Author Q&A- Benjamín Labatut on physics and the void- Times Of Nation
Despite the abundance of popular nonfiction books about physics, works of fiction depicting the field are rare. It’s even rarer for a book in that latter category to gain global acclaim. Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is one of those literary unicorns. A cross between a nonfiction novel, a collection of short stories, and a compilation of essays, the book channels the interior lives of scientists including Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzschild, Erwin Schrödinger, and Werner Heisenberg to meditate on the destructive potential of science and to probe the meaning of life. The book has become an international sensation. It was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Translated Literature, and it was featured in many ‘best books’ lists.
The Chilean author recently spoke with Physics Today’s Ryan Dahn about how he became interested in physics, the book’s unusual structure, and his reaction to the book’s popularity.
PT- Tell us a bit about your background as a writer. How did you come to physics as a topic for your book?
LABATUT- This is my third book. The first one was a collection of short stories. The second one was stranger—basically meditations on the void. I had already been interested in physics, but I got more fascinated with it at that point. If you’re interested in the void, you don’t have many places to go. You can read about Buddhism, physics, and maybe some philosophy. But the philosophy part I’ve always found incredibly boring.
I love the way that physics deals with fundamental questions. It asks itself certain questions, and it gives concrete answers most of the time, but not all of the time. I’ve always been fascinated by fundamental questions, and science is, to my mind, the only part of human awareness that is still asking those questions. I think philosophy gave up on them.
Literature doesn’t answer those questions. It enjoys them, it paints with them, it takes them up and works them around. And that’s what I do.
PT- Did you ever take any physics classes?
LABATUT- No. I studied journalism. I’m not even an amateur physicist—I’m just fascinated by it. I understand about as much physics as you can without understanding mathematics.
PT- What attracted you to the interior lives of the physicists you write about in When We Cease to Understand the World?
LABATUT- I think the heart of the book is in the title- unknowability. I use physics, chemistry, and history to point toward aspects of our experience that we can’t understand. If you consider some of the central tenets of physics, they defy everything that we take for granted. Physicists consider them normal because they’re just used to them.
I am attracted to that darker aspect of science. I look for ideas that have come alive inside someone. What interests me is when that idea takes over someone’s mind and their entire life. Anybody who loves science—or who loves anything—knows that when something gets inside you, you can’t separate it from who you are. That’s where I find the most interesting things come from.
PT- So you started with the ideas first, and then explored the figures.
LABATUT- Yeah. If you come to physics as a layperson and bump into something like the wavefunction, you can’t really define it with any other thing, can you? You have to speak of it on its own terms. It’s been 100 years, and I think there’s still no real understanding of what it is. Isn’t that amazing? It’s very concrete science, it comes out of math, it’s not sloppy thinking, and yet we need to use the same sort of self-referential language that we use when we’re talking about God. You can’t define the wavefunction in terms of anything else. And that central mystery excites my imagination.
What do we know about the wavefunction? Not much. We know that Schrödinger came up with it in Arosa [in Switzerland] with a lover, apparently. We don’t know her name.
And then you realize that Schrödinger could not accept what he had discovered. He thought he was coming back to classical physics, but he discovered this mystery that would not be solved. And that’s how I get to the stories. To me, those contradictions are fertile territory for fiction, because who can call you out on it?
PT- At the end of the book, you cite a few articles and books that you read as you were writing. What kind of research did you do for the book?
LABATUT- It’s a very specific type of research. I’m not necessarily looking for established truth. I’m looking for details that will show you who the person was who was doing this research. I want to know what Schwarzschild liked as a child, and for that you have to read obituaries, you have to read letters, and you have to scour through dense scientific papers. I’m not looking at the equations or the science- I’m looking for just a line or two that someone will put at the beginning or end of a paper. Scientists will often give the science and then they’ll say, ‘I was walking on this footpath, and I saw this tiny lizard.’ Those details make things come alive and feel true. You’re looking for darker, stranger meanings. You’re looking for those tiny spaces through which spirit tries to push into science.
‘I originally wrote the entire book as nonfiction, and then I looked at it and said, ‘Well, this is not enough, because literature demands meaning, and it demands imagination.’’
