When we cease to understand the world

This is a good book, but I struggled to comprehend why it has been lavished with such immense praise – even shortlisted for the 2021 Internation Booker Prize.

Five sortabiographies tell us about many of the greatest physicists and mathematicians of the 20th Century. These life tales include many detailed pieces, often focussing (?focusing*) on the physical and mental ailments that troubled these great minds, challenges they had to overcome in addition to the difficulty of the subject matter they grappled with. All very interesting, but I couldn’t quite work out why Labatut wanted to tell us these stories. Certainly, I never got the sense that book’s title was relevant. Unless he was being ironic – the breakthroughs discussed are moments of clarity when we learned how to better understand the world.

The humanising of the featured scientists may well help the reader to understand some of the harder concepts mentioned, or at least relate to them even if they don’t actually understand them.  Although Labatut does explain them pretty well anyway. I’d recommend this book if the subject matter sounds like it’s your thing.


*Actually, both are correct, ‘focusing’ can also correctly be written with a double s.