Cautionary Tales – The man who played with hurricanes

23rd June, 2023

Today, the idea of controlling the weather is controversial. Scientists who research geoengineering have even received death threats. But once upon a time, people were optimistic about remaking the climate in entire regions of the world. They approached this science with a touching faith in the power of human creativity.

Absent-minded genius Irving Langmuir was one such scientist. He dreamt of making deserts bloom and conjuring rain from an arid sky. He even believed that his experiments with a hurricane had succeeded in redirecting its path.

Why did we stop trying to control the weather? And might geoengineering help us solve climate change — or have we missed our chance?

[Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

Further reading

We were inspired to research a script on geoengineering by Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Under a White Sky, which contains her original reporting on subjects including negative emissions and solar radiation management – and which also inspired us to track down a copy of the remarkable 1960 publication Man Versus Climate. Soviet geoengineering ideas, and US openness to them, are further detailed in an article by Derek Mead in Vice.

Irving Langmuir is portrayed, in the fictionalised form of Felix Hoenikker, in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Cat’s Cradle. In an interview on, Vonnegut tells how Langmuir inspired the character.

Ginger Strand’s book The Brothers Vonnegut includes a rich account of Kurt’s and Bernard Vonnegut’s time at General Electric with Irving Langmuir. General Electric’s website also details their work together, with an image of Langmuir, Vonnegut and Vincent Schaefer inspecting their freezer. Our account of Langmuir’s work draws further on Sam Kean’s feature articles in Smithsonian magazine and The Atlantic; David Philip Miller’s article in Annals of Science; and reporting in outlets such as Time and Cosmos.

For background on how attitudes towards geoengineering are currently evolving, see Clare Roth’s piece for Deutsche Welle, Is geoengineering set to become mainstream climate policy?

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This