Kurt Vonnegut & The Rainmakers
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ANNIE MINOFF: I’m Annie.
ELAH FEDER: And I’m Elah.
ANNIE MINOFF: And this is Undiscovered, a podcast about the backstories of science.
ANNIE MINOFF: For millennia, we have tried to coax rain from the clouds in just about every way imaginable. We’ve prayed for it. We’ve danced for it. At one point, we thought we could blast it out of the air with dynamite.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah that didn’t work so well. But it did cause a bunch of fires. But one of my favourite stories about rainmaking, is about a guy named Charles Hatfield.
CYNTHIA BARNETT: I would say that Charles Hatfield was America's great rainmaker or great rain-faker we we really don't know which.
ANNIE MINOFF: Cynthia Barnett, author of Rain: a Natural and Cultural History. Charles Hatfield was a traveling rainmaker.
ELAH FEDER: Or “moisture accelerator”?
ANNIE MINOFF: That is actually what he called himself. He’d travel around Southern California, promising rain to anyone who would pay, and pretty soon, he gained a reputation for actually delivering the goods. He got credit for filling up streams and reservoirs, but wherever he went, he was hounded by the Weather Bureau who wanted to expose him as a fraud.
CYNTHIA BARNETT: Oh absolutely. The chief of meteorology, he literally would chase him around the nation with letters and he would call reporters and try to get exposés written on him.
ANNIE MINOFF: Charles Hatfield was not the first to promise rain for cash. Traveling rainmakers descended on the American Great Plains in the 1890s.
ELAH FEDER: And the Weather Bureau, for years, was telling farmers and governments—stop giving money to these people. They do not actually make it rain. That is just happening on its own.
ANNIE MINOFF: But no one would listen of course to the stuffy scientists at the Weather Bureau. And in late 1915, the city of San Diego strikes a deal with Hatfield. They’ll give him $10,000 if he can fill up their reservoir.
ELAH FEDER: Now, before, we mentioned those earlier rainmakers who set off dynamite to make it rain? Not Hatfield! Hatfield was a lover, not a fighter.
CHARLES HATFIELD (RECREATION): I do not fight nature as Dyrenforth, Jewell, and several others have done by means of dynamic bombs and other explosives. I woo her by means of this... subtle attraction.
ELAH FEDER: Hatfield brews up a secret chemical formula and gets to work, wooing nature, if you will—
ANNIE MINOFF: Mhm.
ELAH FEDER: —in the woods east of San Diego.
CYNTHIA BARNETT: He was a showman in many ways. He was very fit and he would race up and down these platforms.
ANNIE MINOFF: Wooden platforms about, 20 feet high.
CYNTHIA BARNETT: And he would wave his hands around and sort of waft the chemicals into the sky.
ANNIE MINOFF: Hatfield keeps this up for a few days.
CYNTHIA BARNETT: And wouldn't you know that the rain began to fall and then the rain began to pound. And it didn't let up for weeks.
ANNIE MINOFF: It rains so much, that it floods. Bridges collapse. Houses are swept away. Up to 50 people are killed. And Hatfield? Makes himself scarce. Reportedly fleeing on horseback before armed vigilantes can catch him.
ELAH FEDER: Today’s episode: The real science of weather control. Charles Hatfield’s secret formula died with him, but in the 1940s, a team of scientists at General Electric did come up with a recipe for making rain. And pretty soon they learned, just like Hatfield, that if you try to take credit for the weather, you might also get the blame.
ANNIE MINOFF: And one of those GE rainmakers? The scientist at the center of the story? He’s a baby-faced chemist with a familiar name: Bernard Vonnegut.
ELAH FEDER: As in the older brother of Kurt Vonnegut.
ANNIE MINOFF: And as the GE scientists are making it rain, little brother Kurt is watching. Watching and writing.
ELAH FEDER: That’s coming up on Undiscovered!
ANNIE MINOFF: 1947 was shaping up to be a very rough year for Kurt Vonnegut. He’s 24 years old, recently married, but he’s working grueling hours as a reporter at a news agency and writing his own stuff on the side—stories that his wife likes, but no one will publish.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, in the Vonnegut family, at this point, his older brother Bernie—he’s the successful one. He has a PhD in physical chemistry from MIT.
ANNIE MINOFF: Fancy.
ELAH FEDER: And he’d landed a job right after the war at General Electric.
