Mr. Kurt Vonnegut died around ten days ago. Last weekend, I spent a few hours in a nice cafe near my house to write this essay about Mr. Vonnegut and his brother, Bernard.
I was a great admirer of Mr. Vonnegut’s fiction from a very early age, and I had read almost all of his books by the time I left Ireland for university in England. Of course, I was a very impressionable young man. So you can imagine my astonishment when I arrived in Manchester, at UMIST, to discover that the scientists in the physics department actually knew Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt’s brother. Not so surprising of course – they were atmospheric physicists after all, and were working on the same research topics that Bernard was interested in. Bernard and Kurt had actually visited the department a few years before I arrived.
In my final year at UMIST I had a summer job in New Mexico, which in the end lasted six months because I had problems with my PhD grant and had no immediate reason to return to the UK (in the end I did a Masters’ program in Canada). I worked at New Mexico Tech, in Socorro. For the first three months I helped out with measuring radon transport in the desert (a lot of houses in New Mexico are built on granite and are a little too tightly insulated…) For the second half of my stay I was the sole inhabitant and operator of the Joint Observatory for Cometary Research (JOCR for short, ho ho). A very interesting experience which I should some day describe at length….
For the first few weeks I was on the mountain, the only other inhabitants for miles around were those at the Langmuir Labs, on the other peak, where they were doing their wacky experiments with thunder and lightning. This involved firing rockets up into clouds and seeing what would happen, that kind of thing. Observing, measuring. I visited there a few times, and I watched the experiments in progress. Bernard Vonnegut spent most of his summers at Langmuir Labs, but, of course, he was not there the one summer that I happened to be there.
And that is how I got to thinking about Kurt and Bernard. My favourite Vonnegut book, after Cat’s Cradle is probably Mother Night. Mr. Vonnegut informs us in his introduction that it is the only book of his which contains a moral: “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be”. Indeed.
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