Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

18. The Most Valuable Commodity on Earth

When we got into Dr. Breed’s inner office, I attempted to put my thoughts in order for a sensible interview. I found that my mental health had not improved. And, when I started to ask Dr. Breed questions about the day of the bomb, I found that the public-relations centers of my brain had been suffocated by booze and burning cat fur. Every question I asked implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul.

Dr. Breed was astonished, and then he got very sore. He drew back from me and he grumbled, “I gather you don’t like scientists very much.”

“I wouldn’t say that, sir.”

“All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.”

“That’s putting it pretty strong.”

“No stronger that what you’re going to put in your book, apparently. I thought that what you were after was a fair, objective biography of Felix Hoenikker—certainly as significant a task as a young writer could assign himself in this day and age. But no, you come here with preconceived notions, about mad scientists. Where did you ever get such ideas? From the funny papers?”

“From Dr. Hoenikker’s son, to name one source.”

“Which son?”

“Newton,” I said. I had little Newt’s letter with me, and I showed it to him. “How small is Newt, by the way?”

“No bigger than an umbrella stand,” said Dr. Breed, reading Newt’s letter and frowning.

“The other two children are normal?”

“Of course! I hate to disappoint you, but scientists have children just like anybody else’s children.”

I did my best to calm down Dr. Breed, to convince him that I was really interested in an accurate portrait of Dr. Hoenikker. “I’ve come here with no other purpose than to set down exactly what you tell me about Dr. Hoenikker. Newt’s letter was just a beginning, and I’ll balance off against it whatever you can tell me.”

“I’m sick of people misunderstanding what a scientist is, what a scientist does.”

“I’ll do my best to clear up the misunderstanding.”

“In this country most people don’t even understand what pure research is.”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d tell me what it is.”

“It isn’t looking for a better cigarette filter or a softer face tissue or a longer-lasting house paint, God help us. Everybody talks about research and practically nobody in this country’s doing it. We’re one of the few companies that actually hires men to do pure research. When most other companies brag about their research, they’re talking about industrial hack technicians who wear white coats, work out of cookbooks, and dream up an improved windshield wiper for next year’s Oldsmobile.”

“But here . . . ?”

“Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.”

“That’s very generous of General Forge and Foundry Company.”

“Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”

Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl.

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