ANNIE MINOFF: But Kurt’s luck is about to change. Because with a bit of help from his older brother Bernie, he gets a job at GE too, writing press stories. A move that would become pivotal for his fiction career.
ELAH FEDER: So, when you think of general General Electric, I don’t know about you Annie, but I think of—
ANNIE MINOFF: Light bulbs.
ELAH FEDER: Right, light bulbs, refrigerators, and ads like this:
1950S TV NARRATOR: Aha! Here's Fran’s husband little early tonight just to see how the little wife likes her new birthday present! Does she like it?—
ELAH FEDER: She does! It’s her new stove, for cooking him dinner!
ANNIE MINOFF: Great!
ELAH FEDER: Score!
TV NARRATOR: —It’s the last word she says, and it must be because it’s a GE!
ELAH FEDER: GE was a manufacturer of kitchen appliances and light bulbs, yes. It was also one of the nation’s biggest defense contractors through the second world war. So, it’s this very sturdy, serious, all-American brand.
ANNIE MINOFF: But in the 1940s, at the heart of GE headquarters, in Schenectady, New York, there’s an oddball department, full of employees unconcerned with profits or national security or keeping hubby fed: the GE Research Lab.
ELAH FEDER: The GE research lab was a scientists’ funhouse. The founder of the lab was a real character. He chain-smoked cigars, kept all kinds of deadly creatures—alligators and rattlesnakes. So maybe it’s not too surprising that the lab was kind of a quirky place.
ANNIE MINOFF: Its philosophy sounds actually a lot like the Google’s 20 percent concept. You let your researchers have fun and the profits will follow.
GINGER STRAND: That struck me too. It was kind of like, oh, this was the proto-Google—General Electric.
ELAH FEDER: Ginger Strand is the author of the “Brother’s Vonnegut,” where she tells the incredible story of Kurt and Bernie’s days at General Electric.
GINGER STRAND: And it really was, the director of the lab would come in and ask the scientists are you having fun today. That was the that was the most important question.
ANNIE MINOFF: And in the mid-1940s, Kurt’s older brother Bernie was part of a team of three scientists working on a pretty fun and fantastical project: controlling the weather.
ELAH FEDER: The team’s first breakthrough happened by accident to Bernie’s colleague, a guy named Vincent Schaefer. It’s the summer of 1946, and for weeks Vince has been tinkering with a GE freezer.
GINGER STRAND: Like a chest freezer. The kind that your uncle Harley has in his garage, right?
ANNIE MINOFF: Inside this freezer, Vince had been making clouds which is actually something you can do if you’ve got a freezer that opens from the top.
ELAH FEDER: So we went to my mom’s house she has one of those drawer freezers and we tried to recreate Vince’s experiment.
ANNIE MINOFF: Which is not that hard to do. So the way you make the cloud at home is you open the freezer—
ANNIE MINOFF (IN FRONT OF FREEZER): Open it!
ANNIE MINOFF: And— and you breathe into it—
ANNIE MINOFF (IN FRONT OF FREEZER): Blow blow blow blow blow!
<<Elah forcefully breathes into freezer>>
ANNIE MINOFF: A few times.
ELAH FEDER (IN FRONT OF FREEZER): Oh yeah it’s working!
ANNIE MINOFF: And you have a cloud. It kind of— it kind of looks like a fog has descended into your freezer drawer.
ELAH FEDER: So Vince has this cloud. It’s sitting compliantly in his freezer. But that’s not— that’s not really the goal of the experiment. The goal is try to make that cloud make snow. And it’s actually an interesting question if you think about it. Why is it some clouds make snow or rain and other clouds, just float on by?
ANNIE MINOFF: They’re just more motivated.
ELAH FEDER: Right the can-do clouds! <<Laughs>> Yeah, I can imagine that there’s— there’s little more frustrating if I’m a farmer living through a drought and watching a cloud float past me, forking over nothing! Anyway, at General Electric the scientists are really interested in trying to answer this question, how do you get a cloud to produce snow crystals? And Vince has this idea, maybe you need a nucleus, you know, a little seed of something to kickstart that ice crystallization process.
ANNIE MINOFF: And unlike Bernie Vonnegut who has like this fancy pants PhD from MIT, Vince is a self-taught scientist.
GINGER STRAND: He was the kind of guy who really was more interested in just getting out there— let’s get out there and try it!
ANNIE MINOFF: So for weeks, Vince had been throwing stuff into his GE freezer trying to give his little cloud something— a nucleus for snow. That was the experiment.
