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When We Cease to Understand the World [Un Verdor Terrible] (2020)
Benjamin Labatut
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This avant-garde “novel” mostly mostly takes the form of a lengthy non-fictional essay linking scientific/mathematical discoveries of the 20th Century to tragic human consequences. It is like a dark version of the documentary series Connections, with just a tiny bit of fiction thrown in.

The opening chapter, which focuses on the development of powerful poisons from such seemingly innocuous origins as an artist’s pigment, sets the tone. The scientists suffer and die, Jewish concentration camp victims suffer and die, German families and high ranking Nazis commit suicide. There is no joy, but also no math and barely any fiction. (The author claims that there is one fictional paragraph in this chapter, but I am not sure which one it is.)

The next chapter concerns Karl Schwarzschild’s exact mathematical solution to the equations of general relativity. Like Schwarzschild Radius, it focuses on the horrors of World War I, Schwarzschild’s diseased body, and metaphorical interpretations of the “black hole” he discovered. Again, I recognize the vast majority of what is written here as being non-fictional, but I will suppose (since the author claims that the amount of fiction increases throughout the book) that there is again at least a bit of fiction mixed in with the facts.

The third chapter is like a joint biography of mathematicians Shinichi Mochizuki and Alexander Grothendieck, focusing not only on their important contributions to number theory and algebraic geometry but also on the way they both abandoned their math research and adopted a reclusive lifestyle. Again, since the vast majority of the material is factual and presented as if it was a non-fictional essay, it is difficult to tell what (if anything) here should be considered to be “fiction”. (Labatut does convey that Mochizuki’s work on the abc-conjecture is controversial, but seems to imply that his proof is correct and under-appreciated by other mathematicians. That is an opinion, one not widely-believed in the mathematics community or well-supported by evidence in the book, but not in itself fiction IMHO.)

The book now takes a long detour into a discussion of the early history of quantum mechanics. That portion is “mathematical” since the distinction between Heisenberg’s numerical formulation and Schrödinger’s wave version on which it focuses is essentially the difference between using matrices (of real numbers) and using differential operators (with complex eigenvalues). It also includes the second most “fictional” portion of the book since the portrayal of Heisenberg’s matrix epiphany as the result of a fever induced delusion is (AFAIK) the author’s own creation. The book delves into wave-particle duality (with a discussion of Louis de Broglie’s contributions) and the epistemological questions that quantum mechanics raises (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the Copenhagen interpretation, and Einstein’s objections).

As if fiction were a minor imperfection in the crystal structure of the first chapter that has grown and destabilized the historical nature of the work, the last chapter is the only one that features a character, the night gardener, who presumably is entirely fictional:

(quoted from When We Cease to Understand the World [Un Verdor Terrible])

The night gardener used to be a mathematician, and now speaks of mathematics as former alcoholics speak of booze, with a mixture of fear and longing. He told me that he had had the beginnings of a brilliant career but had quit altogether after encountering the work of Alexander Grothendieck...

This book has received many glowing reviews from professional critics and authors. The blend of historical fact with just a tiny bit of (unidentified) fiction is being hailed as a brilliant innovation. Personally, I would prefer if the boundaries between fact and fiction were more clear so that people are not misled into believing a falsehood. It is because the book is really a work of non-fiction with only a tiny bit of fiction sprinkled here and there that I have given this a rating of "3" for literary value. I do not mean to imply that it is not well-written. It is, but it is really not a work of fiction.

The opening chapters of this book were emotionally potent, informative, and thought provoking. The end of the book, though, really didn’t work for me. Presumably, the section on quantum mechanics is the inspiration for the book’s English title and, appearing just before the end, is intended to be a sort of climax of the contrast between the wonderful discoveries and their horrific consequences. Perhaps it is because this is the part of the book that is closest to my own “area of expertise”, but for me it was more of an anti-climax. The portrayal of the conflict between Heisenberg and Schrödinger as an epic intellectual battle was hard to take seriously since (as I know and the book later acknowledges) the two formulations are essentially equivalent. That the intrinsic properties of matter which we take for granted at the macroscopic level (like position and speed) are either undeterminable using our current knowledge, intrinsically unknowable, or not at all meaningful for elementary particles is a question that was raised by quantum mechanics, and is still a matter of debate to some extent, but is really only a matter of academic significance. The book begins with truly horrific stories from the World Wars, moves on to the personal lives of two individual mathematicians which some might view as tragic, and concludes with this epistemological issue which really does not matter on the human scale. I suppose it may be that I am supposed to see this final problem as the source of all the others, but I don't. So, the book fizzled out near the end for me.

It was first published in Spanish (the Dutch born author lives in Chile) in 2020 and its English translation was published in 2021.

Contributed by Allan Goldberg

I think the first chapter fictional paragraph involves the history of Zylon A gas (but its hard to be sure.)

I feel that the fictional aspects of the remaining chapters (exclusive of the last chapter which is entirely fictional) involves the author’s metaphorical descriptions of the characters’ actions and motivations, fictional biography of at least one character, and simplifications in the descriptions of the relevant mathematics and physics.

The author admits in a recent interview podcast that he does not regard this work as wholly fictional or non-fictional but a hybrid of both, and admits that some fictional aspects of this work involves simplification of the relevant mathematics and physics in his exposition.

Additionally in the book, he mentions that the background of the author of the purported solution to the ABC conjecture is purely fictional.

IMHO, all in all, a well written, albeit troubling, work.

More information about this work can be found at
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Works Similar to When We Cease to Understand the World [Un Verdor Terrible]
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy
  2. Shakespeare Predicted it All by Dietmar Dath
  3. Symmetry and the Expatriate by Tefcros Michaelides
  4. Gentzen oder: Betrunken aufräumen [Gentzen or Cleaning Up Drunk] by Dietmar Dath
  5. La formule de Stokes, roman by Michèle Audin
  6. Perelman’s Refusal [Les Refus de Grigori Perelman] by Philippe Zaouati
  7. The Divine Proportions of Luca Pacioli by W.A.W. Parker
  8. A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel by Gaurav Suri / Hartosh Singh Bal
  9. Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides
  10. Pythagoras' Revenge: A Mathematical Mystery by Arturo Sangalli
Ratings for When We Cease to Understand the World [Un Verdor Terrible]:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction, Didactic,
MotifProving Theorems, Real Mathematicians, War,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Mathematical Physics, Real Mathematics,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)