Benjamín Labatut

When We Cease to Understand the World

Original Spanish title: Un verdor terrible | Literal translation of the German title: Blind Light
(German title: Das blinde Licht)
ca. 200 pages
Benjamín Labatut
Foto: Benjamín Labatut
© Juana Gomez

Benjamín Labatut was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in 1980. He grew up in The Hague and Buenos Aires and currently lives and works in Santiago de Chile. His literary works have been awarded various prizes, including the 2013 Premio Municipal de Literatura de Santiago de Chile. When We Cease to Understand the World is his third book.

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USA & Canada (NYRB), UK & ANZ (Pushkin Press), Spanish world rights (Anagrama), Chinese simplex rights (Shanghai 99), Brazilian Portuguese rights (Todavia), Portuguese rights (Elsinore), France (Seuil), Italy (Adelphi), Netherlands (Atlas|Contact)

Winner of an English PEN Award


In his literary exploration When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamín Labatut writes about the fine line between genius and insanity and about the ambivalence of scientific discoveries in four chapters that are as sensuous as they are bizarre. The text portrays the life of scientists Fritz Haber, Werner Heisenberg, Alexander Grothendieck and Erwin Schrödinger as that of daredevil dreamers and passionate trailblazers. We read of their Eureka!-moments, their triumphant epiphanies, but also of their ethical shortcomings, their mental lows and their narcissism.

With virtuosity, in rich and strikingly vivid detail, Labatut unlocks historic connections and writes, seemingly en passant, a history of 20th-century European science that is not only shaped by the great wars, but that, in turn, also has a major influence on the course of those wars. A literary gem about human eccentricity and the glorious yet terrifying power of science.


Meet the protagonists of the book:

»He (Fritz Haber) fled to Switzerland, where he received the message that he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for an invention that dated back to the time before the war and without which the fate of humankind would have taken a different course in the following decades.«

Fritz Haber
December 9, 1868 - January 29, 1934
The German chemist and Nobel laureate Fritz Haber is regarded as a controversial figure of science. As a co-inventor of the Haber–Bosch process he secured food production of a large part of the global population. At the same time, he was responsible for the use of war gas in World War I and thus is partially at fault for the death of thousands of people.

»At the centre of a dead star the entire mass was concentrated in an infinitely dense body. That something like this could exist in the universe was unimaginable to Schwarzschild. Not only did it challenge the human intellect, not only did it raise doubt about the validity of general relativity, it also scratched at the foundations of physics – the terms of space and time alone no longer made sense in singularity.«

Karl Schwarzschild
October 9, 1873 - May 11, 1916
The German astronomer and physicist was one of the most important pioneers of modern astrophysics with his research on black holes. The centre of black holes was named after him: the Schwarzschild singularity.

»His obsession was space and one of his strokes of genius was broadening the idea of what a point is. From Grothendieck’s perspective, the simple point was no longer an object without expanse, rather it was seething with complex internal structures. Where others saw somethig without height, breadth or depth, Alexander saw an entire universe. Since Euclid, no one had dared to advance in such a bold manner.«

Alexander Grothendieck
March 28, 1928 - November 13, 2014
The French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck expanded the mathematic methods and solved some of the biggest mathematical conjectures. During the Vietnam war, he became increasingly political and ultimately decided to withdraw completely from the public sphere.

»The abc conjecture touches upon the foundations of mathematics. It postulates a deep, unexpected connection between the additive and multiplicative characteristics of whole numbers. I fit was right, it would become a most powerful tool with which numerous mysteries could be solved. But Mochizuki’s ambition was greater than that and he leave it at presenting a proof; instead, he invented a new geometry that forces us to conceive numers in a radical new way.«

Shinichi Mochizuki
March 19, 1969
For years, the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki has been working on the so-called »inter-universal geometry« he named. He claims to have solved the abc conjecture.

