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Cat's Cradle, Page 3

Kurt Vonnegut

  "That's very interesting."

  "Just about where the Research Laboratory is now was the old stockade. That was where they held the public hangings, too, for the whole county."

  "I don't suppose crime paid any better then than it does now."

  "There was one man they hanged here in 1782 who had murdered twenty-six people. I've often thought somebody ought to do a book about him sometime. George Minor Moakely. He sang a song on the scaffold. He sang a song he'd composed for the occasion."

  "What was the song about?"

  "You can find the words over at the Historical Society, if you're really interested."

  "I just wondered about the general tone."

  "He wasn't sorry about anything."

  "Some people are like that."

  "Think of it!" said Dr. Breed. "Twenty-six people he had on his conscience!"

  "The mind reels," I said.



  MY SICK HEAD wobbled on my stiff neck. The trolley tracks had caught the wheels of Dr. Breed's glossy Lincoln again.

  I asked Dr. Breed how many people were trying to reach the General Forge and Foundry Company by eight o'clock, and he told me thirty thousand.

  Policemen in yellow raincapes were at every intersection, contradicting with their white-gloved hands what the stop-and-go signs said.

  The stop-and-go signs, garish ghosts in the sleet, went through their irrelevant tomfoolery again and again, telling the glacier of automobiles what to do. Green meant go. Red meant stop. Orange meant change and caution.

  Dr. Breed told me that Dr. Hoenikker, as a very young man, had simply abandoned his car in Ilium traffic one morning.

  "The police, trying to find out what was holding up traffic," he said, "found Felix's car in the middle of everything, its motor running, a cigar burning in the ash tray, fresh flowers in the vases ..."


  "It was a Marmon, about the size of a switch engine. It had little cut-glass vases on the doorposts, and Felix's wife used to put fresh flowers in the vases every morning. And there that car was in the middle of traffic."

  "Like the Marie Celeste," I suggested.

  "The Police Department hauled it away. They knew whose car it was, and they called up Felix, and they told him very politely where his car could be picked up. Felix told them they could keep it, that he didn't want it any more."

  "Did they?"

  "No. They called up his wife, and she came and got the Marmon."

  "What was her name, by the way?"

  "Emily." Dr. Breed licked his lips, and he got a faraway look, and he said the name of the woman, of the woman so long dead, again. "Emily."

  "Do you think anybody would object if I used the story about the Marmon in my book?" I asked.

  "As long as you don't use the end of it."

  "The end of it?"

  "Emily wasn't used to driving the Marmon. She got into a bad wreck on the way home. It did something to her pelvis ..." The traffic wasn't moving just then. Dr. Breed closed his eyes and tightened his hands on the steering wheel.

  "And that was why she died when little Newt was born."



  THE RESEARCH LABORATORY of the General Forge and Foundry Company was near the main gate of the company's Ilium works, about a city block from the executive parking lot where Dr. Breed put his car.

  I asked Dr. Breed how many people worked for the Research Laboratory. "Seven hundred," he said, "but less than a hundred are actually doing research. The other six hundred are all housekeepers in one way or another, and I am the chiefest housekeeper of all."

  When we joined the mainstream of mankind in the company street, a woman behind us wished Dr. Breed a merry Christmas. Dr. Breed turned to peer benignly into the sea of pale pies, and identified the greeter as one Miss Francine Pefko. Miss Pefko was twenty, vacantly pretty, and healthy--a dull normal.

  In honor of the dulcitude of Christmastime, Dr. Breed invited Miss Pefko to join us. He introduced her as the secretary of Dr. Nilsak Horvath. He then told me who Horvath was. "The famous surface chemist," he said, "the one who's doing such wonderful things with films."

  "What's new in surface chemistry?" I asked Miss Pefko.

  "God," she said, "don't ask me. I just type what he tells me to type." And then she apologized for having said "God."

  "Oh, I think you understand more than you let on," said Dr. Breed.

  "Not me." Miss Pefko wasn't used to chatting with someone as important as Dr. Breed and she was embarrassed. Her gait was affected, becoming stiff and chickenlike. Her smile was glassy, and she was ransacking her mind for something to say, finding nothing in it but used Kleenex and costume jewelry.

  "Well ...," rumbled Dr. Breed expansively, "how do you like us, now that you've been with us-- how long? Almost a year?"

  "You scientists think too much," blurted Miss Pefko. She laughed idiotically. Dr. Breed's friendliness had blown every fuse in her nervous system. She was no longer responsible. "You all think too much."

  A winded, defeated-looking fat woman in filthy coveralls trudged beside us, hearing what Miss Pefko said. She turned to examine Dr. Breed, looking at him with helpless reproach. She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for almost all mankind.

  The fat woman's expression implied that she would go crazy on the spot if anybody did any more thinking.

