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Thursday, 3 January 2013

The buttered cat, revisited

It is a little-known fact that I used to be a research physicist.  What I have never before admitted was that I gave it up after watching action-thriller movies which proved beyond doubt that the laws of physics often fail to hold.

Now I am sort-of retired, I have decided to clean up and clear away some of the intellectual detritus that lies in my bottom drawer, like my proof that the world only looks round because of the shape of the lenses used to photograph it.  I will get to that one later: I have noticed a recent upsurge in the matter of the buttered cat, and thought it time to share my data.

Background: The question goes like this:

1. When you drop a buttered piece of bread, it drops butter side down; and

2. A cat always lands on its feet.

So what would happen if you took a piece of buttered bread, strapped it on the back of a cat (butter side up) and dropped it off the a high tower?


Theory, as often found on the Internet:

Even if you are too lazy to do the experiment yourself you should be able to deduce the obvious result. The laws of butterology demand that the butter must hit the ground, and the equally strict laws of feline aerodynamics demand that the cat cannot smash its furry back.

If the combined construct were to land, nature would have no way to resolve this paradox. Therefore it simply does not fall. That's right you clever mortal (well, as clever as you mortals can get), you have discovered the secret of antigravity!

In short, a buttered cat will, when released, quickly move to a height where the forces of cat-twisting and butter repulsion are in equilibrium. This equilibrium point can be modified by scraping off some of the butter, providing lift, or removing some of the cat's limbs, allowing descent.

Most of the civilized species of the Universe already use this principle to drive their ships while within a planetary system. The loud humming heard by most sighters of UFOs is, in fact, the purring of several hundred tabbies.

The one obvious danger is, of course, if the cats manage to eat the bread off their backs they will instantly plummet. Of course the cats will land on their feet, but this usually doesn't do them much good, since right after they make their graceful landing several tons of red-hot starship and angry aliens crash on top of them.

As a committed scientist, I investigated it, and reported back. I have never published all of my data, so here is the truth about this conundrum, for the very first time.

TOP SECRET, now declassified

We immediately flew into action, planning to levitate cats, but stopped, realising that we had to do the experiments first, or our flights would be invalid. We paused to ponder the available variables. The only proper way to investigate this is to experiment with the variables: cat, butter and dropping. Bread, we realised, was only an intermediary, a substrate of negligible importance.

A cat is a furry mammal with claws. We can use non-furry mammals like chihuahuas, non-furry non-mammals with claws like eagles, and furry clawless mammals. This led us to select a really unlucky rabbit (it had just lost all four of its feet in a poker game). It was allergic to butter, swelled up enormously, and floated away on the breeze.

Butter is organic and oily, so one of my colleagues proposed holding the cat constant and replacing the butter with other carbon-based fluids. Unfortunately, we used ethanol which produced a very high cat, which looked promising, but the cat just sat there, smiled, and then dissolved, explaining the Cheshire Cat effect.

High-octane Avgas looked promising, but an over-excited researcher rubbed the cat with amber, producing a spark. This produced the first recorded occasion on which a cat went "woof". The cat was no longer constant in a number of apparently vital aspects.

Fish oil caused the next cat to chase itself so fast that it overheated, due to air friction, causing a convection effect which took it up into the atmosphere in a highly uncontrolled manner, destroying a small UFO from Sirius. At least, we think it was, as the Air Force people we talked to kept saying something about "Gotta be Sirius".

About this point, we considered dogs, since Sirius is the Dog Star, and the Dogon people of North Africa knew about Sirius being a double star. While we realised that people might be cynical about this, we were all too aware of the connection between the cynics and dogs (the word "cynic" actually means "dog-like"!!). Remember that Socrates was always in the doghouse with Xanthippe, the first landings in America were at Labrador, and one of the greatest saints in the Christian calendar is St Bernard. Taken with the fact that intellectual Scots are called canny (a clear parallel with canine), the way was clear.

Unfortunately, the research was in fact unnecessary, as we discovered with a quick literature search, always an important part of the scientific armoury. Older readers may remember Laika, the dog in the Sputnik: recent research in the freed archives of the Kremlin reveals that all of the early satellites were in fact powered by buttered dogs, and it was only an unfortunate breach in security that revealed one instance, that of Laika, levitating around the earth in a butter barrel.

On instructions, we closed down this aspect of the investigation, and turned back to the cats again. Sadly, I have to report no practical advances in this area, as we were unable to find any suitable semantic alternative to dropping, and so we devoted our efforts to producing a calibrated cat-dropper.

As this proved physically dangerous, we switched our efforts to producing a taxonomy of cat-dropper variables, so that future workers should immediately be able to identify any cat-dropper to type.

In view of the overwhelming importance of this advance in human knowledge, we would welcome donations of funds in any hard PacRim currency, to assist in this project. We hope then to turn to developing a classification of butter types by salinity, oiliness, particle size and colour, and to a full-scale taxonomy of cats.

Meanwhile, if anybody sees any worried-looking lightly buttered cats flying in city streets, please tell them that the reference to "rightly battered cats frying" was, in fact, an unfortunate typo by a Japanese temp, and that they would be completely safe to come back. Oh yes, and say that we've removed those graffiti in the lab, the ones that read:
"The habitat of our tabby-cat
Is a fireside warm and bright:
If pussy dear should get too near,
We'll put her out tonight."
Even though there really WAS no felico-incendiary allusion intended. . . One final brief etymological and entomological note. Buttered flying cats must surely makeus think of the order Lepidoptera, otherwise the world's moths and butterflies. Why are they so called? Well, the answer is simple: they metamorphose from caterpillars, and I need hardly point out the significance of THAT.

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