Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mind over matter...Kurt Vonnegut's "Report on the Barnhouse Effect"


"Report on the Barnhouse Effect" is the first short story written and published by Kurt Vonnegut. It originally appeared in the February 11, 1950 issue of Collier's Weekly.


The story takes the form of a report written by an ex-student of the story's protagonist, Professor Arthur Barnhouse. A year and a half before the writing of the report the professor develops the ability to affect physical objects and events through the force of his mind; he comes to call this power 'dynamo-psychism', while the press adopts the term 'the Barnhouse effect'. When Barnhouse makes the mistake of informing the US government of his newfound abilities, they try to turn him into a weapon. The program is successful, but Barnhouse, declaring himself the world's 'first weapon with a conscience', flees and goes into hiding. While in this reclusive state Barnhouse uses his dynamo-psychic powers to destroy all nuclear and conventional weapon stockpiles, along with other military technologies. However, he realizes that because he is mortal, the world will revert to its warlike tendencies after he dies. Barnhouse passes on the secret of his abilities to his ex-student, who goes into hiding after he begins to manifest them as well.

Audio presentation...

"Report on the Barnhouse Effect" [Dimension X]

Report on the Barnhouse Effect


Kurt Vonnegut

Let me begin by saying that I don't know any more about where Professor Arthur Barnhouse is hiding than anyone else does.  Save for one short, enigmatic message left in my mailbox on Christmas Eve, I have not heard from him since his disappearance a year and a half ago.
    What's more, readers of this article will be disappointed if they expect to learn how they can bring about the so-called "Barnhouse Effect." If I were able and willing to give away that secret, I would certainly be something more important than a psychology instructor. 
    I have been urged to write this report because I did research under the professor's direction and because I was the first to learn of his astonishing discovery.  But while I was his student I was never entrusted with knowledge of how the mental forces could be released and directed.  He was unwilling to trust anyone with that information. 
    I would like to point out that the term "Barnhouse Effect" is a creation of the popular press, and was never used by Professor Barnhouse.  The name he chose for the phenomenon was "dynamopsychism,” or force of the mind.
    I cannot believe that there is a civilized person yet to be convinced that such a force exists, what with its destructive effects on display in every national capital.  I think humanity has always had an inkling that this sort of force does exist.  It has been common knowledge that some people are luckier than others with inanimate objects like dice.  What Professor Barnhouse did was to show that such "luck" was a measurable force, which in his case could be enormous.
By my calculations, the professor was about fifty-five times more powerful than a Nagasaki-type atomic bomb at the time he went into hiding.  He was not bluffing when, on the eve of "Operation Brainstorm," he told General Honus Barker: "Sitting here at the dinner table, I'm pretty sure I can flatten anything on earth—from Joe Louis to the Great Wall of China."
         There is an understandable tendency to look upon Professor Barnhouse as a supernatural visitation.  The First Church of Barnhouse in Los Angeles has a congregation numbering in the thousands.  He is godlike in neither appearance nor intellect.  The man who disarms the world is single, shorter than the average American male, stout, and averse to exercise.  His I.Q. is 143, which is good but certainly not sensational. He is quite mortal, about to celebrate his fortieth birthday, and in good health.  If he is alone now, the isolation won't bother him too much.  He was quiet and shy when I knew him, and seemed to find more companionship in books and music than in his associations at the college.
            Neither he nor his powers fall outside the sphere of Nature.  His dynamopsychic radiations are subject to many known physical laws that apply in the field of radio.  Hardly a person has not now heard the snarl of "Barnhouse static" on his home receiver.  The radiations are affected by sunspots and variations in the ionosphere.
           However, they differ from ordinary broadcast waves, in several important ways.  Their total energy can be brought to bear on any single point the professor chooses, and that energy is undiminished by distance.  As a weapon, then, dynamopsychism has an impressive advantage over bacteria and atomic bombs, beyond the fact that it costs nothing to use: it enables the professor to single out critical individuals and objects instead of slaughtering whole populations in the process of maintaining international equilibrium.
