I just read Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World on the recommendation of my friend EJ and… WOW, this book is awesome.
I knew pretty much nothing about this book going into it (which I recommend) and on the first read I was just swept away and felt like I was trying to get my bearings the whole time. I don’t remember the last time I had this experience with a book – maybe Cormac McCarthy or Thomas Pynchon?
In a sentence, it’s about the madness of seeking to understand and confronting the limits of reason. cf. the film essay Civilization Noir that Rob and I made.
I don’t think I’m even going to put too many quotes here, because this book is short, and beautiful, and definitely worth your time.
Like many sensitive people, Schwarzschild felt overcome by a sense of imminent disaster as the First World War approached. In him, this took the peculiar form of a fear that physics would be incapable of explaining the movement of the stars, or of finding an order in the universe. “Is there anything that is truly at rest, something stationary around which the universe revolves, or is there nothing at all to hold on to amid this endless chain of movements in which every single thing seems bound? Just imagine how far we have fallen into uncertainty if the human imagination cannot find a single place to lay its anchor, if not a single stone in the world has the right to be considered immobile!” Schwarzschild dreamt of the coming of a new Copernicus, someone who could model the intricacies of celestial mechanics and reveal the pattern dictating the complex orbits the stars trace out in the firmament. The alternative was unbearable: that there was nothing more than lifeless spheres in the throes of random chance, “like the molecules of a gas that float from one place to the other in a completely irregular manner, so much so that their very chaos is being enthroned as principle.” In Potsdam, he created an enormous network of colleagues to follow and register, with the maximum possible precision, the movements of more than two million stars. His hope was not only to understand the logic of their orbits, but to decipher where they would lead us.