A Very Annoying Book
Generally when I review books here it’s because I’m excited about them and hope others will read them. But this week I’m going to complain. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (translated by Adrian Nathan West) is a highly acclaimed book. I took note that it was one of the New York Times Book Review’s ten best books of 2021. It was on Barack Obama’s Summer 2021 Reading List. It was short-listed for the 2021 International Booker Prize and long-listed for the National Book Award for Translated Literature.
It’s a book about physicists, but it’s a highly original book about physicists. Philip Pullman blurbed it, saying that it “hovers in a state between fiction and non-fiction, or wave and particle.” Mark Haddon called it “Absolutely brilliant,” and said that Labatut “has invented an entirely new genre.” Catherine Taylor of The Irish Times called it a “fascinating hybrid work of fiction and history.”
I’d been thinking about it for a while. I finally got it out of the library and read it, and boy, am I pissed! Labatut portrays the discoveries of mathematicians and physicists such as Karl Schwarzschild, Albert Einstein, Shinichi Mochizuki, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger. In Labatut’s fictional portrayals, all of these men were tormented by their discoveries and the destructive implications of their work, which included chemical warfare, genocide, and nuclear destruction.
So why am I so annoyed?
This book, which the author himself describes as “a work of fiction based on real events,” does not include a single woman scientist or mathematician. The only female character is the adolescent daughter of the doctor who runs the tuberculosis clinic where Schrödinger goes for treatment. Schrödinger develops a sexual obsession for this daughter that continues over several years, finally culminating when he sees her transformed into “a black-skinned (no comment) corpse covered in suppurating wounds and scabs, her tongue lolling from her smiling skull….” Well, I won’t go on and on, except to ask: Wasn’t this author able to find a single woman to include in a fictionalized account about the development of quantum physics?
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim acknowledges this shortcoming in her review of the book in the New York Times Book Review, stating that “Marie Curie would have fit the profile well as both genius and martyr.” I suspect this statement would have been true of many of the women working in the fields of science and mathematics in the era covered in this book as well as in the present day. The portrait at the top of this post is of Hertha Ayrton (1854–1923), who was recognized by the British Royal Society with the Hughes Medal for her work on electric arcs and ripple patterns in sand and water. Lise Meitner (1878–1968) was a German-Swedish physicist who played a leading role in discovering the nuclear fission of uranium. Many believe she should have shared the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with her colleague Otto Hahn. Theoretical physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906–1972) became the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics (after Marie Curie, 1867–1934, two-time winner of the Nobel Prize) for her work on the nuclear shell model of the atom. Two other underrecognized physicists of this era were Ruby Payne-Scott (1912–1981), an Australian pioneer in radio astronomy, and English chemist Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), who despite her early death, made significant advances in the field of X-ray crystallography.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t understand what it is that any of these women did. I’m not a physicist! But what a different view of the field it gives me to think about these women and their contributions than the nightmarish world of Benjamin Labatut with his neurotically lonely and misogynistic men.
[1905 Portrait of Hertha Ayrton By Héléna Arsène Darmesteter – Art UK, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38762387]