When American novelist Kurt Vonnegut addressed the Bennington College class in 1970, a year after publishing his bestselling novel, Slaughterhouse-Five– he hit the crowd with his signature one-two punch.
“I expected that at the age of 21, a scientist…would have taken a color photograph of Almighty God and sold it to Popular mechanics magazine,” he said. “What really happened…is that we dropped the scientific truth about Hiroshima.”
This weary skepticism of scientific endeavor resonates in many of Vonnegut’s 14 novels and dozens of short stories. On what would have been the famous author’s 100th birthday, Science spoke to literary scholars, philosophers of science and political theorists about the messages Vonnegut left for the scientific community and why he is more relevant than ever.
Science is magic that works.
Throughout his career, Vonnegut has written about hypothetical technologies that predicted not only emerging scientific fields such as artificial intelligence and geoengineering, but how culture and politics shape their effect on society. In doing so, it provided thought experiments and planted seeds for dealing with modern ethical debates, says Peter-Paul Verbeek, a philosopher of science and technology at the University of Amsterdam and chair of the World Commission on ethics of scientific knowledge and technologies. “The authors of fiction do philosophy by other means.”
As a philosopher, Vonnegut was no stranger to science. Pressured by his brother, a renowned atmospheric chemist, he studied biochemistry at Cornell University in the 1940s before dropping out and enlisting in the army during World War II. He then worked as an institutional writer for General Electric and, until his death in 2007, said he spent more time in the company of scientists than writers.
Perhaps that’s why, beneath his persistent skepticism of science, there was always a deep appreciation of its potential. In the novel The cat’s cradle, for example, a dictator on the brink of death urges his people to embrace science over religion because “science is magic that works”. Even in ultimately dystopian tales, “you can see a kind of romanticization of scientific endeavor,” says David Koepsell, a philosopher of science and technology at Texas A&M University, College Station.
Science has never cheered anyone up.
But time and again, the groundbreaking discoveries and cutting-edge gadgets in Vonnegut’s stories get worse. For example, the invention of the dying dictator in The cat’s cradle called “magic” is a crystalline compound that turns water into ice at room temperature. In the novel, samples of this chemical travel around the world and, through a series of accidents, end up freezing all the water on the planet, to a disastrous end. And in the short story Euphion’s Questionan opportunistic businessman takes advantage of an astronomer’s bizarre discovery to create a “euphoriaphone” that hypnotizes society into complacency.
The deep distrust that haunts Vonnegut’s stories stems in part from his own traumatic experiences with the products of modern science. His mother overdosed on sleeping pills in 1944. Months later, as a prisoner of war in Germany, he witnessed the Dresden firebombing that killed an estimated 25,000 people. “So it’s okay,” as he said.
“I was sickened by this use of technology for which I had had such high hopes,” Vonnegut told journalist Robert Musil in 1980, “and so I came to fear it.”
Human beings, past and present, trashed the joint.
Vonnegut’s contempt extended to mankind’s destruction of the environment, especially later in his career as society and politics gained momentum. After speaking at the first Earth Day in 1970, Vonnegut made major revisions to preprint drafts of Breakfast of champions to further focus the book on pressing climate issues. He told a story about an extinct colony of automobiles that had wasted its planet’s resources, for example. Word of these creatures spreads to Earth, where humans recreate them as idols and consequently destroy their own planet.
“Vonnegut disarms us to imagine different kinds of futures,” says Christina Jarvis, Vonnegut Fellow at State University of New York, Fredonia, and author of the new book. Lucky Mud & Other Foma: A Field Guide to Environmentalism and Planetary Citizenship by Kurt Vonnegut. “He didn’t just want to predict the future; he wanted to prevent this future” – warning of the dangers of a society blindly turned towards progress.
Koepsell believes The cat’s cradle laid the foundation for the precautionary principle, the idea that society should exercise restraint when introducing potentially dangerous technologies. The principle was readily adopted in Europe and has guided policy on nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms, and conservation efforts; various international environmental treaties make direct reference to this principle. But the United States has largely ignored Vonnegut’s message because it sees precaution as “an obstacle to innovation,” says Harvard University science researcher Sheila Jasanoff.
A virtuous physicist is a humanist physicist.
- Wampeter, Foma and Granfalloon
Vonnegut urged the scientists themselves to intervene. He believed that a moral scientist was committed to humanism, a philosophy he described as “trying to behave decently without expecting rewards or punishments after death”. A humanist physicist, he said, is one who “looks at people, listens to them, thinks of them, wishes them and their planet good luck.”
The danger, Vonnegut explained, arises when scientists get so wrapped up in their work that they neglect their responsibility to humans and the planet. As an example, he cited Irving Langmuir, Nobel laureate in chemistry, colleague of Vonnegut’s brother and inspiration to the amoral physicist in The cat’s cradle. Working with the U.S. military, Langmuir attempted to seed hurricanes with silver iodide and dry ice, undeterred by the project’s potential to make storms worse, as he seemed to do in 1947. “Langmuir was absolutely indifferent to the uses that could be made of the truths he extracted from the rock,” Vonnegut told Musil.
We are what we claim to be.
For many of the same fears that materialize in Vonnegut’s stories, Jasanoff believes that “scientists shouldn’t define the ethical horizons of what we do.” Instead, she and her colleagues are advocating for a “two-way conversation between science and society,” using social values as a guide to map out research paths.
As society becomes increasingly tied to technology and emerging ethical puzzles only grow more complicated, philosophers and ethicists are increasingly turning to science fiction writers for guidance, says Koepsell. . “Fiction has a certain license to get us thinking about these questions,” he adds. “I’m grateful to have examples like the ones Vonnegut and others provide to us.”