Shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize
A fictional examination of the lives of real-life scientists and thinkers whose discoveries resulted in moral consequences beyond their imagining.
When We Cease to Understand the World is a book about the complicated links between scientific and mathematical discovery, madness, and destruction.
Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger—these are some of luminaries into whose troubled lives Benjamín Labatut thrusts the reader, showing us how they grappled with the most profound questions of existence. They have strokes of unparalleled genius, alienate friends and lovers, descend into isolation and insanity. Some of their discoveries reshape human life for the better; others pave the way to chaos and unimaginable suffering. The lines are never clear.
At a breakneck pace and with a wealth of disturbing detail, Labatut uses the imaginative resources of fiction to tell the stories of the scientists and mathematicians who expanded our notions of the possible.
Release date: September 28, 2021
Publisher: New York Review Books
Print pages: 192
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When We Cease to Understand the World
In a medical examination on the eve of the Nuremburg Trials, the doctors found the nails of Hermann Göring’s ﬁngers and toes stained a furious red, the consequence of his addiction to dihydrocodeine, an analgesic of which he took more than one hundred pills a day. William Burroughs described it as similar to heroin, twice as strong as codeine, but with a wired coke-like edge, so the North American doctors felt obliged to cure Göring of his dependency before allowing him to stand before the court. This was not easy. When the Allied forces caught him, the Nazi leader was dragging a suitcase with more than twenty thousand doses, practically all that remained of Germany’s production of the drug at the end of the Second World War. His addiction was far from exceptional, for virtually everyone in the Wehrmacht received Pervitin as part of their rations, methamphetamine tablets that the troopers used to stay awake for weeks on end, ﬁghting in a deranged state, alternating between manic furore and nightmarish stupor, with overexertion leading many to suffer attacks of irrepressible euphoria. “An absolute silence reigns. Everything becomes alien and insigniﬁcant. I feel completely weightless, as if I were ﬂoating above my own airplane,” a Luftwaffe pilot wrote years later, as though he were recollecting the silent raptures of a beatiﬁc vision rather than the dog days of war. The German writer Heinrich Böll wrote letters to his family from the front asking them to send him additional doses: “It’s hard here,” he wrote to his parents on November 9, 1939, “and I hope you understand if I can only write you every two or three days. Today I’m doing so chieﬂy to ask for more Pervitin . . . I love you, Hein.” On May 20, 1940, he wrote them a long, impassioned letter that ended with the same request: “Can you get hold of a bit more Pervitin for me, so I can have some in reserve?” Two months later, his parents received a single scraggly line: “If at all possible, please mail me more Pervitin.” Amphetamines fuelled the unrelenting German Blitzkrieg and many soldiers suffered psychotic attacks as they felt the bitter tablets dissolve on their tongues. The Reich leadership, however, tasted something very different when the lightning war was extinguished by the ﬁrestorms of the Allied bombers, when the Russian winter froze the caterpillar tracks of their tanks and the Führer ordered everything of value within the Reich destroyed to leave nothing but scorched earth for the invading troops. Faced with utter defeat, staggered by the new horror they had called down upon the world, they chose a quick escape, biting down on cyanide capsules and choking to death on the sweet scent of almonds that the poison gives off.
A wave of suicides swept through Germany in the ﬁnal months of the war. In April 1945 alone, three thousand eight hundred people killed themselves in Berlin. The inhabitants of the small town of Demmin, to the north of the capital, some three hours away, fell prey to collective panic when the retreating German troops destroyed the bridges leading west, leaving them stranded on their peninsula, surrounded by three rivers and defenceless before the dreaded onslaught of the Red Army. Hundreds of men, women and children took their own lives over the course of three days. Whole families walked into the waters of the Tollense tied together with ropes around their waists, as if to play a gruesome game of tug of war, the smallest children weighed down by their schoolbags, laden with rocks. The chaos was such that the Russian troops—who had, up to then, devoted themselves to looting homes, burning buildings and raping women—received orders to put a stop to the epidemic of suicides; on three separate occasions they had to cut down a woman who tried to hang herself from the branches of a massive oak tree in her garden, at the roots of which she had already buried her three children, after lacing their cookies—a ﬁnal treat—with rat poison. The woman survived, but the soldiers were unable to prevent a young girl from bleeding to death after she opened her veins with the same razor blade she had used to slice her parents’ wrists. A similar death wish took hold of the upper echelons of the Nazi party: ﬁfty-three generals from the army, fourteen from the air force, and eleven from the navy committed suicide, along with the Minister of Education, Bernhard Rust, the Minister of Justice, Otto Thierack, Field Marshal Walter Model, the “Desert Fox” Erwin Rommel and, of course, the Führer himself. Others, such as Hermann Göring, hesitated and were captured alive, but this merely postponed the inevitable. When the doctors declared him ﬁt for trial, Göring was found guilty by the Nuremburg Tribunal and condemned to death by hanging. He requested a ﬁring squad: he wished to die like a soldier and not a common criminal. When he learned of the refusal of this last request, he killed himself by biting on a cyanide capsule he had hidden in a jar of pomade next to which he left a note explaining that he had chosen to die by his own hand, “like the great Hannibal”. The Allies attempted to wipe away all traces of his existence. They removed the shards of glass from his lips and sent his clothing, personal effects and naked body to the municipal crematorium at the Ostfriedhof cemetery in Munich, where one of the gigantic ovens was ﬁred up to incinerate Göring, mingling his ashes with those of thousands of political prisoners and opponents of the Nazi regime decapitated at Stadelheim prison, the handicapped children and psychiatric patients murdered by the Aktion T4 euthanasia programme, and countless victims of the concentration camp system. His remains were scattered late at night in the waters of the Watzenbach, a small brook chosen from a map at random. But these efforts were in vain: to this day, collectors from all over the world continue to exchange keepsakes and belongings of the last great leader of the Nazis, commander of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s natural successor. In June 2016, an Argentine man paid more than three thousand euros for a pair of the Reichsmarschall’s silk underpants. Months later, that same man spent twenty-six thousand euros on the copper and zinc cylinder that had once concealed the glass vial Göring ground between his teeth on October 15, 1946.