I use authentic sources. But I will also take things that I know are not real. Sometimes fiction or just an actual lie will illuminate something in a way that lets you get to the heart of it. And that is a great freedom because if you only stick to facts, there are levels of the human experience that you’re not going to touch, because we live an intermingled life. Think about how many aspects of your daily life are determined by fiction and untruth and imagination.
In the case of the Schrödinger chapter, the idea for the whole novella started with a single image, which I’m sure is apocryphal- that Schrödinger’s lover would lend him her pearl earrings, which he would place inside his ears so that he could concentrate. I thought that image was just beautiful.
And in the case of Heisenberg, it’s much the same. There were two things that made his story fascinating to me. One was how he restricted himself to what was observable, which seems absurd. Second was this night of inspiration on the island of Heligoland that he wrote about. It says so much about what happened to quantum mechanics afterward. How do you get inside that night? You can’t unless you use fiction. For me, fiction is its own telescope—a human mechanism by which we prod reality through imagination.
PT- I’ve seen your book described as a nonfiction novel, or as a blend of fact and fiction. How would you characterize it?
LABATUT- I would never do that. I’ve never asked myself what it is I’m doing. I let stories take their own shape. Other people have come up with good definitions for it, but I’m not going to give one. I really don’t care for those classifications. I think the entire point of the book is trying to deal with that. How do you speak about things that you don’t have a proper language to speak about? The book was infected by the ideas that it’s trying to portray. It’s not straight-up anything.
I’m very forthright that this is a work of fiction. I take the materials heavily from nonfiction. I prefer nonfiction because, for me, it is the most fun to discover. If I make up something, it really has to be spectacular for it to be entertaining, and most of it is not. I write fiction very unwillingly. I originally wrote the entire book as nonfiction, and then I looked at it and said, ‘Well, this is not enough, because literature demands meaning, and it demands imagination.’ Literature is about creating meanings and stories. And once you create a story, that’s when imagination is going to come in. You have to be willing to pervert and distort your raw materials, because you’re trying to reach a truth that is very particular to fiction, that is concerned with what is mysterious, incomprehensible, and dark. It’s a prodding of our unconscious.
And I think that’s one of the things that make the book engaging. I’m trying to be as precise as I can regarding science, but I’m writing for people who have never heard of the word momentum. My readers are ignorant when it comes to physics. You have to understand that you will betray [the truth], but in that act of betrayal, something different may come through.
PT- You mentioned that your first draft was pure nonfiction. When We Cease to Understand the World gets progressively more fictional as the book goes on. Was that planned?
LABATUT- It was completely organic. I draft the stories, and then I think about what the story is really about. What other meanings are hidden there? It’s not just about science. In the case of Schwarzschild, it reads like nonfiction, but it’s absolutely fiction. He died without knowing what he had discovered. He never knew about black holes. He just sent us the letter with a solution and then he died. But that’s not a good story.
What I’m interested in is what happens to the mind when it comes up against these voids. What happens to a human being, and how can it be that there are mysteries of human experience that neither science nor history can penetrate? You can’t put yourself inside the mind of someone like Schwarzschild, whose body is covered with blisters. And he’s still doing physics during the war.
You can only imagine what it feels like to see something for the first time. This is something that I know from my own experience- If you ever come up with something new, it won’t be comprehensible to you, and you won’t be able to talk about it with other people. Because people only know what they already know. So whenever that happens, there’s this moment of utter confusion. There are many aspects of our lives that we can’t easily put into words or communicate to others, and they’re the most important ones. They’re the ones that change you. They’re the ones that you treasure. So there’s nothing else I can do except mix these things.
But it’s not something I came up with before. If you chart these things out before, you wouldn’t get there. You have to take a random walk, especially if you want to get something that has the possibility of being true, or real, or new, or exciting.
PT- Our audience at Physics Today is composed mainly of trained physicists. I don’t know if you’ve heard the expression ‘Shut up and calculate!’
LABATUT- Of course.
PT- Often attributed to Richard Feynman, it encapsulates the attitude of not thinking about the philosophy. Your book is the opposite of that. So what would you say to somebody with a physics background who’s picking up your book?