       As General Honus Barker told the House Military Affairs Committee: "Until someone finds Barnhouse, there is no defense against the Barnhouse Effect." Efforts to "jam" or block the radiations have failed.  Premier Slezak could have saved himself the fantastic expense of his "Barnhouseproof' shelter.  Despite the shelter's twelve-foot-thick lead armor, the premier has been floored twice while in it.
        There is talk of screening the population for men potentially as powerful dynamopsychically as the professor.  Senator Warren Foust demanded funds for this purpose last month, with the passionate declaration: "He who rules the Barnhouse Effect rules the world!" Commissar Kropotnik said much the same thing, so another costly armaments race, with a new twist, has begun.
        This race at least has its comical aspects.  The world's best gamblers are being coddled by governments like so many nuclear physicists.  There may be several hundred persons with dynamopsychic talent on earth, myself included.  But, without knowledge of the professor's technique, they can never be anything but dice-table despots.  With the secret, it would probably take them ten years to become dangerous weapons.  It took the professor that long.  He who rules the Barnhouse Effect is Barnhouse and will be for some time.
         Popularly, the "Age of Barnhouse" is said to have begun a year and a half ago, on the day of Operation Brainstorm.  That was when dynamopsychism became significant politically.  Actually, the phenomenon was discovered in May, 1942, shortly after the professor turned down a direct commission in the Army and enlisted as an artillery private.  Like X-rays and vulcanized rubber, dynamopsychism was discovered by accident.
          From time to time Private Barnhouse was invited to take part in games of chance by his barrack mates.  He knew nothing about the games, and usually begged off. But one evening, out of social grace, he agreed to shoot craps.  It was either terrible or wonderful that he played, depending upon whether or not you like the world as it now is.
            "Shoot sevens, Pop," someone said.
            So "Pop" shot sevens—ten in a row to bankrupt the barracks.  He retired to his bunk and, as a mathematical exercise, calculated the odds against his feat on the back of a laundry slip.  His chances of doing it, he found, were one in almost ten million!  Bewildered, he borrowed a pair of dice from the man in the bunk next to his.  He tried to roll sevens again, but got only the usual assortment of numbers.  He lay back for a moment, then resumed his toying with the dice.  He rolled ten more sevens in a row.
           He might have dismissed the phenomenon with a low whistle.  But the professor instead mulled over the circumstances surrounding his two lucky streaks.  There was one single factor in common: on both occasions, the same thought train had flashed through his mind just before he threw the dice.  It was that thought train which aligned the professor's brain cells into what has since become the most powerful weapon on earth.
        The soldier in the next bunk gave dynamopsychism its first token of respect.  In an understatement certain to bring wry smiles to the faces of the world's dejected demagogues, the soldier said, "You're hotter'n a two-dollar pistol, Pop." Professor Barnhouse was all of that.  The dice that did his bidding weighed but a few grams, so the forces involved were minute; but the unmistakable fact that there were such forces was earth-shaking.
       Professional caution kept him from revealing his discovery immediately.  He wanted more facts and a body of theory to go with them.  Later, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it was fear that made him hold his peace.  At no time were his experiments, as Premier Slezak called them, "a bourgeois plot to shackle the true democracies of the world." The professor didn't know where they were leading.
       In time, he came to recognize another startling feature of dynamopsychism: its strength increased with use.  Within six months, he was able to govern dice thrown by men the length of a barracks distant. By the time of his discharge in 1945, he could knock bricks loose from chimneys three miles away.
        Charges that Professor Barnhouse could have won the last war in a minute, but did not care to do so, are perfectly senseless.  When the war ended, he had the range and power of a 37-millimeter cannon, perhaps—certainly no more. His dynamopsychic powers graduated from the small-arms class only after his discharge and return to Wyandotte College.
        I enrolled in the Wyandotte Graduate School two years after the professor had rejoined the faculty.  By chance, he was assigned as my thesis adviser.  I was unhappy about the assignment, for the professor was, in the eyes of both colleagues and students, a somewhat ridiculous figure.  He missed classes or had lapses of memory during lectures.  When I arrived, in fact, his shortcomings had passed from the ridiculous to the intolerable.
         "We're assigning you to Barnhouse as a sort of temporary thing," the dean of social studies told me.  He looked apologetic and perplexed.  "Brilliant man, Barnhouse, I guess.  Difficult to know since his return, perhaps, but his work before the war brought a great deal of credit to our little school."
