Geschrieben am 31. Dezember 2021 von für Highlights, Highlights 2021

Robert Wilson, Matthias Wittekindt


Robert Wilson: Some of the greatest minds

A couple of things happened recently, which have changed my life. I accidentally bought a book that I’d never heard of in one of those 3 for 2 offers and I listened to Kazuo Ishiguro on a podcast called How to Fail in which people talk about the impact their failures have had on their lives and careers. 

Ishiguro was regretting his lack of interest in his father’s scientific career as an oceanographer, which had led to his almost total ignorance of science. It struck me with considerable force that I, too, had gone nowhere near anything scientific since passing a couple of O-levels at sixteen. I was completely ignorant of how the world really works let alone our galaxy and the universe.

The title of the non-fiction novel I’d bought is: When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. It seems a somewhat apocalyptic title in these times of political polarization, clickbait media and misinformation in the metaverse and you could be forgiven for thinking…yes! before giving this book a dazzling sidestep to resume your trajectory to the great beyond. 

You would be missing something.

From the opening paragraph in which we’re told of Hermann Göring’s scarlet stained extremities due to the imbibing of 100 tabs of dihydrocodeine per day! To the last paragraph in which we learn of the exuberance in death of the lemon tree, Labatut batters the reader with fascinating stories of madness induced by the search for the ultimate truth, which seems to be unerringly located very close to the abyss.

In the enduring pandemic we’ve been told by politicians all over the world that: ‘We are following the science,’ which is supposed to induce a sense of security in us. Here we have all these logical people, capable of developing vaccines and medication, in order to prevent and treat a global viral infection. Labatut, in his initial chapter, shows us just how unpredictable the business of science really is. That, for instance, the invention of the first synthetic blue pigment, Prussian Blue, used by Hokusai and Van Gogh in their paintings became, when processed by the Swedish scientist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1782, Blue Acid or what we call Prussic acid. That is, the most powerful poison known to man: hydrogen cyanide.

The original Spanish title of this book (Labatut is Chilean) is Un Verdor Terrible, which was a particular fear of the German/Jewish scientist Fritz Haber. He who developed the use of Chlorine Gas as a weapon in WW1, but was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918 for his earlier invention of isolating Nitrogen from the air. His intention? To provide an endless supply of explosives for the German war effort. The side effect? Haber solved the global fertilizer crisis, giving rise to his ultimate fear that the plant world would gain the upper hand and inflict ‘a terrible greening’. You’d laugh out loud if it wasn’t for the fact that the ‘B’ version of Haber’s other invention, a pesticidal fumigant so powerful it was called Zyklon (cyclone), would be implemented by the Nazis to wipe out millions of his fellow Jews in the gas chambers.

If those warning shots weren’t enough to unnerve you then the next chapter called ‘Schwarzschild’s singularity’ surely will. On Christmas Eve 1915 Einstein received a letter from the trenches with the precise solution to all the equations of General Relativity, which he’d published only a month before. That the writer had suffered a horrible death in the trenches from a blistering necrosis called pemphigus was not yet known. Also unknown was Schwarzschild’s horror at his other discovery on the back of his calculations, which was that when a giant star exhausts its fuel and collapses the force of gravity becomes so powerful it tears a lightless hole in space into which everything around it falls including…time.

Schwarzschild had discovered what we call a Black Hole. It tormented him. He thought it had powerful psychological implications. You never know when you have reached the tipping point, at which a Black Hole sucks you in, until it is too late. From his deathbed in the trenches, as he solved Einstein’s equations, he foresaw a terrible darkness looming over the horizon.

It made me wonder whether this would be the ultimate end of the universe in trillions of years time. As more and more giant stars collapse and all matter is sucked into their unavoidable gravitational pull whole galaxies could become Black Holes until, presumably, the tipping point would be reached. At this point the universe would return to its ultimate Black Hole, one of such impossible shattering density that it could only explode, and with a Big Bang all would be set in motion once more.

