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Vonnegut- MIT needs oath


Kurt Vonnegut, celebrated author of Jailbird, Slaughterhouse Five, and most recently Gal'apagos, spoke about everything from blue-footed boobies to nuclear war to Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis last Tuesday in Kresge Auditorium.

He correctly assumed that most of the MIT students gathered in Kresge were either engineers or scientists. Focusing on this, he warned them to be cautious as to "whose dreams they make come true." Vonnegut said that fascists such as Adolf Hitler couldn't have carried out their horrible realities without the cooperation and assistance of "chemists, architects and engineers."

An oath, similar to the Hippocratic oath for doctors, should be administered at MIT's graduation ceremonies, suggested Vonnegut. Such an oath would facilitate an awareness of the consequences that scientific research holds for civilization, he said.

"We might acknowledge that all modern sciences have their roots, if we go back far enough, in the wish to make people well again," he said. "I commend [the Hippocratic oath's] spirit, though not its particular content, to chemists, physicists, engineers and architects." Those who do not take the oath could be considered official "guns for hire," he added.

"If you, with your sacred knowledge, ... were to take such an oath and mean it," Vonnegut said, "it would be a lasting, eaningful step towards safety and sanity."

Vonnegut's familial ties to MIT span three generations. His father and grandfather received degrees in architecture from the Institute. His brother received a doctorate in chemistry, and his uncle flunked out.

MIT accepted Vonnegut in 1940 with the condition that he get rid of his deficiency in mathematics as soon as possible. He said, however, that his math deficiency "couldn't be remedied in a million years."

Vonnegut also discussed his latest work, Gal'apagos, during his 75-minute monologue. The novel is set in the Gal'apagos Islands, which were made somewhat of a tourist attraction by Charles Darwin's interpretation of habitation there.

Vonnegut described his role as author of Gal'apagos as a kind of prophetic Darwin, predicting humanity's predicament a million years from now.

He also characterized "survival of the fittest," or "Darwinism," as "the religion of our time." He said that both the Republican and Democratic political parties are Darwinistic, with the former the more extreme of the two.

He described World Wars I and II as Darwinistic, whose sole purposes were "killing people, to improve breeding stock." A pacifist, he said he owes this attribute to a his growing up in the 1930s, when pacifism was fashionable. Arms manufacturers were collectively referred to then as "Merchants of Death," he said.

Times have since changed and "we live in a much more militaristic society," he commented. But "war has lost its zing" with the introduction of technology, he said. "War is no longer a European puberty ritual where boys become men."

He compared the prospect of nuclear war to "Jim Jones Kool-Aid" which Americans can choose not to drink. Vonnegut encouraged his audience to take whatever action was possible to stop weaponry production. There are "no fates worse then death," he warned.

Vonnegut also explained several storylines through graphing the "good" and "ill fortunes" of the main characters of several narratives. Vonnegut plotted different plots as functions on a personalized two-dimensional axis using a blackboard near the podium.