GINGER STRAND: So he's leaning into this freezer all all day long in July, you know, spraying his little cloud with things.
ELAH FEDER: Diatomaceous earth, volcanic dust….
ELAH FEDER (IN FRONT OF FREEZER): You want to try some pepper? <<Grind grind>>
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s the sound of Elah who decided to season our cloud with a little fresh— fresh black pepper that she ground into it. Which did exactly nothing for the ice crystallization process, as you can imagine.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, nothing really worked for us. Or for Vince. Not at first.
GINGER STRAND: One day, he’s doing this, and it’s just too hot.
ANNIE MINOFF: July 12, 1946. It is so hot in the lab, Vince can’t actually get his freezer cold enough for a cloud to form. Which is actually a problem that we had too. Vince needs to cool down the freezer some more. So he grabs some dry ice—this is frozen carbon dioxide—chucks it in the freezer.
GINGER STRAND: And presto. There's like a miniature snowstorm.
<<Chimes sound effect>>
ELAH FEDER (NEAR FREEZER): Nah, it didn’t do anything…. Wait!
ANNIE MINOFF (NEAR FREEZER): No, I think it did. Oh my god, it’s a snowflake!
ELAH FEDER: One...snowflake.
ANNIE MINOFF: One snowflake. Hey, good job.
ELAH FEDER: I think we’re good.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: More pepper?
ELAH FEDER: Eventually, we did see some snow accumulating at the bottom.
ANNIE MINOFF: It was a— it was a very respectable amount of snow, but I don’t think it’s a snowstorm by any means.
ELAH FEDER: I think maybe you do need that deep chest freezer.
ANNIE MINOFF: You know what! It wasn’t a GE.
ELAH FEDER: That’s probably it.
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s the problem.
ELAH FEDER: Yup. Anyway, back to Vince’s story.
ANNIE MINOFF: Okay so, Vince strolls over to the lab next door, tells them, hey guys, I just figured out how to make it snow.
ELAH FEDER: But now, here’s the real test. So far, they’ve made a cloud inside a freezer in a lab. They’ve made that cloud produce snow. But they don’t know if it’s going to work with real clouds in the sky.
ANNIE MINOFF: One day in November, Vince and a pilot they rent this small plane. And they take off from Schenectady Airport first thing that morning.
ELAH FEDER: They’re flying around, they’re looking for that perfect cloud to seed. And then finally, they see one. This nice, fat stratus cloud hanging by Mount Greylock.
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s so high, their single-engine plane takes over an hour to actually like putt-putt-putt its way into this cloud.
ELAH FEDER: And it’s the moment of truth.
ANNIE MINOFF: They fly into the belly of this cloud. Vince throws some dry ice out the window.
ELAH FEDER: The cloud splits in two, and sheets of snow start falling from the gap.
1950s NEWS ANNOUNCER: For the first time in all history, there is now open to man the possibility of exerting some control over the weather, probably the most remarkable achievement of the year.
ANNIE MINOFF: GE wastes no time issuing press releases, and the newspapers go nuts.
REPORTER ONE: Dry ice turns three-mile-long cloud into snow!
REPORTER TWO: —the first man-made snowstorm in the world’s history—
REPORTER THREE: —spectacular sky show—
REPORTER ONE: —the sensational conquest over nature—
REPORTER FOUR: Now we have man-made snow and streetcar windows that really work!
<<Typewriter platen slides and dings>>
ANNIE MINOFF: Just a year earlier, science had conquered the atom. Now, the weather. And it seemed like anything was possible.
ELAH FEDER: Although controlling the weather, it’s not without risks. Like our travelling rainmaker, Charles Hatfield learned in 1916. A brief epilogue to his story. After the San Diego flood, Hatfield was run out of town, and you’d think he was pretty much done for. But no. A little time passes, and Charles Hatfield decides to go back and collect payment. Because hey, he delivered, right? The reservoirs? All full.
ANNIE MINOFF: And meanwhile, the city is looking at their ruined bridges, at the farms swept away, the deaths, and they say, you want to be paid? Sure. If you say you made it rain, we will pay you your $10,000, and you can pay us the 3.5 million in damages. Because you start tampering with the weather—or claiming to tamper with the weather—you might find yourself liable.
