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15 Things You Might Not Know About Cat’s Cradle

Even the most diehard Vonnegut fan may not be familiar with these facts about Cat's Cradle, one of the author's best-known works—and one of the 20th century's most beloved satires. 

1. KURT VONNEGUT GOT THE IDEA FOR CAT’S CRADLE WHILE WORKING AT GENERAL ELECTRIC.

A background studying chemistry at Cornell University, mechanical engineering at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee, and anthropology at the University of Chicago—not to mention experience working as a journalist for the City News Bureau of Chicago—led a 25-year-old Vonnegut to, of all things, a job in public relations for General Electric in 1947. 

Vonnegut spent his time on the clock interviewing the corporation’s vast array of scientific minds and, as he put it, “asking them what they were up to” in the hopes of capturing a conversation worthy of the public eye. Vonnegut’s collective gatherings ultimately fueled the idea for two of his novels: Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle. Like Vonnegut, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle is a writer swept up in a story about a scientific discovery. 

2. THE NOVEL’S MAIN CHARACTER WAS MODELED AFTER A REAL NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING SCIENTIST. 

In Cat’s Cradle’s fictional world history, Dr. Felix Hoenikker is a Nobel Prize winner who boasts principal credit for inventing the atomic bomb. Vonnegut invented the character following a particularly rich interaction with Irving Langmuir, a pioneer in atomic theory and himself a Nobel laureate. Vonnegut took special note of Langmuir’s absolute ambivalence about the possibility of his research “falling into the wrong hands.” The author slipped this trait into the characterization of Hoenikker. 

3. VONNEGUT BORROWED SOME OF LANGMUIR’S MORE ECCENTRIC QUIRKS FOR THE HOENIKKER CHARACTER. 

In a 1977 conversation with The Paris Review, Vonnegut admitted to swiping a few traits directly from the real Langmuir for his novel. “Langmuir was wonderfully absentminded,” Vonnegut said. “He wondered out loud one time whether, when turtles pulled in their heads, their spines buckled or contracted. I put that in the book. One time he left a tip under his plate after his wife served him breakfast at home. I put that in.”

4. MUCH OF THE SCIENCE ILLUSTRATED IN THE NOVEL WAS BASED ON WORK DONE BY VONNEGUT’S BROTHER. 

Vonnegut’s brother Bernard, an atmospheric scientist working for General Electric since 1945, was responsible for getting Vonnegut the job at GE in the first place. Bernard Vonnegut was a partner of Langmuir in the pursuit of an understanding, and perhaps the manipulation or synthetic reproduction, of snow.

5. LANGMUIR ORIGINALLY PITCHED THE ICE-NINE STORY TO A DIFFERENT AUTHOR. 

Basic characterization is hardly all Vonnegut derived (or, as some would put it, stole) from Langmuir. The ice-nine concept—a chemical bastardization of ice that remains stable at room temperature—was Langmuir’s idea, which he had pitched previously as the premise for a potential science fiction story to writer H. G. Wells. The Time Machine author was uninterested, leaving Vonnegut to snatch the concept for his 1963 novel. 

6. VONNEGUT WAS DRIVEN TO WRITE THE NOVEL BY HIS MORAL OBJECTION TO INDIFFERENCE OF THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY.

“I was hideously disillusioned—that is when I lost my innocence, really—when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima,” Vonnegut says in the 1983 BBC Arena documentary Kurt Vonnegut So It Goes. While the World War II veteran’s experiences as a POW are best known for inspiring his later novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s emotional reaction to the United States’ use of the atom bomb on Japan helped shape the themes of Cat’s Cradle

In the documentary, Vonnegut explains how this cynicism only grew during his stint at General Electric. “It seemed wrong to me, in view of some of (Langmuir’s) discoveries, that he should be so indifferent to what became of them,” he says. “This dreadful substance, which is discovered by a man who is purely interested in truth, finally winds up in the hands of a dictator and—not to leave you in suspense—the world ends.”

7. CAT’S CRADLE EARNED VONNEGUT A MASTER’S DEGREE.

Before he became one of the great voices of American science fiction, Vonnegut earned a reputation at the University of Chicago as a student of little promise. After his original master’s thesis, which compared 19th century Cubist painters with 19th century Native Americans, went nowhere, he started on Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales, which traced how different cultures' stories have their own distinct footprints, providing hints as to their origins. However, Vonnegut left school without earning his degree. Just shy of 25 years later, the institution decided to accept Cat’s Cradle as his submitted thesis, and granted Vonnegut his Master of Arts at last

8. VONNEGUT COLLABORATED ON AN ORATORIO ADAPTATION OF THE BOOK.

We’re accustomed to seeing great works of literature adapted for film and television, but Cat’s Cradle’s reimagining as an album is pretty unusual. To make matters more interesting, Vonnegut himself was involved in adapting his story. The author wrote and performed the prose lyrics to a nine-track oratorio based on his novel. The project was spearheaded by musician and Columbia University neuroscientist David Soldier (real name: Sulzer), and was released as the studio album Ice-9 Ballads in 2001. The Manhattan Chamber Orchestra and Jimmy Justice contributed to the piece.