LABATUT- I’m just so tempted to say, ‘Shut up and read!’ But if you do use that line, please don’t make me look like an asshole, and please include the word asshole. Because I think physics needs more swear words.
What I would say is two things. First, they must read it as a work of fiction. Because that’s what it is. You need to let the book do what it’s trying to do, which is going to be harder if you’re a physicist.
The second thing is to consider the strangeness of everyday ideas in physics—you know, time being reversible, spacetime, the wavefunction, all these ideas that physicists talk about. That’s why I chose figures like [Niels] Bohr and Heisenberg, because they were keenly aware of how strange this all was. You can shut up and calculate, but while you’re calculating your brain is going to be telling you this doesn’t make sense. I think that the wonderful thing about physics is that it forces you to go beyond sense into nonsense. The strangeness of it is what I find most wonderful.
The book is trying to get people who have not been exposed to these ideas—or who have been exposed to the ideas—to remember the oddness and the wonder that these things work as well as they do. Because we lose sight of that. Take your physics hat off and put your literature cap on, because that’s what it is.
PT- When We Seek to Understand the World has garnered considerably more international attention than your previous books. What has it been like to see yourself featured in places like Barack Obama’s summer reading list?
LABATUT- It’s been strange. My other books garnered no attention at all. I had already made a secret pact with myself that I would just do this till the day I died and not worry much about success or readers. I’d never heard of Barack Obama’s reading list. I don’t care what politicians read. I’d never heard of the New York Times’s ’10 Best Books’ either. I had to Google ‘Is the National Book Award important?’ I don’t pay attention to those things. The writers that I usually read are not well known in their own cultures.
PT- Could you give some examples of those authors you like who don’t get much attention?
LABATUT- Well, some of them are very well known, like W. G. Sebald or Roberto Bolaño. But there are others who aren’t, like Roberto Calasso, an Italian writer who just died last year. He’s an absolute wonder—a one-man library. Or a French writer named Pascal Quignard, or an Argentine writer who also just died, Juan Forn. Most of my favorite authors are dead. I try to make a very conscientious effort to not read what everybody else is reading and to try and find something that speaks to me from some deeper place. Because otherwise you get caught up in the spirit of your age.
I don’t enjoy reading anymore because I judge books too harshly. I can’t enjoy straight narrative anymore. Something happened to my head, which maybe explains the strange form that my book has. It’s not like I sat down and said, ‘Oh, I’m going to write this weird thing.’ It’s just that I get bored by most of the things that I’m exposed to.
PT- How involved were you with the English translation?
LABATUT- I grew up speaking English. I haven’t written anything in Spanish since I finished When We Cease to Understand the World. I wrote the last section of the book, ‘The Night Gardener,’ directly in English and had to translate it into Spanish. So I was very involved with the translation. Nate [Adrian Nathan West] was very respectful of the fact that I was massively involved with it. There was also a copyeditor who hasn’t gotten any credit, Robina Pelham Burn, who went through it as well. I prefer the English version. People hate me here in Chile when I say that, but I don’t care.
PT- Are there any plans for English translations of your first two books?
LABATUT- My other books are very personal. The one I wrote before this is sort of my own night in Heligoland. So, I don’t know, especially with all the attention. Lots of people want to get their hands on them, and I think there should be things that people can’t get at.
PT- Can you tell me a little about what you’re working on now?
LABATUT- I’m finishing a new book that I wrote directly in English. I can’t talk about it much. My agents would kill me. But in abstract terms, I’m writing about the person I consider to be the smartest human being of the 20th century—his life, his death, and his inevitable 21st-century resurrection, because I can feel him coming back in many ways.
PT- Any plans for another book relating to physics or physicists?
LABATUT- Absolutely. There’s physics in the book I’m writing. It’s all about physics and mathematics, and it also deals with artificial intelligence. There are three main characters. One’s a mathematician, who touched on everything. He’s allowed me to touch on everything that I’m interested in—nuclear physics, chaos theory, computation, biology. The big thing is trying to cram as many of the things that I find fascinating into something that people will read. It’s very hard.
(News Source -Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Times Of Nation staff and is published from a physicstoday.scitation.org feed.)
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