The National Socialist party elite received similar capsules at the end of the last concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic before the city fell on April 12, 1945. Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and War Production and official architect of the Third Reich, organized a special programme that included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, followed by Brückner’s Fourth Symphony—The Romantic—and ending, appropriately, with Brünnhilde’s aria, which closes the third act of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, in which the Valkyrie immolates herself on an enormous funeral pyre, the ﬂames of which spread to consume not only the world of men but the halls of Valhalla and the entire pantheon of the gods. When the audience ﬁled towards the exits, Brünnhilde’s cries of pain still resounding in their ears, members of the Deutsches Jungvolk—a section of the Hitler Youth composed of children under ten, as the teenagers were already off dying at the barricades—handed out cyanide capsules in small wicker baskets, like votive offerings at mass. Göring, Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler used these capsules to commit suicide, but many of the Nazi leaders chose to shoot themselves in the head at the same moment they bit down, afraid that they had been sabotaged, that the capsules were deliberately adulterated to provoke not the painless, instant death that they desired but the slow agony they deserved. Hitler became so convinced that his dosage had been tampered with that he chose to test its effectiveness on his beloved Blondi, a German shepherd that had accompanied him to the Führerbunker, where she slept at the foot of his bed, enjoying privileges of all kinds. The Führer preferred killing his pet to letting her fall into the hands of Russian troops who had already surrounded Berlin and were inching closer to his subterranean refuge by the minute, but he was too cowardly to do it himself; he asked his personal doctor to break one of the capsules in the animal’s mouth. The dog—who had just given birth to four puppies—died instantly when the minuscule cyanide molecule, formed by one atom of nitrogen, one of carbon and one of potassium, entered her bloodstream and cut off her breath.
The effects of cyanide are so swift that there is but one historical account of its flavour, left behind in the early twenty-ﬁrst century by M. P. Prasad, an Indian goldsmith, thirty-two years old, who managed to write three lines after swallowing it: “Doctors, potassium cyanide. I have tasted it. It burns the tongue and tastes acrid,” said the note found next to his body in the hotel room he had rented for the purpose of taking his own life. The liquid form of the poison, known in Germany as Blausäure or blue acid, is highly volatile: it boils at twenty-six degrees Celsius and gives off a slight aroma of almonds, which not everyone can distinguish, as doing so requires a gene absent in forty per cent of humanity. This evolutionary caprice makes it likely that a signiﬁcant number of the Jews murdered with Zyklon B in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek and Mauthausen did not even notice the scent of cyanide ﬁlling the gas chambers, while others died smelling the same fragrance inhaled by the men who had organized their extermination as they bit down on their suicide capsules.
Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the ﬁrst modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.
As soon as it appeared, Prussian Blue caused a sensation in European art. Thanks to its lower price, in just a few years it had all but replaced the colour that painters had used since the Renaissance to depict the robes of the angels and the Virgin’s mantle—ultramarine, the ﬁnest and costliest of all blue pigments, which was obtained by grinding lapis lazuli brought up from caves in Afghanistan’s Kochka river valley. Crushed to a ﬁne powder, this mineral yielded a lavish indigo, which proved impossible to emulate by chemical means until the eighteenth century, when a Swiss pigmenter and dyer by the name of Johann Jacob Diesbach discovered Prussian Blue. He did so by accident: his aim had been to mimic the ruby red made by crushing millions of female cochineals, small parasitic insects that grow on the nopal cactus in Mexico and in Central and South America, creatures so fragile that they require even greater care than silkworms, since wind, rain and frost can easily damage their downy white bodies, while rats, birds and caterpillars continually prey on them. Their scarlet blood—along with silver and gold—was one of the greatest treasures the Spanish conquistadors stole from the American peoples, and it allowed the Spanish crown to establish a monopoly on carmine that would last for centuries. Diesbach tried to put an end to it by pouring sale tartari (potash) over a distillation of animal parts mixed by one of his apprentices, the young alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel; but the concoction, instead of producing the furious carmine of the Dactylopius coccus, yielded a blue of such beauty that Diesbach thought he had discovered hsbd-iryt, the original colour of the sky—the legendary blue used by the Egyptians to adorn the skin of their gods.
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