What Labatut is doing, mixing up these true stories with fiction, is paving the way to the real meat of the book. He gives us one last story about the brilliant mathematician, Alexander Grothendieck, who in attempting to unearth the structures underlying all mathematical objects reaches what he refers to as ‘the heart of the heart’ and, at that precise moment, falls into the abyss of his own mind, eschewing maths for evermore. 

Having witnessed this collapse we are now ready for the moment when we cease to understand the world: Quantum Mechanics.

Einstein, having brilliantly envisioned Spacetime and developed his theories of Special and General Relativity, had hoped that there would be an ultimate unifying theory that would encompass everything from fields to particles right down to the tiniest of tinies in the subatomic world of electrons. He was in for a terrible shock.

Once it was realized that light existed in two different ways, being both wave and particle inhabiting two distinct orders and possessed of opposed identities, the stage was set for the big showdown. How could this possibly work? At the heart of this duality was something that defied common sense and all traditional fundamental laws of physics.

In the red corner were Einstein and Schrödinger and in the blue, Heisenberg and Bohr. The red corner was desperate for truth and beauty while the blue were intent on the ugly reality. Einstein found Schrödinger’s wave equation totally gorgeous, as did everybody else, but it also made them uneasy. There was something strange in it that begged them not to take it too seriously. They all thought Heisenberg’s matrices hideous, complicated and counter-intuitive with, at their heart, an incomprehensible uncertainty that they couldn’t bear to accept. 

This, ultimately, in Labatut’s words, was what they had to swallow: ‘Reality does not exist as something separate from the act of observation. An electron is not in any fixed place until it is measured and it is only in that instant that it appears. It has no attributes prior to observation. A particle does not exist: it is the act of measuring it that makes it a real object.’

At a stroke it was the end of determinism. ‘Heisenberg proved that what was beyond our grasp was neither the future nor the past but the present itself. Not even the state of one miserable particle could be apprehended.’

Is that weird enough? Einstein was outraged. He condensed his rage into the epigram: ‘God does not play dice with the Universe.’

And it is this very thing that I find so pleasing and spiritually uplifting. That after centuries of work by some of the greatest minds on the planet what they have discovered is that, at ‘the heart of the heart’, lies an incomprehensible mystery. And what these stories show is that you’d be very unwise to meddle with it. I mean, look what happened when they tampered with the nature of the atom. The Nazis had asked Heisenberg to manufacture a bomb. He delivered his opinion that nobody would be capable of developing an atom bomb before the end of the war. He was stunned by Hiroshima.

As Oppenheimer said, on seeing the first nuclear explosion, quoting the Bhagavad Gita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’

I’m sticking to growing lemons in my house in the Alentejo.

Well-travelled Robert Wilson is the author of the Bruce Medway-, Charles Boxer- and Javier Falcon-novels. In 2003 his novel Tod in Lissabon (A Small Death in Lisbon) won the „Deutscher Krimipreis“. He has finished a manuscript for a WW II-thriller, set among the exiles in France and Portugal.  His appearance at CrimeMag herehis essay about Vassily Grossman: Book of the Hour.


Matthias Wittekindt: Ein kurzes Jahr

2021 begann für mich traurig, denn am Abend des 29. Dezember 2020 starb mein Schreibkumpan und Freund Rainer Wittkamp. Und zwar völlig unerwartet, wie man so sagt. Wir kannten uns nicht lange, gerade mal drei Jahre. Aber über der gemeinsamen Arbeit an zwei Büchern lernt man den anderen doch sehr gut kennen. Rainer steht mir bisweilen noch so lebendig vor Augen, als hätten wir uns vor drei Wochen das letzte Mal gesehen. Vielleicht ist das einer der Gründe, warum mir das nun zu Ende gehende Jahr so kurz vorkommt. 

