Additional Book Information

Series: New York Review Books
ISBN: 9781681375663
Pages: 192
Publication Date: September 28, 2021

When We Cease to Understand the World

by Benjamín Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West

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Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize

When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction.

Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.

At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.


Absolutely brilliant. I was utterly gripped and wolfed it down. It feels as if he has invented an entirely new genre.
—Mark Haddon

A thrilling account of theories of physics, and as a series of highly-wrought imaginative extrapolations about the physicists who arrived at them.
—Geoff Dyer

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut is the strangest and most original book I've read for years. It hovers in a state between fiction and non-fiction, or wave and particle, and makes an account of modern mathematics and science into something as eerie as a great ghost story.
—Philip Pullman, New Statesman, ‘Books of the Year’

A dazzling associative caper full of graceful arabesques linking continents and centuries and ideas.
The Sunday Times Culture

Remind[s] us of fiction's power to take us to another world and expand our understanding of this one . . . When We Cease to Understand the World showcases the minds seeking to pierce the mysterious heart of mathematics.
The Guardian, ‘Biggest books of autumn’

It may be possible to actually feel your brain getting bigger as you read.
Evening Standard

Labatut has written a dystopian nonfiction novel set not in the future but in the present.
—John Banville, The Guardian

An exquisitely written and continuously fascinating hybrid work of fiction and history.
—Catherine Taylor, The Irish Times

Wholly mesmerising and revelatory . . . Completely fascinating.
—William Boyd

Using epoch-defining moments from the history of science, from Albert Einstein's theory of relativity to Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg's opposing views on quantum mechanics, Labatut uses fiction to crack open the stories of scientists and mathematicians whose expanded our notions of the possible, while also presenting them as human, all too human.