ELAH FEDER: GE learns this pretty quickly. Because after their big announcement, whenever a strange weather event occurs, GE gets suspected of tampering. So they come up with a plan to cover their butts: They’ll make this a military project. Yes, GE scientists will keep doing their research, but the military will call the shots and run the actual the cloud seeding flights. They call this Project Cirrus.
ANNIE MINOFF: And this was a complicated time to be doing research for the military. Remember it’s 1947, just two years after America dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
GINGER STRAND: Suddenly it became apparent that you could work on something for the good of your nation and end up causing a really significant amount of human pain and suffering. Scientists just began to think harder about their ethical duties in a world where science became one of the world's most powerful weapons.
ELAH FEDER: These questions were front and center for Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt was a pacifist. And as a soldier in World War II, he’d been held prisoner by the Germans. He’d been starved. He’d been forced to carry corpses. He survived the bombing of Dresden, underground in the basement of a slaughterhouse.
ANNIE MINOFF: So when he joins GE two years later, and sees the research is brother is up to with the military, it’s not surprising he might have some reservations about it. In fact, Kurt’s very first published story, published in 1950, it has Project Cirrus written all over it.
SPEAKER 1: Professor, you’re hotter than a two dollar pistol!
BARNHOUSE: That’s funny. That’s what they said eight years ago when I first discovered this.
ANNIE MINOFF: In the short story “Report on the Barnhouse Effect”—adapted into this radio drama—Professor Arthur Barnhouse develops a superpower.
BARNHOUSE: I call it dynamopsychism!
ANNIE MINOFF: Just by thinking about it, Professor Barnhouse can pulverize boulders, he can move objects miles away with his mind. And he wants to use his powers to save the world.
ELAH FEDER: <<Tsks>> That’s a nice idea.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: But unfortunately, Barnhouse makes a critical mistake. He tells the government about it. And pretty soon the military’s all over him. Yes, they will politely indulge his silly talk of saving the world and then they ask him to please go ahead and sink some battleships.
ANNIE MINOFF: And so, realizing he has just become the military’s greatest superweapon, Barnhouse goes deep into hiding.
SPEAKER 2: Every country in the world has its best agents out hunting for Barnhouse. Nobody can beat that kind of a man hunt. And if the wrong people find him, then we’re done for.
ANNIE MINOFF: In Kurt’s story, a scientist would rather go on the lam than let the military use this discovery for warfare.
ELAH FEDER: Kurt’s brother’s technology? It wasn’t the atomic bomb or dynamopsychism. It was just cloud seeding. But weather control could be an incredible weapon. I mean, imagine making it flood on command, brewing storms over your enemies? But Bernie saw cloud seeding as tool for incredible good. And if the military was interested in weaponizing the clouds, it wasn’t clear when Project Cirrus started.
GINGER STRAND: It seemed that they were interested in you know dispersing fogs or making it rain in places where they wanted to clear the air fields so that they could land. So yeah, that's kind of helping the war effort but it's not making a super weapon.
ELAH FEDER: Not yet anyway.
ANNIE MINOFF: After the break, Project Cirrus goes big and end ups messing with the wrong storm.
ANNIE MINOFF: Every snowflake is different, except in one essential way: They all have six sides, all the way down to the ice’s microscopic structure, where the water molecules themselves are arranged in hexagons.
ELAH FEDER: And that understanding, that was the key to the GE scientists’ second big breakthrough. So it turns out, dry ice, it’s kind of a pain in the butt. You have to keep it really cold. Or you’re constantly losing it to sublimation. You definitely do not want to breathe it in.
ELAH FEDER (NEAR FREEZER): <<Coughing>> I think I might be suffocating! <<Laughing>>
ANNIE MINOFF: It can also really hurt your hands.
ANNIE MINOFF (NEAR FREEZER): Ow! It’s cold!
ELAH FEDER: I know!
ANNIE MINOFF: Ouch!
ELAH FEDER: It’s freezer burn.
ELAH FEDER: So there a lot of reasons why you might want to look for alternatives. And that’s what Bernie Vonnegut was doing one day in the GE research lab.
ANNIE MINOFF: His colleague, Vince’s approach, had been to, you know, just throw different materials at his cloud, see what worked.
GINGER STRAND: Bernie went about this more programmatically, being more of a trained scientist who had sat through a ton of classes at MIT getting his PhD.
ANNIE MINOFF: Bernie pulls out his trusty chemical handbook. He starts flipping through the chemicals one by one. And sure enough, he finds one with the crystalline structure he’s been looking for: Silver iodide.
