No Damn Cat, and No Damn Cradle | Van Kooten on Cat’s Cradle

Rick Van Kooten


John, the intrepid narrator of Cat’s Cradle, is working on a book describing what Americans were doing at the precise moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He tries to contact the three children of the late Felix Hoenikker, Nobel Laureate and so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” for greater insight. We learn of Dr. Hoenikker’s playful work in response the challenge from a Marine Corps general “who was hounding him to do something about mud” (Ch. 19, p. 42) where he isolates crystals of “ice-nine” in such a way that water can now be caused to freeze at a relatively high temperature. The family dog laps at a bowl of water which has been touched with a piece of ice-nine and is promptly frozen stiff. Upon the father’s death, the Hoenikker children carefully divide their father’s legacy of chips of ice-nine and the story revolves around what happens to the three children and the ice-nine.

My own personal connection with Cat’s Cradle revolves around the main scientific character in the book, the famous ice-nine. I first read the book in my early teens, enjoyed it thoroughly, but then became genuinely delighted and excited upon encountering in my textbook for a physics-major-level thermodynamics course the beautiful diagram for water showing the different usual phases of gas, liquid, and solid for different temperatures and pressures, but not the usual mundane phase diagram. Rather, the book included the fact that there are, indeed, many different types of ice at high pressures depending on their crystal patterns and symmetries. I have a genuine fondness for fiction that has at least some basis in some fairly esoteric science concepts, so immediately thought about Vonnegut. At least back then1 there laid out was a quilt-work of seven types of ice. If I had encountered this earlier in the age of the Internet, I’m sure I would have looked it up immediately upon reading the novel and found this richness much earlier.

We now know that there are at least 16 types of (water) ice in a much more interesting and complex phase diagram. The everyday ice seen in natural conditions (on Earth) is ice-Ih with that subscript meaning “hexagonal”, reflected in the beautiful six-sided symmetry of snowflakes. The other forms of ice, usually formed at crazy-high pressures with hydrogen and oxygen atoms packed as densely as possible in different symmetries, are the topic of current research (e.g., weeks before this writing) and a subject of recent discovery, with ice XVI properties measured in 2014. You can even check out what some of these different forms of ice look like. So, yes, ice IX (pronounced “ice-nine”) does exist, but at pressures above about 2,000 atmospheres (so outside of the lab, think possibly deep inside of icy planets throughout the universe . . .) with a description in its full glory, including the inevitable reference to Cat’s Cradle itself.

In the novel, Dr. Breed, who appropriately claims “Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn’t explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan” (Ch. 15, p. 34), nicely describes in simple terms how different forms of ice, including ice-nine, could be formed and have the apocalyptic property of seeding all water it touches to turn into ice-nine with a melting point of 130 degrees F:

“There are several ways in which certain liquids can crystalize—can freeze—several ways in which their atoms can stack and lock in an orderly, rigid way.”
That old man with spotted hands invited me to think of the several ways in which cannonballs might be stacked on a courthouse lawn, of the several ways in which oranges might be packed into a crate. “So it is with atoms in crystals, too; and two different crystals of the same substance can have quite different physical properties.”

. . . what Dr. Breed called “a seed.” He meant by that a tiny grain of the (un)desired crystal pattern. The seed, which had come from God-only-knows-where, taught the atoms the novel way in which to stack and lock, to crystallize, to freeze. “Now think about cannonballs on a courthouse lawn or about oranges in a crate again,” he suggested. And he helped me to see that the pattern of the bottom layers of cannonballs or of oranges determined how each subsequent layer would stack and lock. “The bottom layer is the seed of how every cannonball or every orange that comes after is going to behave, even to an infinite number of cannonballs or oranges” (Ch. 20, p. 46).

This analogy to cannonballs is attractively reproduced in the images of stacking spheres in the previous brilliant article on different forms of ice.

But enough science lecturing (but it is so very cool). Where did Vonnegut get this ice-nine concept to incorporate into Cat’s Cradle? Kurt Vonnegut’s brother Bernard was a scientist at General Electric. His boss was Irving Langmuir, an American chemist and physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932, and who also worked together with Bernard pursuing research creating rain and snow by seeding clouds with silver iodide that kick-start the formation of ice crystals. In the 1930s, the novelist H. G. Wells visited the Schenectady works of GE, and Langmuir pitched his idea for a science fiction plot device about a form of ice that would be solid at room temperature. Although Wells never used the idea, Kurt, also working at GE as a publicist and hearing of the story, used it decades later.2

