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When we Cease to Understand the World 
(Un verdor terrible)

Albert Einstein opens a letter sent to him from the Eastern Front of World War I. Inside, he finds the first exact solution to the equations of general relativity, unaware that they contain a monster that could destroy his life’s work: the Schwarzschild Singularity. A Japanese mathematician solves a problem that no one is able to understand, after following the path set down by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century: Alexander Grothendieck, the rogue genius that revolutionized geometry before abandoning his family, his career and his humanity in order to search for the underlying structure of all things. Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger battle over the soul of physics after creating two equivalent yet opposed versions of quantum mechanics. Their fight will tear the very fabric of reality and reveal a world stranger than they could have ever imagined.


In When We Cease to Understand the World, Benjamin Labatut uses fiction to breathe life into lesser-known chapters from the annals of science. In the stories that make up this haunting volume, he delves into the strange world of memory and its many curses, offering unnerving vistas into the lives of some of the scientists that helped to shape the modern world.

Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize
Winner of an English PEN Award
On former President Barack Obama's reading list for Summer 2021

"An extraordinary 'nonfiction novel' weaves a web of associations between the founders of quantum mechanics and the evils of two world wars [...] When We Cease to Understand the World [...] is [an] ingenious, intricate and deeply disturbing 'work of fiction based on real events.'"

— John Banville, The Guardian

"We may be familiar with such things as Schrödinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle… but the sheer audacity, the utter insanity of the ideas and the thinkers who discovered these ideas has never, in my experience, been so vividly and terrifyingly conveyed as in this short, monstrous, and brilliant book."

— Philip Pullman

"There is liberation in the vision of fiction’s capabilities that emerges here—the sheer cunning with which Labatut embellishes and augments reality, as well as the profound pathos he finds in the stories of these men."

Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

"A wholly mesmerising and revelatory book. A blend of limpid scientific exposition and bravura fictional gloss. Completely fascinating."

— William Boyd

"Labatut advances into the heart of a reality that few before him have seen this way – and that no one before him has described like this. A book of awe-inspiring beauty." 

— Wolfram Eilenberger

"With contagious delight, Labatut explores the instances in which genius and madness meet."

— Ariane Singer, Le Monde (France)

"A Chilean novelist tells us about the role of madness in the big discoveries of the twentieth century. European scientific genius enlightened by South American magical realism: a miracle!" 

— Science & Vie (France)

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