Perils of physics

October 14, 2023 1 Comment

Who would have thought that anyone could write a novel about theoretical physics that it would be impossible to put down till you’d got to its end? But that’s exactly what Benjamin Labatut has done with When we cease to understand the world, published by Pushkin Press in 2020.

Labatut is as universalist as his subject.  He was born in Rotterdam, grew up in the Netherlands, Argentina and Peru, and now lives in Chile.  He writes in Spanish, and this novel is his third, originally published with the title Un verdor terrible (‘a terrible greenness’) – a rather better title than its English translation.

Labatut starts as he means to go on.  This is his first sentence:

In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremburg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Göring’s fingers and toes stained a furious red, the consequence of his addiction to dihydrocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day.

Fritz Haber

Having stolen your attention, Labatut leads you, step by step, in language that’s perfectly measured and unhurried, through the deranged addiction of Wehrmacht soldiers to Göring’s drug of choice, to the wave of suicides by cyanide among Nazis at the end of the war, to the infamous gas Zyklon B, to the invention by chemists of Prussian Blue and the use of gas in the First World War, and finally to the main target in his first chapter, the pioneering chemist Fritz Haber.  Haber exemplifies one of Labatut’s themes, the double-edged sword of science.  He was responsible for obtaining nitrogen directly from the air, so freeing farmers from their previous need to depend on a very limited range of naturally occurring nitrogen.  Had that scarcity continued, the earth would not have been able to support the twentieth century’s massive increase in population.  But it was the same man, Fritz Haber, who produced the chlorine gas that was used in the trenches of the Western Front.  He oversaw its deployment as the head of the Chemistry section of the German Ministry of War.  His wife was horrified by its use and his indifference, and shot herself.  Haber, though, never repented of his invention – another of Labatut’s subjects is the moral blindness of most of his brilliant scientists.

This initial chapter concerns a chemist, but the author soon moves on to some of the leading twentieth century physicists (Einstein appears, but only in a walk-on role).  All of them are working at the outermost limits of theoretical science.  Obsession with intractable problems and their possible solutions was inescapable, and obsession often tipped into madness.

Erwin Schrödinger

In 1915 Karl Schwarzschild, Latatut’s second witness, was serving in the German army on the Russian front. Einstein received a letter from him containing a solution to the very equations Einstein had worked on in his general relativity.  Not only that, Schwatzschild had proved the idea of a star that, as space-time tears itself apart, must collapse into itself – a phenomenon later known as the Schwarzschild Singularity, and the basis of the terrifying ‘black hole’.  But by the time Einstein received the letter he was already dead, killed by a rare disease that covered his body in blisters.  Long before then, his behaviour showed signs of instability: ‘in all that he did … Schwarzschild would take things to the limit.’  On the battlefield he would be consumed by equations, always carried a notebook, and had the latest scientific papers sent to him.  He died discussing physics, and (to him) the horrifying notion of the unknowability of super-concentrated matter.

Next come two mathematicians, also working at levels beyond the comprehension of their ablest peers, Shinichi Mochizuki and Alexander Grothendieck.  The former finally retreated into silence and incommunicability, while the latter’s search for the key to uniting all of mathematics drove him to become an eccentric hermit, burning all his writings and insisting that all copies of his published works be withdrawn from libraries and universities.

Karl Heisenberg

The second half of the novel is given over to the pioneers of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger and Karl Heisenberg (with Niels Bohr playing the secondary, Einstein role).  Whereas in the first chapters Labatut relies heavily on the documentary record, he now allows himself to imagine the inner thoughts and tortured emotions of his characters.  His way of writing, though, is constant throughout the novel – an objectifying observing of extreme ideas and extreme behaviours that recalls the style of W.G. Sebald.

In June 1925 ‘Heisenberg had become a monster’, his face covered in deformations as a result of a allergic reaction to pollen.  To escape the pollen he fled to Heligoland, an island off the German coast, where he wrestled with a pain much more severe than his physical affliction – the puzzle of how to understand how the constituent parts an atom behaved.  Obsessed, insomniac, anti-social and usually ill, he refused to stop thinking about the problem until he was satisfied that he had calculated in matrices the exact patterns of interaction of particles within the atom.

Schrödinger’s own insights also came with a heavy load of pain, while he was staying in a Swiss mountain sanatorium (he had TB) in 1925.  Here he formed a curious relationship with his doctor’s young daughter, who was dying of TB and whom he was asked to tutor.  He taught during the day and worked all night on his ideas and atomic equations.  On his first night he had an epiphany, but was unable afterwards to understand what he had discovered.  Meanwhile he became fascinated with the girl, who in turn acted as his nurse.  Finally, as she slept, he watched her with a mixture of erotic desire and deathly horror.

Towards the end, we return to Heisenberg and Bohr, and their announcement of the ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’, the basic principles of quantum mechanics – a theory, with its emphasis on the principle of uncertainty, that was incomprehensible to most and wholly unacceptable to Einstein (he responded by exclaiming, ‘God does not play dice with the universe!’).   ‘Physics’, Labatut has Heisenberg and Bohr say, ‘ought not to concern itself with reality, but rather with what we can say about reality.’

There’s a coda to Labatut’s story of what happens at the outer reaches of human thought.  His final chapter introduces us to a nameless ‘night gardener’, who lives in the current age of giant fires and a ‘green plague’ spreading round the earth.  The gardener, it turns out, is a hermit and former mathematician who ‘speaks of mathematics as former alcoholics speak of booze, with a mixture of fear and longing’.  He gave up his research after realising that it was maths, rather than nuclear weapons or biological warfare, that had destroyed the world, through making it incomprehensible and meaningless.  The final image in the novel is of a lemon tree, which brings forth an impossible glut of fruit immediately before it dies.

Fay Dowker

After the story of Fritz Haber Latatut has no need to remind us of the horrific outcomes of the physicists’ triumphs – of Heisenberg’s work for Hitler on a nuclear bomb or the bombs unleashed on Japan – and he leaves the reader to ponder them.  He has told us more than we might wish to know about the dark side of science – mass death, individual madness and existential agony.

After reading When we cease to understand the world I was in need of an antidote, and along came a conversation on the radio with one of today’s theoretical physicists, Fay Dowker.  Her aim is to work towards a theory of ‘quantum gravity’ and hence unify the two, apparently incompatible worlds of basic physics. In contrast to Labatut’s gallery of bizarre men, not only is she a women, she also seemed sane, humorous and humane. There is another side to physics.

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  1. Gillian Lewis says:

    I now know which side of physics I prefer!

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