Scientific Innovation and Cat’s Cradle: Do Our Beliefs Impede Progress?
Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle asserts that our attitudes—as well as the behaviors that stem from them—toward the implications of scientific innovation impact the decisions we make. In doing so, he provokes the reader to investigate the potential repercussions of viewing science as a holy grail of sorts, following it as if it is a religion. The individuals in the novel who rely solely on the acquisition of knowledge are those who contribute to the end of the world, a result that is meant to highlight the dangers of not looking past objective facts. This tendency to undermine the importance of anything but science is apparent in the behaviors of many of the novel’s characters, the first of which is Felix Hoenikker, a man instrumental in creating the atomic bomb who does not contemplate how his work might affect the world. As an individual who “just [i]sn’t interested in people” (Vonnegut 13), he routinely fails to relate what he does as a scientist to the moral implications that his work has on society at large.
With little to no regard for others, “people can’t get at [Felix],” and when faced with the concept of sin as it related to the creation of his atomic bomb, Felix replied, “‘what is sin?’” (Vonnegut 17). With no interest in the activity of humans and a focus placed solely on fixing the problems that he sees in front of him, Felix can’t know sin—something that exists only in the context of morality. Felix views science as an arbitrary act; thus, moral responsibility does not factor into his decisions. The reason that people could not “get at” Felix is because he acts as if part of a scientific machine—a device designed for a specific, methodical purpose—rather than as if part of a larger human society. Because of this, he does not recognize that he can affect others through science; he views his machine as a closed system. In his mind, not only can nothing get in to affect him, nothing he does can get out to affect anything but scientific innovation itself.
This complacent attitude toward the outcomes of technology is also present in Dr. Asa Breed, the director of the Research Laboratory, who very highly regards Felix and his work. Breed believes so fervently in science that he quickly expresses frustration about how his lab is “one of the few companies that actually hires men to do pure research”—research that he describes as “increas[ing] knowledge” and “work[ing] toward no end but that” (Vonnegut 41). Met with this idea, John suggests that it is “very generous” (Vonnegut 41) of them to do this, but is quickly dismissed by Breed when he urges that there is “nothing generous about it” because “[n]ew knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth” (Vonnegut 41). Like Felix, Breed does not concern himself with the repercussions of research or even what it is used for—even if it is “sure to wind up as a weapon, one way or another” (Vonnegut 26), as Breed’s own son claims. What Vonnegut suggests here, according to Zins, is that in order for “science [to be] rescued from a technocracy that blindly serves the nuclear state and exacerbates the militarism of the world … the individual scientist [must refuse] to be an accomplice in the terminal process” (Zins 173). Breed’s son chose to quit working at the laboratory because he looked past the objective research being conducted and saw the potential for its use; in other words, he refused to be an accomplice in the “crime” that was creating weapons. While Breed and Felix did not consciously decide to be accomplices in this process, their inability to acknowledge the importance of what their research truly meant inhibited them from refusing to take part in it.
Not only does this method of thinking provoke Felix to continue conducting science without moral regard, it is projected toward his children throughout their childhoods. He paid so little attention to them that when Newt was six and his father showed him the cat’s cradle, Newt was terrified because “not only had [Felix] never played with [him] before; he had hardly ever even spoken to him” (Vonnegut 12). The lack of love and familial support that his children received led them to trade away their ice-nine crystals: Angela used it to “buy [her]self a tomcat husband”, Frank used it to “buy [him]self a job”, and Newt used it to “buy himself a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget” (Vonnegut 243). They didn’t pawn off ice-nine in return for financial gain or a position of ultimate power; they traded it to earn a place in which they belonged—a place that their father’s lack of human interaction robbed them of. Being raised in a house that valued science alone led the Hoenikker children to grow up with the exact opposite problem that their father suffered from: instead of placing no importance on people and all of it on science, they placed very little importance on science and most of it on people. Comparable to how children forced to comply with strict religious practices often rebel fervently against their church as they come of age, Felix’s obsessive, religious affinity towards science left his children longing for anything but science. Because of this, they saw it fit to trade away ice-nine in return for companionship without pausing to consider the effects of the scientific technology they possessed.
We see this blind acceptance of science in “Papa” Monzano as well, who, despite his being a Bokononist, believed firmly in the power of science; this was made obvious to us not only through his firm opposition to allowing citizens to practice Bokononism, but through blatant remarks in which he claims that “science is the strongest thing there is” and that Frank will succeed as a leader because “[he] ha[s] science” (Vonnegut 146). In his lack of regard for Frank’s true leadership potential and emphasis on science alone, “Papa” is used by Vonnegut as a prime example of what can happen when we consider nothing more than the truth of science. Similar to the way in which he chose Frank to become the next president of San Lorenzo, the way in which he chose to kill himself by ingesting ice-nine displays his disregard for anything outside of technology.
