By Kurt Vonnegut
Read: August, 2018
I first read Cat’s Cradle while in late high school or early college (as a full-blown science geek) when I read a number of Vonnegut’s books. At the time I was enchanted by his irreverent style and outrageous characters and his apparent scorn for religion.
As I now read this book about 40 years later, I can see a number of things I couldn’t fully appreciate then. When I entered the work force, there were a number of companies, including the one I joined, that had “pure research” groups. Coming directly out of a post-doctoral fellowship, joining a Research Lab with essentially no direction regarding my work was extremely attractive. The big companies that could afford this luxury really valued the fact they were contributing to the knowledge of the world and let their highly geeky have a lot of rein, asking only that they patent their discoveries (for which they were paid a small recognition award). We currently benefit from this—Xerox, Kodak, GE, Bell Laboratories, among others, invented technologies that we rely on today—the computer mouse, graphical user interfaces, digital photography, much of the technology in cell phones, etc. None of these companies now have “pure research” labs now and companies rely on academics and start-up companies, which are developing academic findings into something attractive to bigger companies, to produce the novel technologies they buy and utilize. Their “Research and Development” labs are really Product Development labs that are focused on using technologies, occasionally creating needed enabling technologies, to create products for the marketplace. So it goes.
Vonnegut likely didn’t realize this would be the course of industrial research given that he wrote Cat’s Cradle when pure research in big companies was driving many of the benefits noted above. He does put his finger on an important aspect of those heady days of pure research at big companies. These companies, and the few that can still afford “pure research”, provided scientists the ability to not worry about funding for their work (unlike the research sources of today—you understand this if you have any friends on faculty of universities trying to get their grants funded) which allows for great new technologies to be discovered. What a perfect situation for truly creating lots of knowledge! However, it can also lead to a total apathetic view of the scientist to what he/she is creating and the potential downsides morally and ethically to what their discovery allows. The pursuit of “knowledge” has always both driven great technological gifts to mankind as well as potentially dangerous ones—the atomic bomb, the ability to alter the genetic makeup of anything living for example. Note that the latter concern noted is a product of academic research so apathy reins there as well. It’s interesting that Goggle’s values include “do no evil” which sounds great but certainly puts the company and the country in an interesting dilemma—to participate in the knowledge race that others with less noble values are driving or not…. Vonnegut’s Dr. Felix Hoenikker was certainly a well-constructed portrait of the pure scientist in industry—brilliant, allowed to work on whatever he felt like, whenever he felt like it and wherever he felt like it, and being totally oblivious or totally uncaring with regards to the uses of the knowledge he discovered and the technologies he created (Vonnegut indicates Hoenikker is the father of the atomic bomb). He also apparently cared about nothing beyond his work as evidenced by his interactions with his children. A telling aspect of the two is that the day the atomic bomb was dropped, Dr Hoenikker asked if his children would play “Cat’s Cradle” with them. They didn’t understand his question as they’d never heard him ask to interact with him before.
Vonnegut uses his book to comment on another enduring foible of mankind—how to gain, retain, and use power for power’s sake. He has characters that have given up power to do good, starting a hospital in the middle of the jungle, for instance, or that recognize they don’t have a real interest in wielding power–Frank turning to Jonah to take over as successor to the current ruler of San Lorenzo so he could avoid the people related expectations of the role and he could devote himself to the “introverted” hobbies he had. Johan, once convinced by Frank to become “Papa’s” successor falls prey to the “rewards” of power—getting the beautiful daughter and ensuring he would have her all to himself, for instance.
In the end, a creation of Dr Hoenikker (Ice-Nine—a concept that has been picked up by many in various art forms over the last 50 years and the name of which we’ve probably all heard somehow somewhere) has the unintended consequence some powerful inventions have and we are left to ponder a question Vonnegut poses in his book—can religion really help mankind be better or does it only provide essentially unproductive relief from the big questions facing mankind’s long-term existence. So it goes.