Irving Langmuir tried to change the world one storm at a time.
- By Sam Kean
- Air & Space magazine, July 2010
(Page 2 of 5)
Not long after, a second breakthrough took place. Dry ice has limitations: It has to be dispensed in small, careful doses, lest it “choke” clouds of vapor and prevent ice from forming. So another assistant, Bernard Vonnegut (older brother of writer Kurt), created ice with silver iodide. Silver iodide crystals have the same hexagonal structure as ice and can trick water molecules into latching on. Though purified silver iodide was more effective than crushed dry ice for generating precipitation, it was harder to make.
After these breakthroughs, Langmuir’s colleagues threw themselves into more experiments. Duncan Blanchard, a GE assistant scientist in the late 1940s, remembers each personality distinctly. Langmuir, ever dapper in his suits, was the driving force, he says. The mechanical genius was Schaefer, a high school dropout. Schaefer, among others, jokingly referred to Langmuir as “Boss” behind his back —“Where’s Boss? Boss in today?”—but always as “Doctor” to his face.
Inside the lab, things were less formal. Blanchard remembers Vonnegut’s dingy workspace “in complete disarray, with bits and pieces of wire, old test tubes, rubber tubing, and parts of generators covering most of the bench space and dripping off onto the floor.” But all three men had one trait in common. “Langmuir, Schaefer, Vonnegut were always enthusiastic even when the project did not seem to work out,” says Blanchard. “Science there was glorious entertainment.”
The enthusiasm seemed warranted after the first aerial cloud seeding, in November 1946. GE rented a Fairchild 24 airplane, and during the flight, Schaefer identified a four-mile-long altostratus cloud at 14,000 feet. While passing over it, Schaefer slowly dispensed three pounds of crushed dry ice through a funnel. According to eyewitnesses, the cloud “writhe[d] in torment,” and within minutes had transformed into snow. That the snow fell just 2,000 feet before evaporating didn’t prick the team’s enthusiasm. Langmuir, observing from the ground, watched the cloud quake and shouted, “This is history!”
A more ambitious experiment followed in December, near GE headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Schaefer seeded clouds with a bigger load of dry ice, but this time the clouds kept drifting, seemingly unperturbed. A day later, upper New York and Vermont were hit with the biggest snowstorm of the season. Scores of car accidents followed, and businesses shut down for a week. New Yorkers were peeved.
So far, the experiments seemed solid, but many meteorologists doubted the team’s conclusions. Francis Reichelderfer, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, told Time, “I feel quite sure that in many cases [Langmuir’s] rain was due to natural causes.” The bureau argued that weather systems are immensely complicated, and just because a cloud seeded one day started snowing the next doesn’t mean that seeding caused it. Also, said Reichelderfer, Langmuir’s men didn’t seed clouds randomly, but picked “ripe” clouds that probably would have snowed (or rained) anyway.
Clearly, more experiments were needed, but after the snowstorm in Vermont and New York, GE lawyers had a conniption: GE faced staggering legal liability. They insisted Langmuir secure the cooperation of the U.S. military, which was shielded from legal threats.
As much as his scientific acumen, it was Langmuir’s stature and eloquence that saved Project Cirrus. “He could convince you that black was white—he had an acting voice,” says Blanchard. “He had the ability to charm.” Blanchard still remembers the day the Army Signal Corps dispatched a junior officer to GE to interrogate Langmuir about weather modification: “The [officer’s] instructions were ‘Milk him dry. Milk him dry.’ We heard about that in the lab and we just laughed,” says Blanchard. “A day or so later, Bernie [Vonnegut] and a friend saw this chap at lunch with Langmuir. Langmuir was carrying on an animated conversation while this person sat there with a glazed look on his face. Langmuir’s cow was far from being milked dry!”