Monday, April 4, 2022

Review: When We Cease to Understand the World

When We Cease to Understand the WorldWhen We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The very first sentence and paragraph reads easily and smoothly. I am drawn forward. I want to read, and I know already that this book will be finished in a single sitting. Would that all books would read that way!

I have a very distinct memory of carrying a long piece of lumber from the stack to the basement window when Dad was building a fallout shelter as we were urged to do back when nukes were suddenly all too real. I remember steering the plank around a curvy trajectory. I didn't know about momentum, but my body did.

What I really remember is much later learning about momentum and relating the knowledge to the mystery of what I'd accomplished in all ignorance earlier, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. How had my body known? Only later would I crash boards around corners, having grown, perhaps, too conscious.

I used words in the same way, with a kind of confidence, even though I later learned that I couldn't formally define many of the words that I deployed. Still, I communicated well enough. No understanding required. It was a social thing, and trivial.

I think I might have given this book a full five stars except that I couldn't find the literature there. This is a simple narration of the complex ironies engaged by those we consider to be our greatest thinkers. Those who invented the bomb from a new and fundamental understanding of physics. Those who could handle abstraction so abstruse that they couldn't even follow their own proofs after exit from their rapture. Who only knew that there was something missing by a kind of intuition formed in a universe they inhabited in their minds and of which the rest of us remain largely unaware.

The awesome strangeness of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory is made to feel both mundane and impossible. In just the same way, we can't differentiate between the drive for fame and the more religious-seeming drive for ultimate understanding among the book's 'protagonists'. We have no way to tell who will catapult to public adulation and who will disappear.

The book describes irony on a cosmic scale, and I think that's why, in the end, I didn't really care for it all that much. There was no character development; these characters were taken mostly intact from history. Their sexual foibles distinguished them from almost no-one, which made their heroics look shrunken as well. The plot was interesting just because some brilliant soul could be directly responsible for mass calculated murder and still care for the overall life on the planet. It is an exceedingly interesting read. But I'm not sure that I cared. I couldn't quite identify with any motive.

And by books end we are left actually believing that the lives we lead exist in the same abstract whorls that physicists describe, perhaps only to themselves, which can disappear in a massive poof. Dommage et tant pis, henh?

Knowing it all is the same as ending it all, and an author is mostly made up of the poses made for the marketing tour. One must look the part more than anything. We know intelligence when we see it. It has privileged understanding. Undefinable.

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