions of these people nor is it in stitching together a grand narrative from disjointed stories of scientific progress (both of which he does masterfully). The best part of this book, and indeed, the author's greatest achievement is in showing these people as all too human, not as someone you or I could be, but as someone who could have been you or I.

At the end, this book is also about how the pace of scientific progress has increased to such a high rate that we have ceased to understand the world we live in. Until the early 20th, the world was deterministic (it wasn't, of course, but you get the drift). And yet, right now the world is a lot more complex than we can even begin to imagine. Despite all this, the book does not read as an anti-technology book. If anything, it is an anti-people book, because it is people who have discovered and invented and pushed the world to this state where we have ceased to understand it. But of course, even that is not true as the author does not frame his book as anti-anything. If anything, the core theme of the book is to explore these ideas presented and to show how the world grew to one of increasing sophistication and complexity and the varied characters who were driving this change.

All in all, a great read, very entertaining, very thought-provoking, surprisingly emotional at times and a very highly recommended read. 4/5