Cat physics - and we are not making this up
Even if a cat is dropped, it must obey the laws of physics. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters
Cats may skulk, and cats may fall - but no matter what they do, cats must obey the laws of physics. Scientists have tried repeatedly to figure out how they manage to do it.
At the extreme, physicists analysed what happens to a dropped cat. That's a cat in free-fall, a cat hurtling earthwards with nothing but kitty cunning to keep it from crashing.
In 1969, TR Kane and MP Scher of
"It is well known that falling cats usually land on their feet and, moreover, that they can manage to do so even if released from complete rest while upside-down … numerous attempts have been made to discover a relatively simple mechanical system whose motion, when proceeding in accordance with the laws of dynamics, possesses the salient features of the motion of the falling cat. The present paper constitutes such an attempt."
And what an attempt it is!
Kane and Scher neither lifted nor dropped a single cat. Instead, they created a mathematical abstraction of a cat: two imaginary cylinder-like chunks, joined at a single point so the parts could (as with a feline spine) bend, but not twist. When they used a computer to plot the theoretical bendings of this theoretical falling chunky-cat, the motions resembled what they saw in old photographs of an actual falling cat. They conclude that their theory "explains the phenomenon under consideration".
In 1993, a professor at the
But cats rarely fall from the sky. More commonly, they skulk. And skulking cats are just as provocative, to a physics-minded scientist, as plummeting cats.
In 2008, Kristin Bishop of the
They studied six cats, three of which "were partially shaved and marked with contrasting, non-toxic paint to aid in kinematic analysis". They discovered "a previously unrecognised mechanical relationship" between "crouched postures", "changes in footfall pattern", and the amount of energy needed to produce those crouched-posture footfall patterns.
Cats that intend to skulk, in Bishop, Pai and Schmitt's view, are hemmed in by the laws of the physical universe. They must make "a tradeoff between stealthy walking", which uses a lot of energy, and plain old, energy-efficient cat-walking.
• Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize
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