Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“When We Cease to Understand the World”: In order of reading book number 2.


Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.


In this rambling book, Benjamin Labatut brings us in just over 150 years on a rollercoaster ride in sciences from the more or less alchemist days of the mid to late eighteenth century where little more than four elements were known, and with accidental experiments leading to discoveries that soon escaped the hands and minds of the person that discovered them, through to God playing dice, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal.

Labatut chooses to take us from the accidental discovery of Prussian Blue by Jacob Diesbach, useful in dyeing and painting, through the accidental discovery of cyanide by Carl Wilhelm Scheele stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and of Scheele’s death from a painting pigment poisoning, a wonderful green colour used extensively but based on arsenic. And yes as in the opening quote, he links this through to Zyclon A and then Zyclon B.

But how does he get us to Heisenberg and Nils Bohr? Well the first man to derive the exact solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus ultimately predict the existence of Black holes died as a result of being gassed in the first world war trenches.

I’ll stop here, an extremely interesting book, just too much information. Yes I’ve left out huge chunks of subject matter. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

First Published in Spanish as “Un Verdor Terrible” by Anagrama in 2020.
Translated into English by Adrian Nathan West and published as “When We Cease to Understand the World” in 2021 by Pushkin Press.

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