GINGER STRAND: So, he tried silver iodide in the lab and it worked great too.
ELAH FEDER: It turns out silver iodide is a great nucleus for snow. Dry ice works by cooling down the water in a cloud until it freezes. But silver iodide, it’s more elegant. It works because it has a six-sided crystalline structure, just like snow crystals. You throw a little seed of it into a cloud, and you basically give any water molecules it contacts a blueprint for arranging themselves into hexagons. It’s like you’re teaching them how to freeze. And once they freeze, any water molecules that come into contact with them will freeze too.
ANNIE MINOFF: In Kurt’s fourth novel, Cat’s Cradle, it’s a runaway crystallization of ice, not atomic fission, that destroys the world.
<<Haunting choir music>>
KURT VONNEGUT: I opened my eyes and all the sea was ice-9.
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s Kurt Vonnegut reading from his novel, Cat’s Cradle in a BBC documentary.
KURT VONNEGUT: The Earth was locked up tight. It was winter now and forever—”
ANNIE MINOFF: In Cat’s Cradle, ice-9 is made of water molecules, like regular ice, but arranged in a crystalline structure that makes it rock solid at room temperature. And just a little seed of this ice-9 sets off an unstoppable, uncontrolled freezing, turning every drop of water it comes into contact with into more ice-9.
ELAH FEDER: Cat’s Cradle? It’s uh— how to describe? It’s a— it’s a rolicking adventure featuring a banana republic, some questionable midget humor—
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh god.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah. It’s also a morality play. It’s a judgment on careless scientists. So in Kurt’s book, the character who invents ice-9 is actually based on one of the GE weather scientists, Bernie’s boss, GE’s very own Nobel Laureate, Irving Langmuir.
ANNIE MINOFF: And it’s not a flattering portrayal. Irving Langmuir isn’t like Professor Barnhouse, horribly burdened with the possible misuse of his inventions. He was just doing science. And Kurt didn’t think that was okay.
KURT VONNEGUT: He was maddeningly absent-minded and it seemed wrong to me in view of some of his discoveries he should be so indifferent to what became of him.
ELAH FEDER: So in the book, an Irving-like scientist invents ice-9. But he doesn’t take the precautions to safeguard it.
KURT VONNEGUT: So this dreadful substance which is discovered by a man who is purely interested in truth finally winds up in the hands of a dictator and, not to leave you in suspense, the world ends.
ELAH FEDER: It’s a damning critique. In Cat’s Cradle, the world is destroyed by a man who is purely, single-mindedly interested in truth. For Kurt, those noble pillars of science—curiosity and seeking truth—they’re not good enough. Scientists are responsible for the consequences of that truth.
NEWS ANNOUNCER 2: News from America includes these scenes of wild destruction when a hurricane hit the Atlantic coast.
ANNIE MINOFF: Just a few years before GE and the military get into the rainmaking biz, nature reminds us exactly who’s boss. When one of the worst hurricanes in history hit the Eastern seaboard: The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.
NEWS ANNOUNCER 2: Atlantic City alone suffered damage estimated at over four million dollars and there were many people killed during the terrific storm which raged for a whole week, from the West Indies to New England.
ANNIE MINOFF: When nature deals you a storm like the Great Atlantic Hurricane, it’s not like we have great cards to play. You can board up the windows, you can run for cover. But the GE scientists started to wonder, what if we could do better? They had already made it rain. They had made it snow. They’d manipulated nature in unprecedented ways. What if they could stop hurricanes?
ELAH FEDER: So you can’t destroy a hurricane with cloud seeding. Hurricanes are just too big, too much energy, too much water. But what if you could make them change directions?
GINGER STRAND: This is something that the military saw one way and the scientists saw another way. The scientists thought, how great if we could steer hurricanes so that they don't hit the shore! And, you know, if we could steer hurricanes away from big cities, that would be wonderful. The military was thinking, wow, we could really mess with Cuba.
ELAH FEDER: Okay, so maybe their motivations were a little different. But everyone on the Project Cirrus teams is really curious to see if they could actually do this. And in 1947, they get their chance.
ANNIE MINOFF: On October 10, the team gets word of a hurricane forming in the Caribbean. Within a few days, it’s grazed Florida, caused a series of floods in the Everglades, and then moved out into the Atlantic, where it’s expected to keep moving safely out into the ocean.
