The Ecstasy of Scientific Discovery, and Its Agonizing Price

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim in The New York Times:

In December 1915, while serving on the Russian front, the German astronomer and mathematician Karl Schwarzschild sent a letter to Albert Einstein that contained the first precise solution to the equations of general relativity. Schwarzschild’s approach had been simple. He had plugged Einstein’s equations into a model that posited an ideal, perfectly spherical star, in order to calculate how its mass would warp the surrounding space. Schwarzschild’s solution was elegant, but it revealed something monstrous: If the same process were applied not to an ideal star but to one that had begun to collapse, its density and gravity would increase infinitely, creating an enclosed region of space-time, or a singularity, from which nothing could escape. Schwarzschild had given the world its first glimpse of black holes.

In “When We Cease to Understand the World,” a gripping meditation on knowledge and hubris, Benjamín Labatut describes how Schwarzschild was seized by a sense of foreboding over his own discovery. “The true horror” of the singularity, he told a fellow mathematician, was that it created a “blind spot, fundamentally unknowable,” since even light would be unable to escape it. And what if, he continued, something similar could occur in the human psyche? “Could a sufficient concentration of human will — millions of people exploited for a single end with their minds compressed into the same psychic space — unleash something comparable to the singularity? Schwarzschild was convinced that such a thing was not only possible, but was actually taking place in the Fatherland.”

Schwarzschild, who was Jewish, did not live to see Hitler rise to power and concentrate the collective German will to catastrophic effect. But a different premonition came true within months. The “void without form or dimension,” which he told his wife had invaded his being, took shape as a rare disease that would cover his body in pustulant blisters and kill him mere months after his scientific breakthrough.

More here.