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Muses of science and war

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

Henry Joy McCracken 22 April 2007

Bolt from the blue: his brother's storm science inspired the great writer

Vonnegut knew intimately what scientists were like and what motivated them

Follow the long twisting course of the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico into the deserts of New Mexico and eventually you'll find yourself not so far from the town of Socorro, population 8000. That is almost the same path that thunderstorms make, at the long end of the summer, up from the blue waters of the Gulf to the semi-arid desert scrub of southern New Mexico. A couple of millennia ago there was an ocean here, and attentive fossil hunters can easily find a bleached shark bone or two scattered amongst the rock and tumbleweed.

It was the regularity and predictability of these summer storms (at the peak thunderstorm season there are two each week) that led to the construction of a research laboratory on the summit of Mount Baldy, forty kilometres from Socorro, in 1963. Named after Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir, it is a thunderstorm observatory; brave scientists can actually be inside a thunderstorm, and can observe at first hand the formation and evolution of thunderclouds. Reinforced plate-glass windows look out over the desert; loudspeakers everywhere provide an insistent clicking, whose frequency is keyed to the strength of the atmospheric electric field. When the storms break, lighting arcs across the lab's metal balustrades and heavy hail pounds against the reinforced windows.

Many people visited Langmuir Labs, among them Bernard Vonnegut, the brother of the writer, Kurt, who recently died on April 11th, aged 84. (Bernard died a decade earlier, in 1997). Bernie Vonnegut's key discovery was that one could 'seed' rainclouds with crystals of silver iodide, forcing precipitation from a clear sky. Bernard travelled to New Mexico to try to understand just how thunderstorms work. Where did the devastating bolts of lightning come from? How did clouds become electrified? Maybe it had something to do with hail? Bernard Vonnegut had a few ideas; different ideas than collaborators on the other side of the Atlantic, notably John Latham. A series of comments, in which each side politely disagreed with the other, appeared in the pages of learned journals. Then one day Latham was ambushed by a blistering gag letter from the other Vonnegut, who declared that, when the day came to make a film of the life of 'my dear brother', finding actors mean enough to play Latham would be an impossible task.

Throughout his life, Kurt Vonnegut greatly admired his brother's work, although he was certain that he and Bernie had been given completely different minds. At first Kurt had thought to be scientist too, but had crashed out from his graduate program to write ad copy for General Electric, before discovering that he could support himself hacking out short stories and eventually novels. By this time, he knew intimately what scientists were like and what motivated them.

The defining event of Vonnegut's life had come at the tail end of the war, a few years previously: like the great polish poet Czelaw Milosz, who had survived the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, Vonnegut too had gazed into Hell. Put to work with other prisoners of war making baby-milk products for expectant mothers, when the allied bombers arrived he and his fellow prisoners were packed into a refrigerated underground slaughterhouse. They emerged to find that terrible firestorms had consumed the city; as Vonnegut remarked, Dresden had been transformed into the surface of the moon. The Frauenkirche had been reduced to a ruined shell and the citizens of Dresden incinerated in their cellars.

How could such a thing have happened? Vonnegut circled around this terrible story in half a dozen previous books before squarely facing it in Slaughterhouse Five, the novel which made him famous and became one of the 20th century's most important statements against the stupidity and pointlessness of war.

It was scientists and engineers who had given politicians the means to destroy life on an unprecedented scale. In an earlier book, Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut imagined a new form of ice which is solid at room temperatures, 'ice-nine' – an invention almost certainly inspired by his brother's research. Its fictional inventor, Dr. Felix Hoenikker, is a man driven by unrelenting curiosity about the natural world but who is also completely blind to any moral responsibility that might come with his discoveries. Ice-nine was invented to 'freeze out' mud that hindered the progress of US marines across swamps. A handy thing to have except when, of course, the entire world is accidentally transformed into a glittering blue-white crystal thanks to a few drops of ice-nine finding their way into the ocean.

Such catastrophes are not uncommon in Vonnegut's work. Elected honorary president of the American Humanist society, it was clear to him that people and not God were responsible for the firebombing of Dresden: "I never expected Him to be on the job." In the absence of God, and confronted with the capricious and absurd nature of existence, the only possible response for Vonnegut was to be good to other people. "God damn it," he wrote, "You've got to be kind."

In Slaughterhouse Five, the alien race of Tralfamadorians (who provide Vonnegut with a convenient vantage point to observe the foibles of the human race) describe their views on death and causality. The Tralfamadorians, obviously familiar with Einstein's theory of relativity, see each object and entity not in terms of its precise location at a given instant but rather in the entirety of its extension throughout all of space and time. Deprived of the notion of "before" and "after", one can no longer mourn the passing of a friend or the destruction of a city because, after all, they always exist, and will always continue to exist. In the absence of any form of God, now that both Kurt and Bernard have gone, this is probably the best consolation we'll get.

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