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When We Cease to Understand the World asks what it means to be human

Explore the cosmic awe and horror of science with Vox Book Club and Unexplainable.

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A diptych of the author Benjamin Labatut and the cover of his book “When We Cease to Understand the World.”
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut.
Left, Suhrkamp Labatut Juana Gomez. Right, New York Review of Books.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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This March, the Vox Book Club is teaming up with Vox’s science podcast Unexplainable to see what we can make of Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, one of the weirdest and most beautiful books to come out last year.

When We Cease to Understand the World doesn’t quite have a genre, but it lies somewhere in the liminal space between fiction and nonfiction. Its subject is the problem of trying to understand the universe, and whether those attempts must inevitably end in cosmic horror.

In five self-contained chapters, Labatut examines how every time we seem to get closer to understanding how the universe works, as we begin to develop the equations and principles that describe what’s happening in the heart of a black hole or within the nucleus of an atom, we uncover ideas we cannot possibly grasp. The ideas we find there seem to shiver away from us, to resist being drawn into the light.

And if we cannot truly understand the universe, Labatut asks, can we truly understand what it means to be human beings?

This is a rich, philosophically heady book, and we’re going to have fun unpacking it. Together, we’ll talk to astrophysicists, get into the nitty-gritty of what we know about electrons, and come away with some ideas about exploring the universe and our own humanity.

Join the Vox Book Club as we spend March exploring When We Cease to Understand the World. At the end of the month, we’ll meet Labatut live on Zoom, and you can RSVP here. We’ll also be joining the Unexplainable team for a very special episode to unpack some of the science, dropping into your podcast feeds on April 13. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

The full Vox Book Club schedule for March 2022

Friday, March 11: Discussion post on When We Cease to Understand the World published to

Thursday, March 31, noon ET: Virtual live event with author Benjamín Labatut. Reader questions are encouraged!

Wednesday, April 13: Unexplainable episode on everything we’ve learned from When We Cease to Understand the World goes live

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