Translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West
AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
I have an almost pathological aversion to physics. I grew up as the daughter of a scientist, so I can only assume that my utter lack of understanding of his pet subject came as something of a disappointment to him. I dropped the subject at 14.
Reading the rapturous endorsement from Philip “dust” Pullman on the back of the English translation of this 2020 book, then, initially gave me the heebie-jeebies:
“We may be familiar with such things as Schrodinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle … but the sheer audacity, the utter insanity of the ideas and thinkers who discovered these ideas has never, in my experience, been so vividly and terrifyingly conveyed as in this short, monstruous and brilliant book“.
I prevaricated, I dithered, I procrastinated wildly. I picked the book up, stroked the cover and put it back down. Days later I admired the yellow end papers, then flicked through the pages, Matrix-style like Keanu Reeves, trying to absorb the contents without actually having to engage with any of them: “I know Kung Fu!”.
Finally, I opened the book, cracking the spine nonchalantly, “quantum physics, huh? bring it on” and began to read. And I was captivated. Labatut alludes to the “recondite” knowledge of scientists, and this book is a treasure trove of such knowledge. I learned (kind of, don’t test me) the essentials of Shwarzchild’s Singularity, explaining the phenomenon of black holes, and potted biographies of great figures who’ve made jaw-dropping scientific discoveries, but this was not a dry, Wikipedia-type account. The prose, described by the author as “a work of fiction based on real events” is gripping, mixing erudition and deep research with beautiful composition, flights of imagination and bizarre historical facts.
I preferred the first half of the book, which weaves together disparate facts and fictions in a kaleidoscopic, sometimes apocalyptic whirl, to the second half, which concentrates on the rivalries between Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, although ironically this section is the one that is most obviously fictionalised rather than a lyrically written work of non-fiction.
At the crux of this book is “the heart of the heart” – something the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck conceived of as at the very centre of the discipline – and which seems to have driven him to insanity. Even at his most productive, Labatut writes:
“For years he devoted the whole of his energy, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, to mathematics. He did not read newspapers, watch television or go to the cinema. He liked ugly women, squalid apartments, dilapidated rooms. He worked cloistered in a cold office with flaking paint falling from the walls, his back turned to the only window, with pen and paper on his desk and only four objects as decoration: his mother’s death mask, a small wire sculpture of a goat, a jar of Spanish olives and a charcoal portrait of his father, drawn in Le Vernet concentration camp.”
Despair and revelation seemed to come hand in hand all too often, as in case of Karl Schwarzchild, who calculated the point at which the theory of relativity collapses, conceiving a paradoxical point where a star exhausts its fuel source and begins to implode, a case in which “space-time would not simply bend; it would tear apart“. Thus, “time froze, space coiled around itself like a serpent. At the centre of that dying star, all mass became concentrated in a single point of infinite destiny.”
During the First World War, according to Labatut’s account, Schwarzchild began to fear that this same rent in the fabric of conceivable reality was being seen in the human psyche: “He babbled about a black sun dawning over the horizon, capable of engulfing the whole world, and he lamented that there was nothing we could do about it. Because the singularity sent forth no warnings. The point of no return – the limit past which one fell prey to its unforgiving pull – had no sign or demarcation. Whoever crossed it was beyond hope. Their destiny was set, as all possible trajectories led irrevocably to the singularity. And if such was the nature of the threshold, Schwarzchild asked, his eyes shot through with blood, how would we know if we had already crossed it?“
This stunning work about the wonders and pitfalls of genius, and the dangers and miracles of scientific discovery, woven through with the horrors of the wars of the 20th century, would be a deserving winner of the International Booker Prize, though some pedants may claim it to be barely a work of fiction. So far though, I’m finding the International Booker lists of the past couple of years far more inspiring than the “standard” Booker lists.