When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

I was given a Kindle for Father’s Day (just passed here in Australia), and a voucher as well – don’t think too kindly of them, they live in fear of the towers of books ready to collapse and take them out – its not hoarding if its books, say I, otherwise libraries would be hoarders -and I chanced across John Banville’s review of When We Cease to Understand the World in The Guardian, and I was immediately entranced. Thank you Mr Banville (plus, I enjoyed The Book of Evidence in particular, some 30 years ago).

I’m up to this part: “Mochizuki and Grothendieck were both visionaries, and both ended by renouncing mathematics, the former becoming “completely unhinged” by “the ‘heart of the heart’, an entity Grothendieck had discovered at the very centre of mathematics …” What this entity might be, we are not told; but the narrator considers it a thing best kept firmly locked away in Pandora’s laboratory”.

John Banville advises that unfortunately the pace is about to slow down, but so far it has been a wild ride. Both Goering and William Burroughs feature on the first page. The horror of Napoleon being killed by the colour green is amongst the evils of chemistry portrayed.

Banville writes: “Books of popular science usually celebrate the wondrous achievements that applied mathematics has wrought in the realms of physics, chemistry and cosmology. Labatut, born in Holland and resident in Chile, will have none of it”. This book is disturbing on a fundamental level as the best horror fiction. The death of Karl Schwarzschild as he contemplates the Singularity, and the coming rise of a Black Sun even as the cells of his own body destroy him, somehow triggered by a chemical attack in WWI, is more horrifying than most works of cosmic terror. For the dark side of science, read, the dark side of the fabric of everything.

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