Benjamin Labatut, mathematics and mystery – Books – A book a day

Benjamin Labatut, mathematics and mystery – Books – A book a day
Benjamin Labatut, mathematics and mystery – Books – A book a day
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BENJAMIN LABATUT, ‘WHEN WE STOPPED UNDERSTANDING THE WORLD’ (ADELPHI, PAGE 180, EURO 18.00. TRANSLATION BY LISA TOPI) – In one night, in the throes of an enlightened delirium, a scientist finds, through a long and inspired reasoning, the equation that explains the inexplicable, the irrational of quantum theory. Then the next morning, waking up dazed, he will no longer remember anything of the reasoning that led him to the solution, yet the equation is valid, and it will be valid forever by changing the very essence of the world. The fascination of the stories of scientists narrated by Benjamin Labatut in that wonderful book – masterfully translated by Lisa Topi – is all in this event, complex, mystical and yet the result of a capacity for understanding that escapes its own author. we have stopped understanding the world ”, wonderful from the title. A book that to the forty-two-year-old author now in Chile but born in Rotterdam in 1980, rightly brought international success and published in Italy by Adelphi.
Between biography and fiction, in an indestructible intertwining of stories, Labatut tells the story of a series of scientists who in the first decades of the century, between the two world wars, discovered small and big things that changed the destiny of humanity and also dramatically marked their biography. Events summarized in some way in the character of the night gardener who appears in the final chapter: “ The night gardener had been a mathematician and spoke of mathematics as ex-alcoholics speak of alcohol, with a mixture of craving and terror ” and it is he to pronounce the sentence that gives the title to the book. Scientists who experience science as a drug, a toxic priority in their life to the detriment of anyone who approaches them and often regardless of the consequences.
Like Fritz Haber, the Jew who invented a gas from the chemical compound of Prussian blue, so powerful and deadly that it was used as a military device in the two wars with terrifying consequences. Or Werner Karl Heisenberg, a German physicist and one of the main architects of quantum mechanics suffering from tuberculosis and often prey to apocalyptic visions. Or Karl Schwarzschild, the mathematician and astrophysicist who discovered black holes, or rather that nothingness in which matter collapsed that could not have an explanation. Or the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, ” who at forty-two suddenly felt possessed by the spirit of his time: he was obsessed with the themes of ecology, the military-industrial complex and the proliferation of nuclear weapons ”. Irregular, often with borderline lives, marked by indifference to their own body that leads them to live like homeless people, to illness, to succumb to experiments on their own skin. Alone by choice or by destiny, often misunderstood, yet carried away by genius – if it can be defined as such – as a destiny as inexplicable as it is inexorable. In short, pure, dramatic, existential poetry, which Labatut tells with an extraordinary ability to drag the reader into the abyss of wisdom. The cold but honest rationality of Albert Einstein hovers over everything like a spirit, but it is not enough to overcome the madness into which the world is plunging.

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