Animal minds Biomimicry Just For Fun

Cats played a unique role in the space program

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Greg Hume (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Back in the 1960s, space scientists needed to know if it is true that a cat always lands on its feet:

NASA contributed funding to the paper “A Dynamical Explanation of the Falling Cat Phenomenon,” published in the International Journal of Solids and Structures, by Stanford’s T.R. Kane and M.P. Scher.

What was so significant about the paper was that it demonstrated that cats are physically capable of rotating their body in mid-air to right themselves when falling. A cat employs specific motor functions in order to achieve this self-righting mechanism, and the paper analyzed these functions as equations that could then be applied to humans.

While this function isn’t very useful to humans on earth, it’s critically important in space, as astronauts seeks to right their bodies traveling through zero gravity. Wolfgang Wild, “How flying cats got us to the moon. Really.” at Considerable

Apparently, this story is true, despite the fact that three cats are sitting here making me (O’Leary for News) write it:

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 University of California, Santa Cruz, applied some heavier-duty mathematics and physics tools to the same question. Richard Montgomery’s study, called Gauge Theory of the Falling Cat, leaps and bends across 26 pages of a mathematics journal. Then it mutters that “the original solutions of Kane and Scher [are] both the optimal and the simplest solutions”. Marc Abrahams, “Cat physics – and we are not making this up” at The Guardian

Here’s the paper.

Hat tip: Blazing Cat Fur

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10 November 2018

I (O’Leary for News 😉 ) was also ordered by the three cats to link to this story:

Researchers: We tend to overestimate dog intelligence

and this one

Extinction: Cats face rap for killing off dogs (Untrue, I am told, but dogs should be careful anyway … )

5 Replies to “Cats played a unique role in the space program

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    Cats do twist. Head end twists first to point downward, followed by tail end.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtWbpyjJqrU

  2. 2
    Fasteddious says:

    I thought the “dropped cat landing on its feet” phenomenon was demonstrated long ago. I seem to recall reading about it in Scientific American many decades past. The tests were done with stroboscopic imaging to see how the cats twisted in mid air. And yes, actual felines were actually dropped upside down, although none were hurt as they all landed on their feet. Much easier and more realistic than making a mathematical model!

  3. 3
    john_a_designer says:

    Thanks Denys,

    I’ve been looking for some research like this. I have almost completed writing a novel which has short scene where NASA scientists have been able to adapt kittens to weightlessness

    In part one of my novel a magazine/ezine reporter named Wendy is one of a dozen journalist’s who has been invited up to a large (max. occupancy 100+) space hotel and resort, which is scheduled to open in a couple of months as part of the projects publicity campaign. She has been tasked by her boss to get an exclusive interview with one of the key entrepreneurs involved in the space tourism project. That’s something she finds out is easier said than done. Here is the “space kitten” scene:

    About 10:45 AM Wendy headed out for an interview that had been scheduled with Gilmores at the Olympia restaurant. The interview wasn’t scheduled till 11:30 but it was always good to show up early. Sometimes you could pick up a lot of news and pertinent information in the pre interview conversations with the principles and sometimes even from other reporters. And who knows maybe she would run into Joe so she could ask a few more questions so she could continue to stitch together her “non-exclusive exclusive” interview– well, probably not.

    However, on the way to the main centrifuge she had a run-in with the “space kittens.” The space kittens were kittens who had been born and raised on the space station and had been intentionally adapted to zero-g, though they still spent most of the time in the centrifuge’s 1/3 g animal lab with their mother and other cats. But every day or so they got some zero-g play time in the central corridor. That’s where Wendy met them and their NASA handlers who were tossing cat toys in the air which the kittens, who were now six month old juveniles, would leap into the air and try to catch. They would then either be caught by one of their other handlers or end up on the corridor wall. As it turned out they were excellent wall runners and had learned how to use the cylindrical walls and their handlers to move quite adeptly around in a weightless environment, just like humans had.

    Wendy took out her cell phone and took pictures and video of the kittens. It looked like they were having fun. It certainly was fun watching them. Suddenly one of the kittens startled her by jumping from behind onto her shoulder. But then it started purring in her ear.

    “That’s Tymphony,” said one of the mission specialists. “She’s the friendliest one of the litter.”

    “Have you tried bringing any of the adult cats up here?” Wendy asked.

    “Yes, but they all freak out,” the animal lab specialist replied. “We started bringing the kittens up here when they were very young.”

    “Before they knew better?”

    “Maybe, but who knows what goes on inside a cat’s mind…”

    While, she was making her way down to the restaurant Wendy got a text message from her boss. (The station’s wireless ‘intranet’ was connected by satellite to the world’s cell phone network.)

    “Have you gotten the interview?”

    “Working on it,” she messaged back, “Joe’s a very busy man.”

    “Get it done!” came the cryptic reply.

    “On it!!!” Wendy replied. ‘Yeah, right,’ she thought to herself. Obviously her idea of a non-exclusive exclusive interview was a hopeless rationalization. The truth was if she didn’t get an actual interview with Joe she would be out of a job, plain and simple. But she couldn’t give up either, at least not yet, at least not without trying. But what to do… what to do?

    My hypothesis, which someday someone may actually be able to actually test, is that young kittens would be able to adapt to weightlessness and adult cats couldn’t. It appears from the NASA video that there might be some truth to the second part of the hypothesis. Though the cats don’t actually appear to be freaking out as much as just becoming very confused and disoriented. As we humans know that in zero g there is no up or down. So which way does a cat turn to land on its feet?

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    It’s nto clear why cats wanted humans to begin to explore space, but then, their motives have always been somewhat inscrutable.

    Do humans exist just to further the genes of cats?

  5. 5
    Ed George says:

    Mung

    Do humans exist just to further the genes of cats?

    Finally, we now know the ultimate purpose and meaning of human life. The discussion on those other threads can stop now. 🙂

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