By Jiwon Choi, VI Form
Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: Thoughts on Science, Ethics, and Being Human
I am drawn to science. I always loved history and literature, too, but science made sense to me, scratched my itch in a way other subjects never did. As I did chemistry experiments or drew molecular diagrams, I felt part of a never-ending search for truth, an heir to the great, inexhaustible spirit of inquiry.
And every year I saw more evidence for the validity and even nobility of that spirit. Whether it was the laser cutter that lets me instantly carve out trophies for the little kids who come for free robotics classes on Saturdays or a news item about advancements in self-driving cars, science met my expectations time and time again, sparking my imagination and literally making my heart beat faster.
Of course, I’m not ignorant of the repercussions that come along with new discoveries. I’ve read plenty of pieces about the threats AI will pose to the workforce, and I worry about accidents involving autonomous cars. But still, when I did my mental cost-benefit analysis, science was unequivocally a net good. And besides, isn’t it science itself that will find solutions to these problems? Surprisingly to me, it was in a literature class that my attitude about science was shaken forever. Almost immediately upon beginning Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, my heart sank, filling me with an uncomfortable feeling I couldn’t resolve.
I don’t know if a book had ever affected me so immediately, so forcefully, so viscerally. It was like someone had pulled the blankets off me in the middle of deep sleep, jarring me awake, vigilant, but woozy and disoriented. In Cat’s Cradle, the brilliant, single-minded scientist Felix Hoenikker discovers a new water isotope—“ice-nine”—that is solid at room temperature. At first, ice-nine helps soldiers struggling to march through the mud, but it soon takes a dark turn, eventually proving so hazardous that it threatens to freeze all the water on earth, as apocalyptic an outcome as can be imagined.
Was Hoenikker really a “bad guy”? Had he done something wrong? On one hand, his discovery threatened all life on Earth. On the other hand, he had no idea that might happen—he was just trying to help; his intentions were good! I was too uncomfortable to brush the questions aside—I had a lot to think about.
What’s the point of science without ethics? We need to have a reason to do research and a direction in which to proceed, and it turns out that scientists depend on the wisdom of the humanities to give their work meaning and to guide the choices they make in doing that work. The spirit of inquiry doesn’t operate in a vacuum but rather in a world of conflicting motives and ideologies, of shades of gray, of unforeseen consequences, of violence and domination, rich and poor, “should be” and “is.”
Scientists need values to guide us and a deep commitment to ethics to examine and identify those values. And if we don’t choose those values ourselves, then they’ll be chosen for us. Without that commitment to ethics, what will drive us—Money? Recognition? Other people whose values we may not share or even understand?
The more I thought about Cat’s Cradle, and the more I discussed it in class, the more my head swam, the more uncomfortable I felt. It wasn’t a new idea to me that ethics is part of scientific research, but my very understanding of ethics was falling apart, unraveling like an old sweater, dissipating like the last memories of a half-forgotten dream. Or maybe it was just getting more complicated.
Hoenikker’s intentions were good. Did that absolve him of responsibility for the thousands of deaths caused by ice-nine, though? And what if ice-nine hadn’t turned out to be dangerous, would he be a hero? Is helping soldiers always right? Or would he be, in some way, complicit in the deaths caused by the soldiers he’d helped? Would some of that body count fall on his shoulders? Scientists, so driven by curiosity, may start by seeing something and thinking “This is cool!” or “That’s interesting!” But we also have to ask these big, tough, ethical questions, and we have to examine the answers we find and ask more questions. And we have to do so all the time, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.
I want my research to do good in the world. I can’t stop wars or save lives, but I can use my knowledge for good at the Fab Lab, where I use 3D printers to make prosthetics for kids who can’t afford them. And when, on a muggy Saturday afternoon, I see a big smile on little Seung Yu’s face as he straps on his prosthetic hand and forearm, I feel good about the work I’m doing.
But there’s that uncomfortable feeling again. Try as I might, I can’t shake it.
Why do kids like Seung Yu have to come to the Fab Lab in the first place? Why are kids in need of prosthetics forced to rely on a team of volunteers, on a teenager on winter break doing a little volunteer work? What does it say about a system that it depends on charity to care for its least fortunate? And, maybe the most uncomfortable question of all, am I, by helping Seung Yu, helping to perpetuate such an unjust system?
I don’t have answers, but I do know a few things: Seung Yu’s smile is real, and it’s okay for it to make me feel good; lingering uncertainty about the complex ethical implications can’t stop me from doing what I think is right; what I think is right must always be subject to examination; and, above all, being uncomfortable is part of being a scientist and an ethical human being.
Jiwon Choi is a VI Form boarding student from Seoul, Korea. She enjoys watching movies, hanging out with her friends, and running.