Study Guide

Cat's Cradle Science

By Kurt Vonnegut


My book is going to emphasize the human rather than the technical side of the bomb, so recollections of the day through the eyes of a 'baby,' if you'll pardon the expression, would fit in perfectly. (4.16)

Although John is talking about The Day the World Ended, he might as well be talking about Cat's Cradle, the book he's currently narrating. It's what those in the biz call self-referential.

[…] a scientist turned to Father and said, 'Science has now known sin.' And do you know what Father said? He said, 'What is sin?' (6.15)

Perhaps the best quote to signify Cat's Cradle's discussion of science. Sure, some people may consider science beyond sin or morality since it only seeks knowledge. But they're wrong: everything has consequences.

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. (14.4)

Sure, it's no Neuromancer, but Cat's Cradle still gives subtle suggestions as to how much of our willpower we're willing to relinquish to advanced technology. And this novel was written before the Internet.

"Ech," gurgled Miss Pefko emptily. "I take diction 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.["] (15.14)

The novel's other concern about science is that those without the necessary training can't make heads-or-tails of all the discoveries. Miss Pefko's example is funny, but what happens when the discovery is an atomic bomb and those who can't understand the consequences are the leaders of entire countries? Now, that's something completely different.

"Magic," declared Miss Pefko. "I'm sorry to hear a member of the Laboratory family using that brackish, medieval world," said Dr. Breed. (16.10-11)

The novel plays with Arthur C. Clarke's notion that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (Source). Unless you know the science behind it, it might as well be magic to you. Just take a microwave oven back to the middle ages and see if you aren't worshipped as a god—or, you know, burned at the stake.

"Dynamite money," I marveled, thinking of the violence of dynamite and the absolute repose of a tombstone and a summer home. (32.8)

Here's a subtle reference to that chain of consequences we mentioned. Alfred Nobel creates dynamite, and his invention kills millions of people. So, he creates the Nobel Peace Prize to promote peace, which is then given to the man who kills thousands more by helping to create the atomic bomb. That man uses the money to give his family a nice summer home. It's consequences upon consequences upon consequences.

And, to demonstrate my mastery over my illusory fate, I turned the radio off. (86.5)

Another subtle hint at the willpower we've given over to advanced technology. This one's a little more sinister in that it suggests we've turned our fate, our future, over to it.

"Science is magic that works." (97.33)

"Papa" Monzano wants his people to learn science because he sees it as magic… which kind of misses the entire point of science, doesn't it?

"I am a very bad scientist. I will do anything to make a human being feel better, even if it's unscientific. No scientist worthy of the name could say such a thing." (98.7)

Julian Castle calls himself a bad scientist while the novel slyly suggests that he's actually a good scientist. Now, that's writing.

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. (109.2)

The novel's satirical notion of how scientists manage to disassociate themselves from their mistakes. Here, Frank gave "Papa" the ice-nine, but he doesn't see himself in any way responsible for the problem. Instead, he only sees another problem to solve. Then again, it is Frank we're talking about.