When We Cease to Understand the World comprises a series of fictionalised biographies of famous mathematicians of the first half of the 20th century. At its centre, taking up more than half of the book, is the story of Heisenberg and Schrödinger and the creation of quantum mechanics. Benjamín Labatut does little to endear them, or any of his other subjects, to the reader, choosing instead to constantly remind us that all of the progress they make brings us nearer to the age of nuclear weaponry. Heisenberg, on the threshold of a breakthrough, has a nightmare in which he is visited by a crowd of people, ‘their bodies sculpted of soot and ash’; Schrödinger outlines his wave equation to the woman he loves and sees her transformed into ‘a black-skinned corpse covered in suppurating wounds and scabs, her tongue lolling from her smiling skull’.
The idea that scientific progress might do more harm than good is well rehearsed, and Labatut occasionally labours the point. When We Cease to Understand the World is, significantly, bookended by the story of Fritz Haber, on the one hand the father of chemical warfare, on the other the man