  "I think you'll find," said Dr. Breed, "that everybody does about the same amount of thinking. Scientists simply think about things in one way, and other people think about things in others."

  "Ech," gurgled Miss Pefko emptily. "I take dictation from Dr. Horvath and it's just like a foreign language. I don't think I'd understand--even if I was to go to college. And here he's maybe talking about something that's going to turn everything upside-down and inside-out like the atom bomb.

  "When I used to come home from school Mother used to ask me what happened that day, and I'd tell her," said Miss Pefko. "Now I come home from work and she asks me the same question, and all I can say is--" Miss Pefko shook her head and let her crimson lips flap slackly--"I dunno, I dunno, I dunno."

  "If there's something you don't understand," urged Dr. Breed, "ask Dr. Horvath to explain it. He's very good at explaining." He turned to me. "Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn't explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan."

  "Then I'm dumber than an eight-year-old," Miss Pefko mourned. "I don't even know what a charlatan is."



  WE CLIMBED THE FOUR granite steps before the Research Laboratory. The building itself was of unadorned brick and rose six stories. We passed between two heavily-armed guards at the entrance.

  Miss Pefko showed the guard on the left the pink confidential badge at the tip of her left breast.

  Dr. Breed showed the guard on our right the black top-secret badge on his soft lapel. Ceremoniously, Dr. Breed put his arm around me without actually touching me, indicating to the guards that I was under his august protection and control.

  I smiled at one of the guards. He did not smile back. There was nothing funny about national security, nothing at all.

  Dr. Breed, Miss Pefko, and I moved thoughtfully through the Laboratory's grand foyer to the elevators.

  "Ask Dr. Horvath to explain something sometime," said Dr. Breed to Miss Pefko. "See if you don't get a nice, clear answer."

  "He'd have to start back in the first grade--or maybe even kindergarten," she said. "I missed a lot."

  "We all missed a lot," Dr. Breed agreed. "We'd all do well to start over again, preferably with kindergarten."

  We watched the Laboratory's receptionist turn on the many educational exhibits that lined the foyer's walls. The receptionist was a tall, thin girl--icy, pale. At her crisp touch, lights twinkled, wheels turned, flasks bubbled, bells rang.

gic," declared Miss Pefko.

  "I'm sorry to hear a member of the Laboratory family using that brackish, medieval word," said Dr. Breed. "Every one of those exhibits explains itself. They're designed so as not to be mystifying. They're the very antithesis of magic."

  "The very what of magic?"

  "The exact opposite of magic."

  "You couldn't prove it by me."

  Dr. Breed looked just a little peeved. "Well," he said, "we don't want to mystify. At least give us credit for that."



  DR. BREED'S SECRETARY was standing on her desk in his outer office tying an accordion-pleated Christmas bell to the ceiling fixture.

  "Look here, Naomi," cried Dr. Breed, "we've gone six months without a fatal accident! Don't you spoil it by falling off the desk!"

  Miss Naomi Faust was a merry, desiccated old lady. I suppose she had served Dr. Breed for almost all his life, and her life, too. She laughed. "I'm indestructible. And, even if I did fall, Christmas angels would catch me."

  "They've been known to miss."

  Two paper tendrils, also accordion-pleated, hung down from the clapper of the bell. Miss Faust pulled one. It unfolded stickily and became a long banner with a message written on it. "Here," said Miss Faust, handing the free end to Dr. Breed, "pull it the rest of the way and tack the end to the bulletin board."

  Dr. Breed obeyed, stepping back to read the banner's message. "Peace on Earth!" he read out loud heartily.

  Miss Faust stepped down from her desk with the other tendril, unfolding it. "Good Will Toward Men!" the other tendril said.

  "By golly," chuckled Dr. Breed, "they've dehydrated Christmas! The place looks festive, very festive."

  "And I remembered the chocolate bars for the Girl Pool, too," she said. "Aren't you proud of me?"

  Dr. Breed touched his forehead, dismayed by his forgetfulness. "Thank God for that! It slipped my mind."

  "We mustn't ever forget that," said Miss Faust. "It's a tradition now--Dr. Breed and his chocolate bars for the Girl Pool at Christmas." She explained to me that the Girl Pool was the typing bureau in the Laboratory's basement. "The girls belong to anybody with access to a dictaphone."

  All year long, she said, the girls of the Girl Pool listened to the faceless voices of scientists on dictaphone records--records brought in by mail girls. Once a year the girls left their cloister of cement block to go a-caroling--to get their chocolate bars from Dr. Asa Breed.

  "They serve science, too," Dr. Breed testified, "even though they may not understand a word of it. God bless them, every one!"



  WHEN WE GOT INTO Dr. Breed's inner office, I attempted to put my thoughts in order for a sensible interview. I found that my mental health had not improved. And, when I started to ask Dr. Breed questions about the day of the bomb, I found that the public-relations centers of my brain had been suffocated by booze and burning cat fur. Every question I asked implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul.

