Video: Deducing the Physics of How Cats Fall

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You know when a cat falls, it always lands on its feet. Thomas Kane was the kind of scientist who saw a cat fall and wanted to deduce the biophysics of the trick. In a series of experiments, he dropped cats and photographed them at high-speed, then broke their movements down into mathematics. Then, he had a trampolinist (in a spacesuit!) perform similar motions to imitate the feline. The images of the cat appeared in LIFE Magazine and the International Journal of Solids and Structures. In the latter, Kane's model of the phenomenon is superimposed on Ralph Crane's photographs. 

When I saw these images (thanks to Lapham Quarterly's Michelle Legro), I immediately begged our video editor Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg to turn them into a video. That's what you see above. Her rendition is beautiful and haunting.

Two things to say here. First, OMG this is so awesome! Second, Kane's work was part of a major movement in science to understand biological beings in the new context of space. New types of scientists began to think about biology and they brought new methods and ways of thinking. The key thought was: organisms are like machines, so we can test them like machines to deduce their capabilities and breaking points. 

As author Stephanie Nolen put it, "[scientists] tried to shake the men's bones with blasts of sound, sat them under pulsing strobe lights, induced vertigo, plunged them from light to dark and counted how long it took to focus their eyes again." They did similar things (and worse) with other animals, so that we might know what happened when humans left the confines of the Earth.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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