In his book, When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamín Labatut answers in the affirmative when faced with the nebulous question of whether science has gone too far. Labatut discusses instances where scientists have stood on the precipice of a conceptually horrifying discovery, yet continued regardless. ‘Conceptually horrifying’ ranges from the devastating humanitarian consequences of the refinement of poison gas, to the more existential, such as when contemplating the nature of black holes. 

When We Cease to Understand the World is composed of five short stories, which reflect on how science and scientists have shaped the modern world. The stories become increasingly fictionalised as the book progresses. The first of these is almost entirely factual, while the final is completely fictional. Each short story accounts both the wonders and horrors of science. It opens with ‘Prussian Blue’, which recounts the way in which humans have utilised cyanide throughout history. It is broad in scope, ranging from a mediation on the horrors of the Holocaust, to a specific pigment used when painting the mantle of the Virgin Mary. Labatut flits between topics, treating each with precision and delicacy. He closes with a reflection on the legacy of Fritz Haber, the German chemist who is both the father of chemical warfare and who pioneered the method for industrial production of ammonia. This drastically revolutionised fertiliser production, Haber effectively pulling bread from air.

Science is often mythologised as being a pure and somewhat isolated academic school. ‘Prussian Blue’ warns against a blind faith in science, drawing attention to both the leaps forward and despicable evils that scientific advancement has facilitated. It asks us to question the extent to which science can be separated from human nature; whether we have grafted our flaws onto our tools.

Commenting on the onward march of scientific progress in a 1675 letter, Isaac Newton famously wrote: ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ I found this quotation charming in its modesty (a rare feat for Newton) and acknowledgement of the shared effort of knowledge accumulation, borne from the work of a community spanning generations both past and future. The idea that scientific progress is gradual, incremental, and above all else, collaborative, is often overlooked. The exceptions to this rule are the titans whose names loom large in the public consciousness. This book introduces Labatut’s version of such titans and recounting their key discoveries is the focus of the middle three stories, my favourite of which focuses on the genesis of quantum mechanics. Labatut draws attention to the overlap and contrast between the theories and experiences of both Shrödinger and Heisenberg.

The book’s most intriguing device is its fictionalisation, which sets it apart from a typical scientific history book. It encourages the reader to engage with the text through a novel, somewhat sceptical lens, as there is no indication whether a given element is drawn from the historical record or the author’s imagination. Labatut’s emotive characterisation promotes a curiosity about the reality of the lives and legacies he drew upon. As a result, the book successfully focuses on conveying specific emotional truths rather than organising a procession of facts. Labatut produces an exercise in empathy, and, through exploring their drives and emotional states, he shrinks these giants into men. A scientist drawing their motivation and inspiration from a sense of wonder at the world lends itself to a certain romanticism, easily lost when science is presented as sterile and cold. Labatut delves into this, depicting the scientists as tortured souls struggling for their craft, perfectly able to give tormented poets a run for their money. As a reader from a scientific background, I appreciate this injection of emotionality.

I am reminded of this romanticism when scientists discuss the art of good experimental design. It requires a scientist to fully understand the limits of the equipment at hand, and utilise these flawed tools to ask the question which provides the most complete answer. Indeed, an especially famous experiment, that of Meselson and Stahl in 1958, investigating the mechanism by which DNA replicates, was famously described by biochemist John Cairns as ‘the most beautiful.’ 

And yet, these giants remain elusive, as it remains unclear whether Labatut is drawing from sources or his imagination in any particular instance. At times we interact more with the author’s idea of a scientist, rather than an actual scientist themselves, and it shows. The discoveries of the scientists, especially Grothendieck, are discussed in an abstract way, which admittedly does have the benefit of sparing the reader from encountering some particularly ungainly equations, yet at times is too vague to impart useful context. Here we veer into somewhat purple prose, and there is an occasional remark which leads to an inaccurate impression of the reality of the scientist’s work. Labatut invokes the supposedly thin line between genius and madness without novel or especially interesting commentary, which is disappointing in contrast to the rigour shown in the opening short story. Repeatedly framing the idea of wrestling with madness as a prerequisite for a great discovery leans into tired mad scientist tropes. This lessens the impact of the lengths gone to humanise these men; a subtler exercise in empathy could have gone a long way to making science more approachable, rather than presenting it as the sport of emotionally stunted geniuses.

Frustratingly, When We Cease to Understand the World highlights certain detrimental inaccuracies in the public perception of science whilst leaning wholeheartedly into other aspects of the stereotype. Perhaps the fictionalisation gave Labatut licence to rely on preconceived notions. The study of history in the first short story shows how science needs to be examined, held to account, rather than sectioned off. For this to be possible, rendering science accessible to a layperson is essential. Without an accurate understanding, the idea that science is not designed to provide all-encompassing answers is overlooked. Instead, it is often seen as a substitute for philosophy and religion, which it is not intended to be. I found the most accurate picture drawn, and the most provoking questions raised, at the times when Labatut offered more general, thoughtful meditations on how society and science have shaped each other over the past few centuries. When straying from the historical record, Labatut’s commentary becomes less sophisticated, and may lead to the reader gaining a frustratingly false impression of the field. I agree with Labatut that the scientific community today has inherited a chequered legacy, and this legacy is not always interrogated fully enough. Yet despite my admiration for his intention, I feel Labatut’s ambiguous historicity is misguided and fundamentally hinders the clarity of his criticism.