Science follows from furry mysteries
Greg Gbur's new book from Yale University Press, "Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics," takes on a strange topic for a physicist—the mysteries of the cat.
Or maybe it's not so strange. Gbur, professor of Physics and Optical Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and longtime popular science blogger ("Skulls in the Stars"), notes that cats have long-fascinated their human owners (or human slaves, depending on your point-of-view) with one of their more notable superpowers—their ability to flip in midair in less than a second to land on their feet. It's a phenomenon that seems to violate the basic principles of physics, and even today, after hundreds of years of examination by very smart people, is imperfectly understood by many.
In the book, Gbur shows that the phenomenon known as "cat flipping," has attracted people to attempt to explain how it is possible... and has led to a broad swath of scientific inquiry, theory, learning and technological development in the process. The book explores what is essentially the main course of the history of physical science and shows the reader how some humans' cat-like curiosity over hard-to-explain things in the world have taught us how to think scientifically. It also shows how current explanations of the physical world can both limit how we see the world, and challenge us to find new explanations that allow us to see it better.
There is a lot to the book, so we had a few questions:
Q: Why cats? Why science and cats? Is there a story here we should know about?
Gbur: My interest in the intersection of science and cats came from writing blog posts. I've had a long-standing interest in the history of science, and a few years ago I came across an 1894 photographic study of a falling cat, the first of its kind. I wrote about it at the time, and followed up by doing a bit more research on the physics of falling cats. The more I looked, the more papers I found on the subject! I can now say that falling cats have been studied, on and off, for some 300 years, and counting. The great thing about the science of falling cats is that it touches on a number of very diverse fields of study—not only physics, but neuroscience, robotics, photography, and even space travel.
Q: We all are told that cats "always land on their feet" and it seems like there should be a simple explanation for how that happens, right? Or do cats have secret powers?
Gbur: There are several mechanisms that cats can and do use to flip over and land on their feet. The most important one, in my opinion, is called "bend and twist," in which a cat bends at the waist and counter-rotates the upper and lower halves of its body. But nature, in the form of evolution, doesn't look for the simplest solution, it looks for the best solution, so any simple explanation of cat-turning will leave out important details.
Q: OK, "Cat flipping" is obviously not a simple physics problem, since it takes you a full book to discuss it. People struggled to adequately explain it... What took them so long? What makes this so hard to understand?
Gbur: My explanation of why it has taken so long for physics to agree on the explanation for "cat flipping" is that we, as scientists and humans, like to find simple explanations for puzzles... and sometimes, like the cat, a simple explanation is inadequate. The photographs, which one would think would give a definitive answer, instead act like a Rorschach test of sorts: each scientist sees in the photos what he wants to see.
Q: There are still a lot of competing theories about "cat flipping." Isn't one scientific explanation necessarily better than another? Why do scientists fight?
Gbur: Usually, scientists fight because they are passionate about a subject and are convinced that the evidence supports their explanation. If the subject is still not well-understood, then each scientist is basically putting their strongest argument forward as to why they think they're correct. Sometimes, though, there are personal and political conflicts that make scientists fight, too. I discuss one of these conflicts in the book, from the 1890s, when two Italian mathematicians got in a very heated argument about cat flipping.
Q: You take flipping cats from perceptual illusions, stop motion vision analysis and basic mechanics to particle wave physics, quantum weirdness and mind-bending math ("geometric phase"?). I am left somewhat confused and questioning reality. Or is the science all this leads to the head-exploding kind?
Gbur: Ha! Well, it turns out that the cat-flipping problem is a particular example of a physical phenomenon known as anholonomy (which I explain in the book), which can be connected to the wobbling of the Earth, the behavior of light, and the motion of quantum particles. The cat-flipping problem is one of the earliest examples of this anholonomy. So, by understanding how a cat can do what it does, we are simultaneously learning some profound secrets about how a lot of physics works.
Q: Shakespeare's Hamlet says "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Is he right? Is cat flipping something you think science can really fully explain in the end?
Gbur: I believe the important details about cat flipping are already "fully" explained, as we can really say that there are four moves that a cat can use to help flip over. But every cat is different, and every cat may use a slightly different combination of those four moves to turn itself over. So maybe we need to revise and say that "There are more cats in heaven and earth?"
Q: After reading this book, I still feel like cats are mysterious. I catch them staring at me, or staring just past me... sometimes, it's a little unnerving. Are cats magical?
Gbur: As a long-time cat parent, I'm constantly surprised at all the things that my cats figure out! They have more intelligence than a lot of people realize. On the other hand, their curiosity often gets them into trouble, which is why they need a cat flipping reflex to begin with! I often say that "cats are smarter than we think, but less smart than they think."
Q: I know you love cats. Has looking at them through the lens of all this science done anything to change that?
Gbur: I still love cats just as much as I ever have! I have come to appreciate, though, how wonderfully they are constructed, in both body and mind. They really are magnificent creatures. Hopefully the book conveys some of that magnificence.