When We Cease to Understand the World

When We Cease to Understand the World



The Pequod Review:

When We Cease to Understand the World straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction as it explores the complicated ways in which science has been used for immoral or amoral ends. Benjamin Labatut profiles a wide range of scientists: Fritz Haber (a chemist who oversaw poison gas attacks during World War I), Karl Schwarzschild (who independently discovered the theory of relativity at the same time as Einstein, only to die prematurely), and Johann Jacob Diesbach (whose chemical formulations would eventually become the basis for cyanide), among others. He also cites some uniquely morbid historical events:

In prior centuries, Europe's insatiable hunger had driven bands of Englishmen as far as Egypt to despoil the tombs of the ancient pharaohs, in search not of gold, jewels or antiquities, but of the nitrogen contained in the bones of the thousands of slaves buried along with Nile pharaohs, as sacrificial victims, to serve them even after their deaths. The English tomb raiders had exhausted the reserves in continental Europe; they dug up more than three million human skeletons, along with the bones of hundreds of thousands of dead horses that soldiers had ridden in the battles of Austerlitz, Leipzig and Waterloo, sending them by ship to the port of Hull in the north of England, where they were ground in the bone mills of Yorkshire to fertilize the verdant fields of Albion.

This is a captivating and disturbing work.