  Dr. Breed was astonished, and then he got very sore. He drew back from me and he grumbled, "I gather you don't like scientists very much."

  "I wouldn't say that, sir."

  "All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all."

  "That's putting it pretty strong."

  "No stronger than what you're going to put in your book, apparently. I thought that what you were after was a fair, objective biography of Felix Hoenikker--certainly as significant a task as a young writer could assign himself in this day and age. But no, you come here with preconceived notions about mad scientists. Where did you ever get such ideas? From the funny papers?"

  "From Dr. Hoenikker's son, to name one source."

  "Which son?"

  "Newton," I said. I had little Newt's letter with me, and I showed it to him. "How small is Newt, by the way?"

  "No bigger than an umbrella stand," said Dr. Breed, reading Newt's letter and frowning.

  "The other two children are normal?"

  "Of course! I hate to disappoint you, but scientists have children just like anybody else's children."

  I did my best to calm down Dr. Breed, to convince him that I was really interested in an accurate portrait of Dr. Hoenikker. "I've come here with no other purpose than to set down exactly what you tell me about Dr. Hoenikker. Newt's letter was just a beginning, and I'll balance off against it whatever you can tell me."

  "I'm sick of people misunderstanding what a scientist is, what a scientist does."

  "I'll do my best to clear up the misunderstanding."

  "In this country most people don't even understand what pure research is."

  "I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me what it 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 Olds-mobile."

  "But here...?"

  "Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that."

  "That's very generous of General Forge and Foundry Company."

  "Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become."

  Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl.



  "DO YOU MEAN," I said to Dr. Breed, "that nobody in this Laboratory is ever told what to work on? Nobody even suggests what they work on?"

  "People suggest things all the time, but it isn't in the nature of a pure-research man to pay any attention to suggestions. His head is full of projects of his own, and that's the way we want it."

  "Did anybody ever try to suggest projects to Dr. Hoenikker?"

  "Certainly. Admirals and generals in particular. They looked upon him as a sort of magician who could make America invincible with a wave of his wand. They brought all kinds of crackpot schemes up here--still do. The only thing wrong with the schemes is that, given our present state of knowledge, the schemes won't work. Scientists on the order of Dr. Hoenikker are supposed to fill the little gaps. I remember, shortly before Felix died, there was a Marine general who was hounding him to do something about mud."


  "The Marines, after almost two-hundred years of wallowing in mud, were sick of it," said Dr. Breed. "The general, as their spokesman, felt that one of the aspects of progress should be that Marines no longer had to fight in mud."

  "What did the general have in mind?"

  "The absence of mud. No more mud."

  "I suppose," I theorized, "it might be possible with mountains of some sort of chemical, or tons of some sort of machinery ..."

  "What the general had in mind was a little pill or a little machine. Not only were the Marines sick of mud, they were sick of carrying cumbersome objects. They wanted something little to carry for a change."

  "What did Dr. Hoenikker say?"

  "In his playful way, and all his ways were playful, Felix suggested that there might be a single grain of something--even a microscopic grain--that could make infinite expanses of muck, marsh, swamp, creeks, pools, quicksand, and mire as solid as this desk."

  Dr. Breed banged his speckled old fist on the desk. The desk was a kidney-shaped, sea green steel affair. "One Marine could carry more than enough of the stuff to free an armored division bogged down in the Everglades. According to Felix, one Marine could carry e
nough of the stuff to do that under the nail of his little finger."

  "That's impossible."

  "You would say so, I would say so--practically everybody would say so. To Felix, in his playful way, it was entirely possible. The miracle of Felix--and I sincerely hope you'll put this in your book somewhere--was that he always approached old puzzles as though they were brand new."

  "I feel like Francine Pefko now," I said, "and all the girls in the Girl Pool, too. Dr. Hoenikker could never have explained to me how something that could be carried under a fingernail could make a swamp as solid as your desk."

  "I told you what a good explainer Felix was ..."

  "Even so ..."

  "He was able to explain it to me," said Dr. Breed, "and I'm sure I can explain it to you. The puzzle is how to get Marines out of the mud--right?"


  "All right," said Dr. Breed, "listen carefully. Here we go."



  "THERE ARE SEVERAL WAYS," Dr. Breed said to me, "in which certain liquids can crystallize--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."

  He told me about a factory that had been growing big crystals of ethylene diamine tartrate. The crystals were useful in certain manufacturing operations, he said. But one day the factory discovered that the crystals it was growing no longer had the properties desired. The atoms had begun to stack and lock--to freeze--in a different fashion. The liquid that was crystallizing hadn't changed, but the crystals it was forming were, as far as industrial applications went, pure junk.

  How this had come about was a mystery. The theoretical villain, however, was what Dr. Breed called "a seed." He meant by that a tiny grain of the undesired 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 layer 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."