Ethics. Science. Madness.

As a result of the Second World War and the advancement of nuclear technology, the Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt published 1961 a play called “The Physicists”. Written in two acts, it tells the story of three individuals who live in a sanatorium. After one of them commits a crime, an investigator enters the scene. The dialogues get incredibly weird and interesting. One individual thinks he is Isaac Newton. The second one believes he is Einstein. The third one states that he is constantly visited by King Solomon. Towards the end, we find out that nothing is what it seems.  The third individual is, in fact, a physicist who discovered the World Formula. After realizing how dangerous his scientific breakthrough can become, he decides to spend the rest of his life in a sanatorium, keeping the formula with him and protecting the world from its destruction. The other two individuals are actually spies from the two different sides of the Cold War. Each one tries to convince the physicist to join him and their country in order to achieve greatness. In the end we find that the individual sacrifice of the scientist is in vain, as he is trapped in a corrupt system.

 “The Physicists” is a tragic comedy about the ethics of science. It asks who has the responsibility for scientific discoveries and what happens when the wrong people get access to dangerous scientific knowledge. Although it was written 60 years ago, in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the concerns remain present in our time as well – not only if we think of nuclear power, but also if we consider how far we have come in terms of scientific inventions and discoveries. From manipulating genomic DNA sequences with the CRISPR technology to influencing the climate through risky geoengineering methods. Such breakthroughs have the potential to expand our understanding of the world, but also to irreversibly alter our lifestyles.

What was particularly interesting to me when reading Dürrenmatts play was the depiction of the scientist, Johann Wilhelm Möbius, who chooses to sacrifice his life for the greater good. He struggles with the duality of his discovery – as on the one hand, it expands humanity’s notions of the possible, and on the other hand, it can bring about destruction. The psychological load unleashed by this dilemma determines him to fake insanity and to retrieve in the sanatorium.

It has been a few years since I last read the “The Physicists”, but since then I have always searched for books about the ethics of science and about our desire to understand the world in its entirety. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the book “When We Cease to Understand the World”, written in 2020 by Benjamín Labatut – and I loved it!

The book is a gripping, thought-provoking and disturbing novel about some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians that ever lived.  It is hard to attribute it to a conventional genre, as it beautifully combines real-life events with fictional elements. In fact, the distinction between reality and fiction fades and they both become one.

The novel is composed of five short stories. The first four invite you to dive into the thoughts of genius minds while they grapple with existential questions and descend into states of madness. The last part is the story of the narrator who contemplates on the ethics of science.

Chapter one – Prussian Blue – focuses on the chemist Fritz Haber – the man who, as the YouTube channel Veritasium put it, killed millions and saved billions. After having coordinated the first gas attack in history during World War I, he received the Nobel prize for developing the Haber-Bosch process in 1907. The process enabled the attainment of nitrogen, the main nutrient required for plant-growth, directly from the air. It addressed the food and fertilizer scarcity problem and led to the demographic explosion in the 20th century.

The second chapter – Schwarzschild’s singularity – portrays the life of Karl Schwarzschild. As a lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, he analyzed Einstein’s theory of relativity and conversed with him via letters. His calculations made on the front led to the idea of the Schwarzschild singularity – a point where time and space would simply tear apart due to too much concentrated mass. The slight possibility of the existence of this singularity triggered fear in him – as it would imply that there exists a point which would remain fundamentally unknowable, unable to be grasped by our minds. The existence of this anomaly was not accepted by Einstein and the scientific community at large during Schwarzschild’s lifetime. However, his calculations proved to be crucial in the analysis of black holes.

In the third chapter – The Heart of The Heart – we are introduced to a scientist of our times – the mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki. In 2012, he published articles, which claimed to prove the abc conjecture. The abc conjecture states that, given three numbers – a, b, c – whose greatest common divisor is 1, and given a + b = c, then the product of the distinct prime numbers of abc is not much smaller than c. Mochizuki refused to defend his proofs or to give further explanations. To this day nobody has managed to fully understand his proof, because it uses mathematical concepts which have never been used before. The story becomes even more interesting as the life of the Japanese mathematician is linked to Alexander Grothendieck, an important mathematician of the 20th century.  After having expanded the mathematical universe with his research, he abruptly left the scientific world aged 42, in 1970, and fully devoted himself to environmental protection. He was convinced that the environment had its own consciousness. Grothedieck constantly criticized scientists – for they put into the world dangerous inventions and discoveries. As Labatut quotes him: “The atoms that tore Hiroshima and Nagasaki apart were split not by the greasy finders of a general, but by a group of physicists armed with a fistful of equations.”

In chapter four – When We Cease to Understand The World – the story focuses on the foundations of quantum physics, centering around Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The principle portrays the complementary relationship between the velocity and the location of a particle – stating that determining one variable makes the value of the other variable uncertain. This is because the very act of observing alters the properties of the object you want to observe. This completely puts into question the idea of reality and of what the human mind can grasp.

In the final chapter, all four parts merge into each other as we are introduced to the thoughts of the narrator. He converses with a certain night gardener about the advancements in science and the limits of human understanding. When talking about quantum mechanics, the gardener says: “ The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.”

“When We Cease to Understand the World” by Benjamin Labatut is the perfect book for those who want to understand the world and to get completely confused in the process of doing so. It is a great mélange of scientific concepts (well explained for amateurs) and poetic language. Of reality and fiction. Of ethics, science and madness.

– by Ioana Paul