From there — as if growing out of that single impurity — dialogue, dreams and hallucinations proliferate. (Labatut’s imagination may run lurid, but his prose is masterfully paced and vividly rendered in Adrian Nathan West’s magnetic translation.) Thus the reader witnesses Heisenberg’s matrix epiphany on the remote North Sea island of Heligoland not as a breakthrough in esoteric algebra, but as revelation induced by fever and accompanied by visions.

The historical record confirms that Heisenberg arrived on Heligoland delirious with allergies. It’s known that he had a copy of Goethe’s “West-Eastern Divan” and memorized passages from it. But the hallucination in which the German naturalist and polymath Goethe fellates the lifeless body of Hafez, the 14th-century Sufi poet whose verses had inspired his Divan, is all Labatut’s. Modern science may have replaced mysticism as a path to knowledge, he seems to say, but it’s shattered our holistic understanding of our world.

Labatut has Heisenberg suffer another mental breakdown on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough, this time in Copenhagen, where he arrived at the uncertainty principle now named for him. In a seedy bar, he is accosted by a stranger who works in radio and confronts the German scientist about the “magnificent inferno” created by technologies that can warp distance and time. Stumbling out into the night, Heisenberg is overcome by a prefiguration of the nuclear bomb his research will make possible, a vision of tiny sparks dancing before his eyes, and a mute chorus of shadowy figures who throng around him before a flash of “blind” — not blinding — light obliterates them.

In Labatut’s telling, Heisenberg then comes to recognize that the parameters of any given quantum object can never be identified with certainty. If the position of an electron is determined precisely, “arresting that particle in its orbit like an insect impaled on a pin,” then it becomes impossible to know its momentum, and vice versa. The variables are mathematically complementary, so that the more clearly we bring one into focus, the more it blurs our understanding of the other — as if, Heisenberg explains, “reality allowed us to perceive the world with crystalline clarity with one eye at a time, but never with both.”

With his slippery hybrid of fact and fiction, Labatut slyly applies the uncertainty principle to the human pursuit of knowledge itself. Abstraction and imagination, measurement and story coexist in a multidimensional reality containing infinite destinies and interpretations. At its furthest reaches, reason and scientific inquiry lead into the unknowable. As Labatut puts it, in words he ascribes to Schwarzschild: “Only a vision of the whole, like that of a saint, a madman or a mystic, will permit us to decipher the true organizing principles of the universe.”

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