“The Blind Light”: Poetry of Quantum Mechanics

History of science between essay and narrative: In “The Blind Light” Benjamín Labatut explores the limits of knowledge.
[“How far does the human mind go? And what happens when it reaches its limits? Knowledge has its price – this was the thought that the writer Benjamín Labatut based his book The Blind Light on. In four texts between essay and narrative, science and fiction, the author presents the tragedy of scientists who reached the limits of thought. The reader gets to know, for example, Fritz Haber, the man who, as co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process for the extraction of nitrogen, made a significant contribution to feeding the world’s population – and who, near Ypres in 1915, oversaw the first attack with poison gas he had developed. Or the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, who was frightened by his work and took refuge in esotericism and quirky hermitism.”] [“What Labatut describes is not new, but how he does it is remarkable. His strength is not only in explaining the complexity of the subjects – chemistry, physics, mathematics and quantum mechanics – in a clear, direct language that is easy to understand. The real trick is that the place he gives to fiction in the stories increases as the book progresses. The first chapter on the path from Prussian blue to Cyclone B still reads largely like well told history of science. In the last story, the reader comes beguilingly close to the two quantum mechanics rivals Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger thanks to narrative additions. Labatut describes in sonorously poetic but precise language how they burrow into their work to refute each other’s theories and win the favour of the physics community – not least Albert Einstein’s.”]

The blind light is Labatut\’s first book to be published in German. It is fortunate to be able to hear the voice of this author who grew up in The Hague, Buenos Aires and Lima and now lives in Santiago de Chile. A voice that was solidly transmitted by Thomas Brovot and that is able to say about the old age of physicist Karl Schwarzschild, who is dying of a skin disease: “To distract himself from the pain, he documented the shape and distribution of his wounds, the surface tension of the fluid in the blisters and the average speed at which they burst. Only the emptiness in his mind that had torn open his equations, he could not dissipate.”

Through the increasing space Labatut gives to fiction, he succeeds in providing an aesthetic answer to the question of the limits of knowledge: Where there is uncertainty, literature develops a special power to make experience possible. Fiction is thus able to save the Enlightenment from going blind. The old question of humanity “What can I know?”, Labatut repositions it with narrative bravura.

Benjamín Labatut: The blind light. Errors of science; a. d. Spanish by Thomas Brovot; Suhrkamp, Berlin 2020; 187 p., 22,- €

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