In Cat’s Cradle, Felix Hoenikker is also clearly modeled after the brilliant, but eccentric, Langmuir. As a glimpse into Langmuir’s personality, when he was lounging at his vacation house one summer day, Langmuir soaked the family’s entire supply of toilet paper with silver iodide, then set it afire, hoping the smoke would cause a thunderstorm. His wife was not amused. She was hosting houseguests who might need that paper (Strand). Kurt Vonnegut even directly borrowed some of Langmuir’s quirks for his book, saying in Paris Review, “Langmuir was wonderfully absentminded. He wondered out loud one time whether, when turtles pulled in their heads, their spines buckled or contracted. I put that in the book. One time he left a tip under his plate after his wife served him breakfast at home. I put that in.” (c.f. Ch. 6, p. 15 and Ch. 6, p. 14.)

Hoenikker was characterized as a playful scientist, and his full Nobel acceptance speech was apparently: “Ladies and Gentlemen. I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school. Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn. I am a very happy man. Thank you” (Ch. 5, p. 11). Indeed, such a childlike wonder and susceptibility to being distracted by any kind of interesting problem is often a (healthy!) characteristic of many scientists. Many of us would easily fall to prey to “nerd-sniping,” inserting the appropriate problem.

As someone who does “fundamental” or “curiosity-driven research” myself, i.e., that which has no immediate application, Dr. Breed’s description of Dr. Hoenikker also touches upon interesting reflections on “pure research”:

In this country most people don’t even understand what pure research is. . . . It isn’t looking for a better cigarette filter or a softer face tissue or a longer-lasting house paint, God help us. Everybody talks about research and practically nobody in this country’s doing it. We’re one of the few companies that actually hires men to do pure research. When most other companies brag about their research, they’re talking about industrial hack technicians who wear white coats, work out of cookbooks, and dream up an improved windshield wiper for next year’s Oldsmobile. . . . Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become. (Ch. 18, p. 42)

The last sentence in the quote also lays bare the theme of the contrast of the truth of science to the lies of religion, particularly Bokononism. It is not science itself that is on trial in the book, but rather scientists and/or others in society since it can be used for either good or evil, and the truths of nature are distinct from the way the world decides to use them. It is the violent stupidity of people in the chain that results in consequences, i.e., it is Felix Hoenikker who chooses to give chips of ice-nine to his children, and then it is the choice of the children what to do with those dangerous small chunks of ice. Ice-nine and the atomic bomb were born in ignorance of good and evil by Hoenikker who, though he may be considered the father of the apocalypse, was not concerned or interested in the repercussions of his actions, but should be. His son Newt says, “Do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamogordo? After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’” (Ch. 6, p. 17.)

Frank Hoenikker also shows a similar attitude, i.e., after “Papa” Monanzo is frozen solid by ice-nine and he is asked to clean up the mess, “Frank gave me a straight answer. He snapped his fingers. I could see him dissociating himself from the causes of the mess; identifying himself, with growing pride and energy, with the purifiers, the world-savers, the cleaners-up” (Ch. 109, p. 242). Frank sees a problem to solve, with little concern that he was guilty for causing it.

Ultimately, Vonnegut implies that the truths of science can lead to destruction and desolation for which scientists should be held responsible, but that we can deal with it mentally by the consolation provided by religion, even one based on lies: When nothing “was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies” (Ch. 78, p. 172).

Ultimately this all loops back to the title of the book. In truth, a cat’s cradle, as expressed by Newt, “is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands. . . .
No wonder kids grow up crazy . . . look at all those X’s,” and that they see “‘no damn cat, and no damn cradle’” (Ch. 74, p. 166). However, a kid can pretend to see a cat and a cradle and have fun with the game, analogous to “‘Religion!’” . . . “‘See the cat?’” asked Newt. “‘See the cradle?’” (Ch. 81, p. 183).

In closing on a completely random note of levity, turning to the documented collective wisdom of our time, i.e., Reddit:

Has anyone else noticed the similarities between the ice-nine of Cat’s Cradle and Elsa’s powers in Frozen? The way the ice spreads when she touches things parallels the reaction water has to ice-nine. It’s uncontrollable in both stories until love is introduced in Frozen, a concept that is not present often in Cat’s Cradle. Maybe I’m just making stuff up, but I thought it was a cool (pun intended) crossover. (Reddit user hayproposito.)


1. Francis W. Sears and Gerhard L. Salinger, Thermodynamics, Kinetic Theory, and Statistical Thermodynamics, 3rd ed. (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1975).

2. Ginger Strand, The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.