Den zweiten Grund kann man sich denken. Die Pandemie hat, indem sie auch in diesem Jahr viel vom normalen Wechsel der Ereignisse und Erlebnisse eingeebnet hat, die Empfindung für die Zeit gestört. Denkbar wäre natürlich auch die gegenteilige Reaktion, nämlich dass jemandem das Jahr zäh oder sehr lang vorkommt. 

Dabei sind Zeiten mit Kontaktbeschränkungen für einen Schriftsteller wie mich gar nichts Neues. Oder wie ich, als 2020 immer mehr Menschen ins Homeoffice wechselten, zu meinem Freund Dieter sagte: „Jetzt muss sich ganz Deutschland an meinen Tagesablauf gewöhnen.“

Hier spätestens muss ich mir widersprechen. Von wegen eingeebnet! Von wegen weniger Ereignisse! Meine Frau zum Beispiel hat in diesem Jahr ein Tanzprojekt nach dem anderen durchgezogen, mein Freund Dieter hat sein neues Atelier eröffnet, meine Freundin Frauke hat einen Film gedreht, und, und, und. Geld für künstlerische Projektanträge wurde so großzügig ausgeschüttet, dass man – in einigen Fällen – fast schon von Aktionismus sprechen kann. 

Nun aber zurück. 

Die Tage ohne Ablenkung – damit komme ich zu den hellen Aspekten – waren für mich dringend nötig, da ich Ende 2020 einen neuen Verlag gefunden habe und mein Verleger, Herr Kampa, geradezu begeistert war von dem Gedanken, die Frequenz, mit der Bücher von mir erscheinen, deutlich zu erhöhen. Dazu kommt, dass ich die Fin-de-Siècle-Reihe, die ich noch mit Rainer für den Heyne Verlag begonnen habe, nun alleinschreibend fortführe. Da ich mich vom Leben mit Antje und einigen Freunden weitgehend ungestört meiner Arbeit hingeben konnte, war es letztlich doch ein ereignisreiches Jahr. 

So abgesunken im Schreibprozess, dass ich gar nichts mehr von dem, was sonst so vorging, mitbekommen hätte, war ich allerdings nicht. Ich meine damit weniger die immer zornigeren Auftritte der Querdenker oder die diagnostizierte Spaltung der Gesellschaft, ich denke dabei an die nun auch in Deutschland forcierte Digitalisierung. Wäre es mit besseren Datenleitungen getan, ich hätte nichts dagegen. Was ich allerdings an mir selbst und an Menschen meiner Umgebung beobachte, ist ein noch mal verstärktes Gewöhnen an Ereignisse oder Mitteilungen digitaler Art. Bei Kurzartikeln journalistischer Art mag das funktionieren. Sicher auch auf einer Seite wie dieser. Man weiß dann ein bisschen, was die anderen machen und denken. Aber ein virtueller Museumsbesuch? Ein Theaterstück auf dem iPad? Ganz allein genossen. Oder vielleicht zu zweit? Ich glaube, das widerspricht dem Gedanken und nutzt nicht das Vermögen unserer Sinne. 

Nun gut, ich möchte nicht reden wie mein Urgroßvater. Oder wie meine Mutter immer sagte, wenn ein Verhängnis zu drohen schien: „Es wird nichts so heiß gegessen, wie es gekocht wird.“ 

In diesem Sinne wünsche ich euch allen ein gutes neues Jahr. – Matthias

Mit Vor Gericht startete Matthias Wittekindt 2021 eine neue Reihe um den pensionierten Kriminaldirektor Manz im Kampa Verlag. Ende Februar 2022 erscheint dort Die Schülerin. Im Juli 2022 gibt es bei Heyne Fabrik der Schatten, zusammen mit Rainer Wittkamp. Davor erschien im Frühjahr 2020 während Corona bei der Edition Nautilus Die Brüder Fournier. Dort sind fünf weitere Kriminalromane von Matthias Wittekindt publiziert worden.

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