         When I reported to the professor's laboratory for the first time, what I saw was more distressing than the gossip.  Every surface in the room was covered with dust; books and apparatus had not been disturbed for months.  The professor sat napping at his desk when I entered.  The only signs of recent activity were three overflowing ashtrays, a pair of scissors, and a morning paper with several items clipped from its front page.
          As he raised his head to look at me, I saw that his eyes were clouded with fatigue. "Hi," he said, "just can't seem to get my sleeping done at night." He lighted a cigarette, his hands trembling slightly.  "You the young man I'm supposed to help with a thesis?"
           "Yes, sir," I said.  In minutes he converted my misgivings to alarm.
           "You an overseas veteran?" he asked.
           "Yes, sir."
           "Not much left over there, is there?" He frowned.  "Enjoy the last war?"
           "No, sir."
           "Look like another war to you?"
           "Kind of, sir."
           "What can be done about it?"
           I shrugged. "Looks pretty hopeless."
           He peered at me intently.  "Know anything about international law, the U.N., and all that?"
           "Only what I pick up from the papers."
           "Same here," he sighed.  He showed me a fat scrapbook packed with newspaper clippings.  "Never used to pay any attention to international politics.  Now I study them the way I used to study rats in mazes.  Everybody tells me the same thing—'Looks hopeless.' ”
           "Nothing short of a miracle—" I began.
           "Believe in magic?" he asked sharply.  The professor fished two dice from his vest pocket.  "I will try to roll twos," he said.  He rolled twos three times in a row.  "One chance in about 47,000 of that happening.  There's a miracle for you." He beamed for an instant, then
brought the interview to an end, remarking that he had a class which had begun ten minutes ago.
           He was not quick to take me into his confidence, and he said no more about his trick with the dice.  I assumed they were loaded, and forgot about them.  He set me the task of watching male rats cross electrified metal strips to get to food or female rats—an experiment that had been done to everyone's satisfaction in the nineteen-thirties.  As though the pointlessness of my work were not bad enough, the professor annoyed me further with irrelevant questions. His favorites were: "Think we should have dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?" and "Think every new piece of scientific information is a good thing for humanity?"
          However, I did not feel put upon for long.  "Give those poor animals a holiday," he said one morning, after I had been with him only a month.  "I wish you'd help me look into a more interesting problem—namely, my sanity."
          I returned the rats to their cages.
          "What you must do is simple," he said, speaking softly.  "Watch the inkwell on my desk.  If you see nothing happen to it, say so, and I'll go quietly—relieved, I might add—to the nearest sanitarium.
          I nodded uncertainly.
          He locked the laboratory door and drew the blinds, so that we were in twilight for a moment.  "I'm odd, I know," he said.  "It's fear of myself that's made me odd."
          "I've found you somewhat eccentric, perhaps, but certainly not—"
          "If nothing happens to that inkwell, 'crazy as a bedbug' is the only description of me that will do," he interrupted, turning on the overhead lights.  His eyes narrowed.  "To give you an idea of how crazy, I'll tell you what's been running through my mind when I should have been sleeping.  I think maybe I can save the world.  I think maybe I can make every nation a have nation, and do away with war for good.  I think maybe I can clear roads through jungles, irrigate deserts, build dams overnight."
          "Yes, sir."
          "Watch the inkwell!"
          Dutifully and fearfully I watched.  A high-pitched humming seemed to come from the inkwell; then it began to vibrate alarmingly, and finally to bound about the top of the desk, making two noisy circuits. It stopped, hummed again, glowed red, then popped in splinters with a blue-green flash.
           Perhaps my hair stood on end.  The professor laughed gently.  "Magnets?" I managed to say at last.
           "Wish to heaven it were magnets," he murmured.  It was then that he told me of dynamopsychism.  He knew only that there was such a force; he could not explain it.  "It's me and me alone—and it's awful."
             "I'd say it was amazing and wonderful!" I cried.
             "If all I could do was make inkwells dance, I'd be tickled silly with the whole business." He shrugged disconsolately.  "But I'm no toy, my boy.  If you like, we can drive around the neighborhood, and I'll show you what I mean." He told me about pulverized boulders, shattered oaks, and abandoned farm buildings demolished within a fifty-mile radius of the campus.  "Did every bit of it sitting right here, just thinking—not even thinking hard."
