In Vonnegut's novel, Hoenikker invents ice-nine, a substance that turns out to be a superweapon. The book is clearly based on the idea of nuclear proliferation. The scientist is also based on one particular person.
While working in a chemistry lab, Vonnegut came into contact with Doctor Irving Langmuir. Langmuir didn't leave behind a destructive legacy — unless you count the damage done to the ego of anyone who reads about him. He won scores of awards, including a Nobel Prize, chaired multiple national science committees, and was such an accomplished mountain climber that he has a mountain in Alaska named after him.
He even worked with a concept that, at the time, could be mistaken for ice-nine. During World War II, Langmuir tried to create an artificial fog to screen ships from enemy attack. He also made advances in de-icing airplanes. He took his knowledge of weather technology and, in 1946, became the first person to make artificial snow. He'd used dry ice to make artificial snow in a sealed chamber, but on November 13th, he went full scale. An aircraft dropped dry ice into the clouds over Massachusetts. The seeds of dry ice caused droplets to coalesce into ice crystals and, sure enough, snow started falling.
Langmuir created a kind of ice crystal that replicated itself. Unlike ice-nine, this ice melted long before the snow actually touched the ground. It just sparked an ongoing attempt to seed the clouds and control the weather patterns. There was no need for worldwide panic.
For panic, we still have nuclear weapons. And literature.