The impetus for Project Cirrus lay in the earlier project of de-icing airplane wings. Now, however, rather than looking to react to the weather, the United States military was looking for a means of controlling it. The rationale for the project was established in November of 1946 when Schaefer discovered, in his kitchen at home, a means to create clouds, and ultimately snow, using dry ice, using a technique we now call cloud seeding.[1] Within six months, Schaefer had perfected his process within the laboratory, however, the men were quickly realizing that there were limitations to the use of dry ice as a seeding agent, since it dissipated quickly and the amount of water it created was quite small. Bernard soon discovered that the crystalline structure of silver iodide was quite similar to that of water, made much more moisture than dry ice, and remained in the cloud-like structure longer.[2] It was at this point, that Langmuir felt the project was ready to move forward.

Under his advice, General Electric publicized the findings of the “Project Cirrus” group, touting the first steps of humans to control the clouds and the next steps of moving the experiments outdoors, despite the hesitations of both Schaefer and Bernard. Bernard had environmental concerns over shooting silver iodide into the atmosphere. From what they had seen in their experiments in the lab, silver iodide seemed to remain present in clouds for a very long time, and it was difficult to control the spread of the molecules once they interreacted with water. Knowing how variable the project was within the controlled environment of the lab, Bernard did not think it would be a good idea to start shooting silver iodide into the atmosphere. Regardless of his hesitations the project moved forward to on-site testing in New Mexico.

In the end, they were unable to replicate the lab experiments outside on a large enough scale, so General Electric and the Department of Defense decided to not to continue to invest large sums of money into the project. The project was scrapped in 1949, and a year later, in 1950, Langmuir retired from GE. Bernard left two years later.[3] Cloud seeding is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Australia and the People’s Republic of China; however, it has been a controversial topic since its inception and most climate scientists frown upon its practice.

In his late life, after leaving General Electric, Langmuir is credited with coining the term “pathological science,” by which he meant science tainted by unconscious bias. Langmuir had spent the majority of his career cautioning against the idea of “science for science’s sake.” He was, at heart, a pragmatist. Moreover, he did not believe that morality and personal beliefs had a place in science.

Bernard did not give any interviews about Project Cirrus until after Langmuir died in 1957, at which point he comes out quite critical of the entire project. In contrast to Langmuir, Bernard showed great concern for the environmental impact of technology, especially in “Project Cirrus” where the full effects of shooting silver iodide into the atmosphere were still unknown. In the interview he gave with B.S. Haven in 1957, Bernard stated in relationship to contemporary uses of cloud seeding by major corporations and the Federal government, “This is bad, I think, because I think they’re playing with fire releasing this stuff all over the place and I think it’s a shame they haven’t shown any sense of public responsibility particularly when they deny it has any large scale effect to stink up the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of miles downwind producing God knows what effect is a dangerous thing.”[4]

Next week I will discuss the early life of Kurt Vonnegut.

[1] James Fleming. Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, Kindle Edition): 137

[2] Bernard Vonnegut. “The Nucleation of Ice Formation by Silver Iodide” in Journal of Applied PHysics 18.593 (1947): 593-595

[3] [3] Albert Rosenfeld. The Quintessence of Irving Langmuir. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1966): 301

[4] Bernard Vonnegut. Interview with B.S Havens, February 12, 1957. Transcript in Vonnegut Papers.