           He scratched his head nervously.  "I have never dared to concentrate as hard as I can for fear of the damage I might do.  I'm to the point where a mere whim is a blockbuster." There was a depressing pause.  "Up until a few days ago, I've thought it best to keep my secret for fear of what use it might be put to," he continued.  "Now I realize that I haven't any more right to it than a man has a right to own an atomic bomb."
           He fumbled through a heap of papers.  "This says about all that needs to be said, I think." He handed me a draft of a letter to the Secretary of State.
Dear Sir:
I have discovered a new force which costs nothing to use, and which is probably more important than atomic energy.  I should like to see it used most effectively in the cause of peace, and am, therefore, requesting your advice as to how this might best be done.
                                               Yours truly,
                                       A. Barnhouse.

"I have no idea what will happen next," said the professor.
        There followed three months of perpetual nightmare, wherein the nation's political and military great came at all hours to watch the professor's tricks.
         We were quartered in an old mansion near Charlottesville, Virginia, to which we had been whisked five days after the letter was mailed.  Surrounded by barbed wire and twenty guards, we were labeled "Project Wishing Well," and were classified as Top Secret.
         For companionship we had General Honus Barker and the State Department's William K. Cuthrell.  For the professor's talk of peace-through-plenty they had indulgent smiles and much discourse on practical measures and realistic thinking.  So treated, the professor, who had at first been almost meek, progressed in a matter of weeks toward stubbornness.
          He had agreed to reveal the thought train by means of which he aligned his mind into a dynamopsychic transmitter.  But, under Cuthrell's and Barker's nagging to do so, he began to hedge.  At first he declared that the information could be passed on simply by word of mouth.  Later he said that it would have to be written up in a long report.  Finally, at dinner one night, just after General Barker had read the secret orders for Operation Brainstorm, the professor announced, "The report may take as long as five years to write." He looked fiercely at the general.  "Maybe twenty."
           The dismay occasioned by this flat announcement was offset somewhat by the exciting anticipation of Operation Brainstorm.  The general was in a holiday mood.  "The target ships are on their way to the Caroline Islands at this very moment," he declared ecstatically.  "One hundred and twenty of them!  At the same time, ten V-2s are being readied for firing in New Mexico, and fifty radio-controlled jet bombers are being equipped for a mock attack on the Aleutians. Just think of it!"  Happily he reviewed his orders.  "At exactly 1100 hours next Wednesday, I will give you the order to concentrate; and you, professor, will think as hard as you can about sinking the target ships, destroying the V-2s before they hit the ground, and knocking down bombers before they reach the Aleutians!  Think you can handle it?"
           The professor turned gray and closed his eyes.  "As I told you before, my friend, I don't know what I can do." He added bitterly, "As for this Operation Brainstorm, I was never consulted about it, and it strikes me as childish and in insanely expensive.”
      General Barker bridled.  "Sir," he said, "your field is psychology, and I wouldn't presume to give you advice in that field.  Mine is national defense.  I have had thirty years of experience and success, Professor, and I'll ask you not to criticize my judgment."
           The professor appealed to Mr. Cuthrell.  "Look," he pleaded, "isn't it war and military matters we're all trying to get rid of? Wouldn't it be a whole lot more significant and lots cheaper for me to try moving cloud masses into drought areas, and things like that?  I admit I know next to nothing about international politics, but it seems reasonable to suppose that nobody would
want to fight wars if there were enough of everything to go around.  Mr. Cuthrell, I'd like to try running generators where there isn't any coal or water power, irrigating deserts, and so on.  Why, you could figure out what each country needs to make the most of its resources, and I could give it to them without costing American taxpayers a penny."
           "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom," said the general heavily.
           Mr. Cuthrell threw the general a look of mild distaste.  “Unfortunately, the general is right in his own way," he said.  "I wish to heaven the world were ready for ideals like yours, but it simply isn't.  We aren't surrounded by brothers, but by enemies.  It isn't a lack of food or resources that has us on the brink of war—it's a struggle for power.  Who's going to be in charge of the world, our kind of people or theirs?"
