Dr. Irving Langmuir and the Brothers Vonnegut
By Anthony F. Hall
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Is there a dark, malignant side to science? To even raise that question in the 1950s, as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr did, was to cast doubt upon the entire, mid-century American project. It’s no wonder that in the 1960s, Vonnegut found himself a hero of the counter-culture.
According to Ginger Strand’s The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Science, a dual biography of the novelist and his MIT- educated brother Bernard, Kurt Vonnegut’s qualms about the benevolence of science began to percolate years earlier, when he worked for General Electric’s publicity department in Schenectady.
Bernard arrived in Schenectady in 1945, a few years before Kurt, to work in GE’s Research Lab, the first of its kind in the nation and the so-called “House of Magic.” He, too, would be forced to come to terms with technology’s potential for harm as well as good, with its capacity to make the deserts bloom and to make a desert out of cities.
For both Vonneguts, the internal contradictions of science were embodied in the person of Irving Langmuir, prominent Lake George conservationist, summer resident and the first industrial scientist to win a a Nobel prize.
Langmuir was famous for having his head in the clouds, literally – his cloud seeding experiments, which created at least two thunderstorms over Lake George, earned him a place on the cover of Time magazine – and figuratively. Kurt Vonnegut based his character Felix Hoenikker, the physicist in the novel Cat’s Cradle, on Langmuir’s apparent cluelessness about humans and their concerns.
“He could walk right by a colleague without so much as nodding. When a woman fell down on the stairs in front of him, he famously stepped over her and continued on. Once he stepped in a can of paint, pulled his foot out without pausing and kept on walking, leaving a trail of safety-yellow footprints in his wake,’ writes Strand.
With the denotation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, scientists no longer had the luxury of being oblivious to their fellow creatures or to the ramifications of their studies, if they ever did.
Shortly after the bombs were dropped, Langmuir was among the scientists invited to attend a conference at the University of Chicago to discuss the threats posed by the invention of the bomb to all and any life on the planet. Here, he publicly acknowledged the civic responsibilities of the scientist and joined his colleagues in advocating international controls over the new technology.
As a defense contractor as well as the home of a Research Lab, General Electric exemplified the conflict between scientific theory and practice.
Nothing illustrated that tension better than the cloud seeding experiments of Langmuir and his assistants – Vonnegut, Vincent Shaefer, Katherine Blodgett, Duncan Blanchard and Ray Falconer
As Strand notes, “the eccentric but brilliant researchers followed their curiosity wherever it took them…”
Ultimately, their curiosity led them to see if they could harness nature itself.
While Kurt was busy writing snappy press releases about turbines and refrigerators, Bernard and his colleagues were experimenting with making better clouds – clouds that could release rain or snow at will.
Not surprisingly, those experiments attracted the attention of the US government; weather had been a constant factor in World War II, determining when and if, for example, armadas could sail and cities be destroyed. If the military could control the clouds, fog and snow, the possibilities were endless.
Only in 1966 was it learned that Langmuir and his team’s discoveries about the control of weather had been used covertly by the US Army in Vietnam.
“Bernard was horrified to see his invention used in actual combat. But news of the missions led to an international outcry and, eventually… a UN treaty banning the use of weather modification as a weapon of war,” writes Strand.
Langmuir, of course, had been dead for at least a decade, but he no doubt would have been gratified by the UN’s vote, since it produced something akin to the policies he had once hoped would abolish nuclear war.
“It would be desirable… to destroy all atomic bombs, all large plants for making them and all reserves of plutonium,” Langmuir wrote in 1946.
By then, Langmuir may have already concluded what Kurt Vonnegut would state a quarter century later: the ethical scientist “is the one who declines to work on weapons.”
The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Science is available at Trees, the book and gift shop located on Bolton Landing’s Main Street.
Doug Deneen, Trees’ co-owner, notes, “In this fascinating cultural history, Ginger Strand chronicles the intersection of these brothers’ lives at a time when the possibilities of science seemed infinite. As the Cold War looms, Bernard’s struggle for integrity plays out in Kurt’s evolving writing style. The Brothers Vonnegut reveals how science’s ability to influence the natural world also influenced one of our most inventive novelists.”
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