»To Heisenberg, it was clear that everyone was wrong. Electrons were neither waves nor particles. The subatomic world was incomparable to anything they could have known. He was absolutely sure of that and his conviction was so profound that he was still struggling to put it into words.«

Werner Heisenberg
December 5, 1901 - February 1, 1976
Werner Heisenberg was a German quantum physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the field of quantum mechanics. His role in the process of developing Germany’s atomic bomb during the World War II is controversial to this day.

»He formulated a cunning thought experiment that designed an ostensibly impossible creature: a cat that was both dead and alive at the same time. With this experiment, he wanted to demonstrate the absurd character of this kind of thinking. The followers of the Copenhagen interpretation told him that he was completely right, the result was as absurd as it was paradoxical. But it was right.«

Erwin Schrödinger
August 12, 1887 - January 14, 1961
The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of quantum mechanics, but today he is famous around the world for the thought experiment named after him: Schrödinger’s cat.


»An extraordinary ›nonfiction novel‹ weaves a web of associations between the founders of quantum mechanics and the evils of two world wars [...] When We Cease to Understand the World [...] is [an] ingenious, intricate and deeply disturbing ›work of fiction based on real events‹« John Banville, The Guardian

»We may be familiar with such things as Schrödinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle… but the sheer audacity, the utter insanity of the ideas and the thinkers who discovered these ideas has never, in my experience, been so vividly and terrifyingly conveyed as in this short, monstrous, and brilliant book.« Philip Pullman

»Absolutely brilliant. I was utterly gripped and wolfed it down. It feels as if he has invented an entirely new genre.« Mark Haddon

»A wholly mesmerising and revelatory book. A blend of limpid scientific exposition and bravura fictional gloss. Completely fascinating.« William Boyd

»›Double physics!‹ Nothing in the school time-table was as unwelcome as those two words. Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is doubly welcome: as a thrilling account of theories of physics, and as a series of highly-wrought imaginative extrapolations about the physicists who arrived at them.« Geoff Dyer

»Labatut advances into the heart of a reality that few before him have seen this way – and that no one before him has described like this. A book of awe-inspiring beauty.« Wolfram Eilenberger

»The author undertakes nothing less than narrating, not explaining, the basics of modern physics and chemistry, from the theory of relativity to building the atom bomb. He achieves this so well that one puts down the book with regret as it is more gripping than any crime novel.« Hans Christoph Buch, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

»Humanity’s age-old question of ›What can I know?‹ – Labatut asks it anew with narrative brilliance.« Leander F. Badura, DIE ZEIT

»In an ingenious combination of essay and fiction, Benjamín Labatut tells of border crossings in science where either reason or reality fall by the wayside. The author accomplishes an intriguing closeness to his protagonists.« Gerrit Stratmann, Deutschlandfunk Kultur

»Labatut not only jolts his readers and gifts them with memorable images, he also implants into them the absolute necessity to read everything he is yet going to write – and as soon as possible at that.« La Tercera (Chile)

»The genius of Benjamín Labatut’s writing lies in his capacity to penetrate into domains of enormous complexity without ever relinquishing rigour, while making his scientist characters flesh and blood, pure literary figures that probably seem more real the more they are invented. […] The limits of human knowledge: this is the territory in which Labatut, with verve and extraordinary intellectual vigor, circulates in this admirable book.« José Mário Silva, Expresso (Portugal)

»With contagious delight, Labatut explores the instances in which genius and madness meet.« Ariane Singer, Le Monde (France)

»A Chilean novelist tells us about the role of madness in the big discoveries of the twentieth century. European scientific genius enlightened by South American magical realism: a miracle!« Science & Vie (France)

»The young Chilean writer Benjamin Labatut retraces, in many powerful anecdotes, one more astonishing than the other, the fate of some mad scientists in a flamboyant and romantic story on the border of non-fiction, worthy of the great Roberto Bolaño.« Rolling Stone (France)

»a brilliant book« J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, El País (Spain)


Click here to read an interview with Benjamín Labatut in English on his book Un Verdor Terrible.