9. A MINOR PLANET AND ITS MOON WERE NAMED FOR THE BOOK. 

In September of 1999, astronomers David C. Jewitt, Jane X. Luu, and Chadwick Trujillo discovered a cubewano—that is, an object whose revolution extends beyond Neptune’s orbit (a range known as the Kuiper belt)—and its "moon." The trio borrowed the terms “Borasisi” and “Pabu,” which refer to the mythical personifications of the sun and the moon in the fictional language of San Lorenzan featured in Cat’s Cradle, to name their discoveries.

10. FOLLOWERS OF THE BOOK’S FICTIONAL RELIGION MEET EVERY YEAR AT BURNING MAN. 

An adamant critic of religion, Vonnegut likely never intended for his creation, Bokononism, to earn a following beyond the shores of the fictional San Lorenzo. Nevertheless, Cat’s Cradle’s ideology of “harmless untruths” is celebrated year after year at California music festival Burning Man. The Camp of Bokonon has become a fixture of the annual event, preaching the bliss of Lionel Boyd Johnson’s embrace of the foma.

11. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW HELPED FUEL VONNEGUT’S RELIGIOUS SATIRE.

Along with the novels of Herman Melville and Mark Twain, a short piece by George Bernard Shaw was a heavy influence on Cat’s Cradle. “To hell with the plays,” Vonnegut joked during a 2003 discussion with The Progressive, emphasizing the impact that reading Shaw’s prefaces, in particular, had on his writing. Vonnegut recalled a religious satire penned by Shaw as a preface to his 1912 drama Androcles and the Lion: “Why Not Give Christianity a Trial?” (incorrectly referred to by Vonnegut in the interview as “Christianity—Why Not Give It a Try?”). 

12. VONNEGUT ALMOST QUIT WRITING ALTOGETHER BEFORE HE EVEN BEGAN CAT’S CRADLE.

Following his tenure with General Electric and the publication of his first book, Player Piano, Vonnegut endured a quick, ostensibly agonizing stint as a writer for Sports Illustrated. Frustrated throughout his employ by the banality of his assignments, Vonnegut was brought to his breaking point when told to write a story about a racehorse that had hopped the fence of his owners’ grounds and run away. He wrote only, “The horse jumped over the f-----g fence,” and quit the gig on the spot, believing himself to be done with the written word altogether. Afterwards, Vonnegut spent a similarly brief period managing a Saab dealership in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

13. HE GOT BACK INTO WRITING NOVELS TO SUPPORT HIS THREE NEPHEWS.

Vonnegut took on a new financial burden when he adopted his three nephews following the sudden deaths of their parents (his sister and brother-in-law) in 1958. With three children of his own already, Vonnegut returned to the only career in which he was certain he could sustain employment: writing. Judging himself as unfit for any other line of work and in newly dire need of regular income, Vonnegut engaged once again with his literary passions, turning out novels The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, and Cat’s Cradle over the next five years. 

14. CAT’S CRADLE WAS ONE OF ONLY TWO OF HIS OWN BOOKS THAT VONNEGUT GRADED AN A-PLUS.

In the two decades following Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut published a legion of novels, short story and essay collections, and stage plays that attracted mainstream attention and critical acclaim. However, Vonnegut wasn’t especially satisfied with how some of his works turned out. In the eighteenth chapter of the 1981 collection Palm Sunday, Vonnegut took each of his published pieces to task with the assignment of an academic letter grade. He doled out two Ds (for the 1971 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June and the 1976 novel Slapstick), three Cs (for the 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, the 1974 collection Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, and for Palm Sunday itself), one B-minus (for the 1968 collection Welcome to the Monkey House), one B (for the 1952 novel Player Piano), four As (for the 1959 novel The Sirens of Titan, the 1961 novel Mother Night, the 1965 novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and the 1979 novel Jailbird), and two A-pluses (for Cat’s Cradle and the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five). 

15. THE NOVEL INSPIRED A GRATEFUL DEAD BUSINESS VENTURE.

In 1970, the popular rock band the Grateful Dead founded a San Francisco-based publishing company named Ice Nine, through which all of its music and lyrics would be copyrighted.

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
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People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
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A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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