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Physical Chemistry

Ice-Nine's Concept

June 18, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 25

You might enjoy knowing that there is more science, of a very personal sort, behind the concept of ice-nine (C&EN, April 23, page 3). Kurt Vonnegut's older brother, Bernard (see, for example,, both got Kurt has first job after World War II as a speech writer at General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y. (the basis for Vonnegut's first novel, "Player Piano"), and worked with Vincent Schaefer on cloud seeding. (Schaefer was Irving Langmuir's technician and is famous for observing the formation of ice crystals in a lab cold chest [cooled with solid carbon dioxide] on a pre-air-conditioning humid summer day, leading Schaefer to propose use of dry ice to seed clouds to try to produce rain.)

Schaefer ( and Bernard eventually moved to the State University of New York, Albany, Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, which is where the URL comes from. I knew both of them from a meteorology summer science "camp" at the Loomis School in Connecticut, funded by the National Science Foundation and the American Meteorological Society in the post-Sputnik era. Bernard spent much of his post-GE career studying lightning (thunderstorms, tornadoes, volcano eruptions) but also came up with use of silver iodide crystals to seed clouds, which became the standard way to attempt to produce rain, modify hurricanes, and so forth.

Silver iodide has the same crystal structure as H2O ice. Kurt had to know all about this, and thus extended the concept fictionally to solidifying liquid water rather than initiating the phase change in the atmosphere of gaseous water directly to its solid phase.

Robert Hadsell
Plano, Texas



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