Reflections On Vonnegut | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 21 | p. 2 | Letters
Issue Date: May 21, 2007

Reflections On Vonnegut

Department: Letters

Rudy Baum's editorial on Kurt Vonnegut observes that he "had bothered to learn a little bit about the chemistry and physics of ice" (C&EN, April 23, page 3).

I'm sure I am neither the first nor the last to point out that Vonnegut may have had to learn a little about the chemistry of ice while he was a chemistry and biology major at Cornell University. Although he did not graduate, he is perhaps Cornell's most famous chemistry major of the 20th century. He references his chemistry studies in the dedication for the novel "Jailbird":

"For Benjamin D. Hitz,

Close friend of my youth,

Best man at my wedding.

Ben, you used to tell me about

Wonderful books you had just read,

And then I would imagine that I

Had read them, too.

You read nothing but the best, Ben,

While I studied chemistry.

Long time no see."

Andrew Elio
tWilmington, Del.

Baum's enthusiasm for "Cat's Cradle" is right on, but he missed the source of Vonnegut's familiarity with ice structures. His older brother, Bernhard Vonnegut, did research on water structure and ice formation for General Electric.

In the book, the narrator travels to an industrial research establishment in upstate New York to question an elder scientist, Dr. Breed, about ice-nine. The resemblance between the upstate New York city and Schenectady, the location of GE's research laboratory, does not appear to be accidental.

Henry Abrash
Los Angeles

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