From science to science fiction

by Meg Marquardt
Monday, June 20, 2016

Project Cirrus may have flopped in the meteorology world, but its research left an indelible impression on the literary world.

Legend has it that Irving Langmuir, future head of Project Cirrus, was showing author H.G. Wells around the General Electric labs sometime around 1930. During the tour, Langmuir allegedly began talking about water that was solid at room temperature, an idea that he thought Wells could use for a story. When Kurt Vonnegut began working at GE’s press office in 1947, he discovered the story about Wells and Langmuir. And thus, the seed of the fabled ice-nine — the chemical catalyst behind the global catastrophe that is the centerpiece of Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” — was planted in the author’s mind.

In the book, ice-nine is solid at room temperature, but it also can freeze any water it touches. That additional characteristic may have come from the research of the author’s brother, Bernard Vonnegut, who was a member of Project Cirrus. Bernard discovered that silver iodide worked much like dry ice: It could cause supercooled water droplets in clouds to freeze.

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