Video: Deducing the Physics of How Cats Fall

By Alexis C. Madrigal
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.

catfalling.jpg

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/09/video-deducing-the-physics-of-how-cats-fall/244842/