ELAH FEDER: The Project Cirrus team sends three planes out there and they catch up with the storm 350 miles outside of Jacksonville.
GINGER STRAND: They were just going to try to see if they could wobble it. You know let's just see if we can do something with it, see if we can have an effect on it.
ANNIE MINOFF: They seed the outer edge of the hurricane with dry ice. They cover about 100 miles. The thinking is they could disrupt the storm’s dynamics, maybe nudge it a bit. Where they’ve seeded, they do see a gap in the clouds, they see rain falling down, but that’s about it. The next morning, they head back home to Schenectady.
GINGER STRAND: And they encountered the worst weather that they'd ever experienced before. They were kind of. It was bumpy and choppy and they couldn't even— Vincent had been trying to write up his notes from the experiment and he couldn't even write because the plane was so turbulent and they had no idea why.
ANNIE MINOFF: It was supposed to be clear on their way home. They find out later the unexpected weather was because the hurricane had abruptly changed course.
GINGER STRAND: And they get back to Schenectady and GE grabs them, immediately drags them into a press conference, and says, you know, here's the problem. Exactly at the point at which the Project Cirrus people had seeded the hurricane, it took like a dog leg turn left.
ELAH FEDER: The hurricane rushes back to Savannah and Charleston. One person is killed. Airplanes, cars are destroyed. And people are angry about this. A Miami weatherman calls this a “low Yankee trick” And for Bernie, it’s a bit of wake-up call. After the hurricane, he starts speaking out more, even calls on congress to regulate cloud seeding, so that it isn’t misused.
ANNIE MINOFF: But not everyone thinks this is bad news. Irving Langmuir is delighted. They had done something unprecedented. They’d just steered a hurricane. Even if it had gone the wrong way.
IRVING: We purposely tried out the seeding for the purpose of trying to make the thing veer away from the land. It went the other way.
ANNIE MINOFF: Irving told the story of a hurricane at the lecture he gave at the GE research lab a few years later. And even though the hurricane caused a lot of damage, was a PR disaster for GE, Irving Langmuir does not sound too concerned. He still thinks the science was worth doing.
IRVING: instead of the hurricane going on in this direction as the weather bureau had forecast, within a six hour period, it started to go back and it did that. <<Laughter>> Nobody has ever wanted to repeat that experiment since then, but I think it should be done again.
ELAH FEDER: It’s actually possible that the seeding had nothing to do with the abrupt turn. I read this article once about a pediatrician who’s about to give a kid a vaccination, and just as she’s about to do it, the kid has a seizure. And she thinks, you know, if she had given them the vaccine just a moment earlier it would have looked like she’d caused the seizure. I mean, it would have seemed like too much of a coincidence. We mistakenly attribute causation all the the time.
ANNIE MINOFF: And other hurricanes have been known to make these abrupt turns. In fact, a later study concluded that the turn had nothing to do with the seeding, but the timing was suspicious and Irving was convinced that they’d done it.
GINGER STRAND: He was absolutely convinced that they had steered the hurricane and...weather control was proving that it was going to be a more significant advance than the atomic bomb.
ELAH FEDER: Within a few years, the GE cloud seeding team disbands. Irving retires in 1950. Vince leaves in ‘53, and eventually founds an atmospheric research center at SUNY Albany, where Bernie joins him.
ANNIE MINOFF: Kurt leaves at around the same time, and by the 1960s, he’s finally become a famous writer. His breakthrough novel was Slaughterhouse Five—largely, a fictionalized account of his wartime experiences in Germany. It’s an anti-war book, and Kurt becomes a darling of the anti-Vietnam war movement.
ELAH FEDER: The Vonneguts were generally a family of pacifists. Bernie included. And so, in the 70s here’s Kurt, right where he belongs, he’s condemning war, he’s a hero to college kids across the country. And then in 1971, he learns that his brother Bernie actually played a hand in the Vietnam war.
INTERVIEWER: Didn’t you have an awful shock when— when— because your brother did a lot of original work in the field of cloud seeding, didn’t he? Sending— is it silver iodide?
KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.
ELAH FEDER: It’s a TV interview. 90 Minutes Live, a Canadian TV show. Kurt is sitting in an armchair against a 70s studio backdrop, he’s smoking a cigarette, stubs it out when they start talking about his brother’s role in Vietnam.
ANNIE MINOFF: It was an investigative reporter who broke the news. Since 1967, the Air Force had been running a secret program: Turning the weather against the North Vietnamese, with cloud seeding.