           The professor nodded in reluctant agreement and arose from the table. "I beg your pardon, gentlemen. You are, after all, better qualified to judge what is best for the country.  I'll do whatever you say." He turned to me.  "Don't forget to wind the restricted clock and put the confidential cat out," he said gloomily, and ascended the stairs to his bedroom.
           For reasons of national security, Operation Brainstorm was carried on without the knowledge of the American citizenry which was paying the bill.  The observers, technicians, and military men involved in the activity knew that a test was under way—a test of what, they had no idea.  Only thirty-seven key men, myself included, knew what was afoot.
           In Virginia, the day for Operation Brainstorm was unseasonably cool.  Inside, a log fire crackled in the fireplace, and the flames were reflected in the polished metal cabinets that lined the living room.  All that remained of the room's lovely old furniture was a Victorian love seat, set squarely in the center of the floor, facing three television receivers.  One long bench had been brought in for the ten of us privileged to watch.  The television screens showed, from left to right, the stretch of desert which was the rocket target, the guinea-pig fleet, and a section of the Aleutian sky through which the radio-controlled bomber formation would roar.
           Ninety minutes before H-hour the radios announced that the rockets were ready, that the observation ships had backed away to what was thought to be a safe distance, and that the bombers were on their way.  The small Virginia audience lined up on the bench in order of rank, smoked a great deal, and said little.  Professor Barnhouse was in his bedroom.  General Barker bustled about the house like a woman preparing Thanksgiving dinner for twenty.
           At ten minutes before H-hour the general came in, shepherding the professor before him.  The professor was comfortably attired in sneakers, gray flannels, a blue sweater, and a white shirt open at the neck.  The two of them sat side by side on the love seat.  The general was rigid and perspiring; the professor was cheerful.  He looked at each of the screens, lighted a cigarette and settled back.
           "Bombers sighted!" cried the Aleutian observers.
           "Rockets away!" barked the New Mexico radio operator.
           All of us looked quickly at the big electric clock over the mantel, while the professor, a half-smile on his face, continued to watch the television sets.  In hollow tones, the general counted away the seconds remaining.  "Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . Concentrate!"
           Professor Barnhouse closed his eyes, pursed his lips, and stroked his temples. He held the position for a minute. The television images were scrambled, and the radio signals were drowned in the din of Barnhouse static.  The professor sighed, opened his eyes, and smiled confidently.
           "Did you give it everything you had?" asked the general dubiously.
           "I was wide open," the professor replied.
           The television images pulled themselves together, and mingled cries of amazement came over the radios tuned to the observers.  The Aleutian sky was streaked with the smoke trails of bombers screaming down in flames.  Simultaneously, there appeared high over the rocket target a cluster of white puffs, followed by faint thunder.
           General Barker shook his head happily.  "By George!" he crowed.  "Well, sir, by George, by George, by George!"
           "Look!" shouted the admiral seated next to me.  "The fleet-it wasn't touched!"
           "The guns seem to be drooping," said Mr. Cuthrell.
           We left the bench and clustered about the television set to examine the damage more closely.  What Mr. Cuthrell had said was true.  The ships' guns curved downward, their muzzles resting on the steel decks.  We in Virginia were making such a hullabaloo that it was impossible to hear the radio reports.  We were so engrossed, in fact, that we didn't miss the professor until two short snarls of Barnhouse static shocked us into sudden silence.  The radios went dead.
       We looked around apprehensively.  The professor was gone.  A harassed guard threw open the front door from the outside to yell that the professor had escaped.  He brandished his pistol in the direction of the gates, which hung open, limp and twisted.  In the distance, a speeding government station wagon topped a ridge and dropped from sight into the valley beyond.  The air was filled with choking smoke, for every vehicle on the grounds was ablaze.  Pursuit was impossible.
             “What in God's name got into him?" bellowed the general.
        Mr. Cuthrell, who had rushed out onto the front porch, now slouched back into the room, reading a penciled note as he came.  He thrust the note into my hands.  "The good man left this billet-doux under the door knocker.  Perhaps our young friend here will be kind enough to read it to you gentlemen, while I take a restful walk through the woods."
         "Gentlemen," I read aloud, 'as the first superweapon with a conscience, I am removing myself from your national defense stockpile.  Setting a new precedent in the behavior of ordnance, I have humane reasons for going off. A. Barnhouse."