It is interesting, given “Papa” Monzano’s affinity toward science, that “[he is] a member of the Bokononist faith” (Vonnegut 218), a religion that is founded on lies, and to which the only thing that is sacred is “man” (Vonnegut 210). Despite believing in Bokononism, he vehemently denounces it prior to his death, urging Frank to “kill [Bokonon] and teach [the people] truth”—the truth that he is referring to is science, what he also describes as “the magic that works” (Vonnegut 218). In juxtaposing belief in the truth of science with belief in the lies of Bokononism, Vonnegut asserts that while science may be the basis through which we earn knowledge and progress technologically, belief in man is what is truly of value. In the end, although “Papa” Monzano went through the last rites of Bokononism before he died, his choice to utilize science—in the form of ice-nine—to end his life, rather than letting things run their natural course, is what led to the end of the world. In choosing belief in science over belief in man, “Papa” places importance on solitary happiness over societal success. He took ice-nine because it was a solution to ending his pain—the same pain that he carelessly inflicted on others by choosing to cease his own suffering.
The ice-nine itself proves to be a symbol for solitude—this is what ultimately leads to the end of the world. Ice-nine spawned from “selfish thoughtlessness and isolation” that “is latent in the extreme alienation of [its] inventor from his children” (Faris 46). Like ice, Felix, described by his son Newt as “one of the best-protected human beings who ever lived” (Vonnegut 13), can easily be deemed as cold—a trait that Faris states arises “from a lack of [passion]” (47). The motivation for Felix’s creation of the atom bomb and of ice-nine stemmed from pure curiosity about the problems with which he was presented. He cared nothing about creating things for the good of man; instead, he lived his life by “look[ing] for things to play with and think about” (Vonnegut 16), rather than finding solutions for problems that he observed.
It is therefore no surprise that a man as inaccessible as Felix would create a substance that, isolated, will do no harm. Ice-nine is described as “a seed” that “teach[es] atoms [a] novel way in which to stack and lock” (Vonnegut 45). This means that when ice-nine is exposed to other water molecules, it causes a chain reaction through which every molecule in the chain turns into ice-nine. Isolated, though, ice-nine can do no harm, and the same can be said for Felix. Had he been left to his own devices and not been influenced by other scientists that wanted him to work on the atom bomb and on ice-nine, he couldn’t have done any damage. Felix didn’t care about the application of his experiments; if there were no one there to utilize his technology for something, then it would have no effect on the world, because Felix was otherwise isolated. Like “Papa” Monzano took the ice-nine and exposed the world to it, a Marine general induced the creation of ice-nine by “hounding [Felix] to do something about mud” (Vonnegut 42). In this respect, ice-nine is a recreation of Felix Hoenikker himself.
The way in which Vonnegut implicates those not directly involved in the dissemination of ice-nine—the Marine general, Felix’s children—employs a critique of the existing order that Jubouri Al Ogali & Babaee assert “provides a proposal that the authorial intentionality goes towards the existing political order” (97). When Marvin Breed makes a witty remark about how he “suppose[s] it’s high treason and ungrateful and ignorant and backward and anti-intellectual to call a dead man as famous as Felix Hoenikker a son of a bitch” (Vonnegut 42), he is complaining about how someone’s status as “famous” grants them immunity against warranted critique. In highlighting how uncomfortable this makes Marvin (and John), Vonnegut urges us to consider in whose hands we place responsibility; he leads us to wonder how our perceptions of power cloud our judgment of someone’s ability to act in our best interest. Allowing the people in power to take on all responsibility for competing in the arms race “results in alienation within human societies” (Jubouri Al Ogali & Babeee 97). In this way, Vonnegut is not only criticizing men like Felix and Dr. Breed for refusing responsibility for their actions, but also anyone who allows the people in power to behave in such an irresponsible manner.
It is also worth noting how Vonnegut characterizes the narrator of Cat’s Cradle, John. Despite having lived through the events leading up to the near destruction of the world, John appears to remain calm and “too puerile to respond personally or to describe emotions of others feelingly” (Hume 179). While he does a good job of describing the process of “collect[ing] material for [his] book” (Vonnegut 1), his attention to a purely journalistic account of what occurred lacks “empathy for the misery experienced by the victims, and personal reaction, specifically psychological damage which testifies to the effect that witnessing atrocities has on a sensitive and humane observer” (Hume 179). He is aware throughout his narration of the effects that Felix’s ice-nine will have on the fate of the world; yet, he alludes to it only through quips and playful remarks, calling Newt a “little son of a bitch” and Angela “miserable” for “ha[ving] a crystal of ice-nine in a thermos bottle in [their] luggage” as they flew above “God’s own amount of water” (Vonnegut 111). John’s affinity for detached analysis over emotional attachment ironically mirrors Felix’s attitude—the very attitude that Vonnegut is attempting to critique throughout the novel.
Perhaps, then, Vonnegut is making a statement through this choice. Readers do not question John’s objective account of how the world ended, despite it being just as isolated from emotion and humanity as Felix’s experiments. This leads to a paradoxical consideration of the text: if John is doing the same thing that his account of history is trying to steer us away from, should we also steer away from his account of history? Vonnegut allows John to tell a compelling tale in opposition to science without responsibility—responsibility that John himself does not demonstrate in his telling of events. This may be meant to show us that perhaps there is a place for emotional absence in research, though the novel appears to strongly urge against this.
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Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle asserts that our attitudes—as well as the behaviors that stem from them—toward the implications of scientific innovation impact the decisions we make. In doing so, he provokes […]