KURT VONNEGUT: They were throwing everything they could think of out of airplanes, and while they were at it, hell, just load up the sky with silver iodide, see if that won’t make them surrender. <<Laughter>>
ELAH FEDER: Later, in the New York Times, an anonymous State Department official points out that this is actually a relatively humane type of warfare. In Operation Popeye, as it was called, they seeded clouds over the Ho Chi Minh trail using silver iodide—Bernie’s invention. And they were doing it to muddy up dirt roads, hamper enemy travel. And the official asked what’s worse, dropping bombs or dropping rain?
ANNIE MINOFF: After all, Operation Popeye’s tagline? “Make mud, not war.”
ELAH FEDER: Except rain can kill too. In the summer of ‘71, North Vietnam was hit with especially heavy floods. People died. Was cloud seeding to blame? Military officials at the time said no. But as GE had learned two decades earlier, once you start tinkering with chaotic weather systems, it’s hard to completely absolve yourself when natural disasters follow. And either way, Bernie was horrified.
KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah, no, he was shocked and that was— that was the only instance for somebody I knew well suddenly found out the defense people had— had been using his discoveries for a hostile— for hostile purposes.
ANNIE MINOFF: Bernie wasn’t the only one who was disturbed by this. When news of Operation Popeye hit the public, the outcry was so great, Congress quickly moved to ban weather warfare, later signing on to an international treaty against it. And even though the agreement is considered toothless, today cloud seeding today is used mainly for peaceful purposes.
ANNIE MINOFF: For things like fighting drought, or increasing snowpack for hydroelectric projects.
ANNIE MINOFF: In fact, the main problem with cloud seeding these days isn’t that it’s too dangerous. It’s that it’s not that powerful. A study out of Wyoming found that under the right conditions, cloud seeding might increase precipitation by about 10-15 percent.
ELAH FEDER: So cloud seeding? Doesn’t seem to be nearly the superweapon it was made out to be. And by the end of his life in 1997, Bernie Vonnegut came to terms with his creation.
GINGER STRAND: Kurt reports that on his deathbed, Bernie turned to him and said if the superpowers decide to duke it out with silver iodide, I guess I can live with that. And to me that shows that he— it was something he thought of for his whole life. He thought of what his duties as a scientist were what his legacy as a scientist was, not just to science, but to humanity.
RADIO SPEAKER 3: The plane, it’s gone! I know. Barnhouse blew it out of the sky. He wouldn’t let himself be taken alive.
ANNIE MINOFF: The radio drama, based on Kurt’s very first published story, it ends like this: Professor Arthur Barnhouse, with his powers of dynamopsychism, has gone into hiding. But after a few years he reemerges—and sacrifices himself so his powers can’t be used by the military.
RADIO SPEAKER 3: All he ever wanted was peace. Peace, what’s that? Now the arms race will start all over again. With Barnhouse gone, what’s left to stop it?
ELAH FEDER: The radio drama took some liberties. In Kurt’s original story, Barnhouse doesn’t kill himself. After he escapes the military, he travels all over the world, destroying weapons wherever he goes. Without their weapons, warring countries are forced, grudgingly, into a timeout, if not a true peace. Kurt’s lesson in 1950, in his first published story? It’s not that the risks of science and technology are so great that they are better off destroyed. Because in the right hands, in mindful hands, they have a vast potential for good. You just have to be careful who we trust them with.
ELAH FEDER: Undiscovered is reported and produced by me, Elah Feder.
ANNIE MINOFF: And me, Annie Minoff. Our editor is Christopher Intagliata. To read the full story of the Vonnegut brothers and General Electric, please check out Ginger Strand’s “The Brothers Vonnegut.” It’s a fantastic read, and we couldn’t have made this episode without her.
ELAH FEDER: And you can read more about Charles Hatfield and many other delightful stories about rain, check out Cynthia Barnett’s “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.” Special shout out this week to Scott Vonnegut, Bernie’s son, and Chris Hunter from the MiSci museum in Schenectady, Bruce Boe from weather modification helped us out with the science of cloud seeding, and thank you also to Jim Schaefer for letting me snoop around at his dad’s house.
ANNIE MINOFF: Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. I am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. Thanks also to Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.
ELAH FEDER: And finally, thank you to our launch partner, the John Templeton Foundation.
ANNIE MINOFF: Thanks and we’ll see you next week.