         Since that day, of course, the professor has been systematically destroying the world's armaments, until there is now little with which to equip an army other than rocks and sharp sticks. His activities haven't exactly resulted in peace, but have, rather, precipitated a bloodless and entertaining sort of war that might be called the "War of the Tattletales." Every nation is flooded with enemy agents whose sole mission is to locate military equipment, which is promptly wrecked when it is brought to the professor's attention in the press.
          Just as every day brings news of more armaments pulverized by dynamopsychism, so has it brought rumors of the professor's whereabouts.  During last week alone, three publications carried articles proving variously that he was hiding in an Inca ruin in the Andes, in the sewers of Paris, and in the unexplored lower chambers of Carlsbad Caverns.  Knowing the man, I am inclined to regard such hiding places as unnecessarily romantic and uncomfortable.  While there are numerous persons eager to kill him, there must be millions who would care for him and hide him. I like to think that he is in the home of such a person.
           One thing is certain: at this writing, Professor Barnhouse is not dead.  Barnhouse static jammed broadcasts not ten minutes ago.  In the eighteen months since his disappearance, he has been reported dead some half-dozen times.  Each report has stemmed from the death of an unidentified man resembling the professor, during a period free of the static.  The first three reports were followed at once by renewed talk of rearmament and recourse to war.  The saber-rattlers have learned how imprudent premature celebrations of the professor's demise can be.
           Many a stouthearted patriot has found himself prone in the tangled bunting and timbers of a smashed reviewing stand, seconds after having announced that the arch-tyranny of Barnhouse was at an end.  But those who would make war if they could, in every country in the world, wait in sullen silence for what must come—the passing of Professor Barnhouse.
           To ask how much longer the professor will live is to ask how much longer we must wait for the blessings of another world war.  He is of short-lived stock: his mother lived to be fifty-three, his father to be forty-nine; and the life-spans of his grandparents on both sides were of the same order.  He might be expected to live, then, for perhaps fifteen years more, if he can remain hidden from his enemies.  When one considers the number and vigor of these enemies, however, fifteen years seems an extraordinary length of time, which might better be revised to fifteen days, hours, or minutes.
           The professor knows that he cannot live much longer.  I say this because of the message left in my mailbox on Christmas Eve.  Unsigned, typewritten on a soiled scrap of paper, the note consisted of ten sentences.  The first nine of these, each a bewildering tangle of psychological jargon and references to obscure texts, made no sense to me at first reading.  The tenth, unlike the rest, was simply constructed and contained no large words—but its irrational content made it the most puzzling and bizarre sentence of all.  I nearly threw the note away, thinking it a colleague's warped notion of a practical joke.  For some reason, though, I added it to the clutter on top of my desk, which included, among other mementos, the professor's dice.
           It took me several weeks to realize that the message really meant something, that the first nine sentences, when unsnarled, could be taken as instructions.  The tenth still told me nothing. It was only last night that I discovered how it fitted in with the rest.  The sentence appeared in my thoughts last night, while I was toying absently with the professor's dice.
           I promised to have this report on its way to the publishers today.  In view of what has happened, I am obliged to break that promise, or release the report incomplete.  The delay will not be a long one, for one of the few blessings accorded a bachelor like myself is the ability to move quickly from one abode to another, or from one way of life to another.  What property I want to take with me can be packed in a few hours.  Fortunately, I am not without substantial private means, which may take as long as a week to realize in liquid and anonymous form.  When this is done, I shall mail the report.
           I have just returned from a visit to my doctor, who tells me my health is excellent.  I am young, and, with any luck at all, I shall live to a ripe old age indeed, for my family on both sides is noted for longevity.
           Briefly, I propose to vanish.
           Sooner or later, Professor Barnhouse must die.  But long before then I shall be ready.  So, to the saber-rattlers of today and even, I hope, of tomorrow—I say: Be advised.  Barnhouse will die.  But not the Barnhouse Effect.
            Last night, I tried once more to follow the oblique instructions on the scrap of paper.  I took the professor's dice, and then, with the last, nightmarish sentence flitting through my mind, I rolled fifty consecutive sevens.

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