The genius who ended up in a Vonnegut novel

A great many books are written about scientists, their lives and work. But far fewer of them have been portrayed in works of fiction, concealed by made-up names and imagined biographical and personal details, but identifiable nonetheless.

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Irving Langmuir, rear left, looks on while a volunteer tries to turn his breath into crystals, part of an experiment to control hurricanes. No wonder Kurt Vonnegut was rather inspired by him. Credit: Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle is centred on a man named Felix Hoenikker, a brilliant scientist, winner of the Nobel prize, contributor to the development of the atomic bomb, and poster boy for absent-minded professors everywhere.

He’s also the creator of Ice-nine, an element with the ability to destroy the world by freezing it.

If we strip away Vonnegut’s more fantastical elements of the Hoenikker story, we find a real-life scientist, Irving Langmuir, who in many ways was just as extraordinary as his fictional counterpart.

Langmuir was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 31 January 1881. In 1909 he went to work for the General Electric research laboratory in New York, where he took on the task of building a better light bulb. 

He and a colleague, Lewi Tonks, discovered that the life of a tungsten filament could be greatly extended by filling the bulb with an inert gas such as argon. They also found that twisting the filament into a tight coil improved its efficiency. These were important developments in the history of the incandescent light bulb.

The website describes how he continued to study filaments in a vacuum, and in different gas environments, examining the emission of charged particles from hot filaments (a process called thermionic emission). 

“He was one of the first scientists to work with plasmas and was the first to call these ionised gases by that name, because they reminded him of blood plasma,” the anonymous author of the website entry notes.

Langmuir developed several concepts and tools that are now commonly used in plasma physics. The website author continues: “He also discovered atomic hydrogen, which he put to use by inventing the atomic hydrogen welding process; the first plasma weld ever made. Plasma welding has since been developed into gas tungsten arc welding.”

In 1932 he received the Nobel prize for chemistry, “for his discoveries and investigations in surface chemistry”.

Along with his scientific studies, Langmuir was a keen skier and mountaineer. Alaska’s Mount Langmuir is named for him

Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, Bernard, was also a highly regarded scientist at General Electric, where he came into contact with the plasma researcher. Kurt for a time worked for GE in public relations.

Langmuir had become interested in weather. During World War II he’d worked for the US military on methods to prevent ice from forming on the wings of airplanes.

2017 article by Sam Kean in The Atlantic magazine, titled “The chemist who thought he could harness hurricanes”, describes how Langmuir “sketched out an idea so revolutionary that he abandoned every other project on his slate to pursue it”. 

“It promised not only to improve rainmaking but to give Langmuir the superhuman power to control hurricanes,” the author writes.

The article describes how Langmuir teamed with US military interests for Project Cirrus in 1947: “Project Cirrus had several aims, including relieving droughts. But above all its sponsors wanted to neuter hurricanes, nature’s most destructive storms.”

He proposed that seeding hurricanes would create ice and release latent heat, which would widen the eye and reduce the destructive power of the storm.

On October 13, 1947, a mild hurricane named King hit Miami, Florida. Because it seemed to be dying anyway, Cirrus officials decided to seed it the next day. But instead of collapsing, the storm grew stronger, and began racing into Savannah, Georgia, causing $3 million in damage and killing one person.

Langmuir died in 1957, but Project Cirrus lived on as Project Stormfury, which peaked during the Vietnam war.

The idea was to seed the region’s annual monsoon rains with silver iodide and wash out enemy activity for several months each year. They called the scheme Project Popeye, with the motto “Make mud, not war.”

It failed to affect the war.

Funny story, though.

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