Have you ever gotten a static shock when petting a cat? Their remarkable ability to store electric charge
made them one of the most valuable research tools of early electric-physicists . As long ago as the 1600’s,
English physicist William Blanpied wrote, “An amber rod rubbed vigorously with a piece of animal fur
accelerates small objects such as pieces of paper or pith balls toward it.”
“If only amber could be charged, the effect could be discussed as a curious property of amber alone,” Prof.
Blanpied wrote. “But many other substances exhibit an analogous behavior. Rubber, for instance, also
becomes charged if rubbed with cat fur.”
Erwin Schrodinger was one of the pioneering quantum physicists of the 20th century. Schrodinger was puzzled by some scientists’ explanations of how an atom could somehow be in two distinct states, “superposed” at the same time, until forced to make up its mind when observed by a scientist. In order to illustrate the absurdity of the theory, Schrodinger proposed this thought-experiment. (Paraphrasing): “Put a cat in a box, with an atom that either will decay or will not decay. If the atom decays, it triggers a flask of poison that kills the cat. But before we open the box, we don’t know if the cat is alive or dead! Are you to say that the cat is both living and dead, in superposed states, until we open the box?” Here’s a cute interactive Schrodinger’s cat experiment.
Mice are by far the most commonly used animals for scientific research. Not only are they inexpensive and quick / easy to reproduce, but mice share remarkable genetic similarities to humans. The length of the human and mouse genomes are virtually identical, and in fact our two species have a 99% genetic overlap. Laboratory mice have helped make amazing breakthroughs in studies of cancer, obesity, immunology, drug abuse, the psychology of learning, and the growth of stem cells. Mice have become the most genetically engineered of all creatures. (Please note: Christine O’Donnell’s claim that scientists have bred mice with “fully functioning human brains” is, sadly, completely false!!) In 2009, scientists levitated lab mice with powerful magnets, to help study the effect of weightlessness on astronauts.
Cats have unique physiological properties that provide us with lessons in biology, neurology, physics, and engineering! For example, cats are famous for their ability to survive falls and “always land on their feet.” A cat is able to land on its feet because it has an incredible sense of balance, as well as a very flexible skeleto-muscular structure (for instance, 30 vertebrae and a free-floating collar bone). A cat controls the rate of spin in various parts of its body by extending or shortening its limbs, which shows expertise in the principles of angular momentum and moment of inertia! I have confirmed this cat-talent experimentally, and it happens very quickly. I dropped Tigerius (onto my soft, cushy bed, of course) from an upside-down position, and he was able to land on his feet even when dropped from a height of only about 18 inches!
Students at the Physics Department at Drury University have developed a robot that uses motions and contortions of its body to orient itself in zero gravity. According to the project site, ‘If you’ve ever seen a cat land on its feet after falling while upside down then you’ve seen the idea behind our project.’ The effort is a proposal for the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program.
Furthermore, since a cat has a high area-to-mass ratio and can fan out like a flying squirrel to create high air resistance, its “terminal velocity,” or fastest speed achieved in free-fall, is often low enough to be non-fatal, even when falling from a great height! Of course, cats can (and often are) injured in falls, so don’t encourage your feline friends to walk the balcony rails!
A cat’s purr is another example of its unique physical and mental assets. A cat’s laryngeal muscles create a separation between the vocal chords, which produces the purr during inhaling as well as exhaling. Studies have shown that the movement of the laryngeal muscles is controlled by a unique “neural oscillator” in the cat’s brain.
Mice and Human Migration
The house mouse (as opposed to the field mouse) flourishes in dense human populations. They love our stored food, our trash, and more recently, our crops. Scientists have taken advantage of the commensal human / mouse relationship, using mouse fossils and genetics as clues about prehistoric human migration patterns! For example, 900,000 year old mouse fossils in Northern India demonstrate that human ancestors such as Homo erectus lived there at the time. More recently, DNA samples were taken from mice throughout the UK. Some were very similar to German mice, and others to Norwegian mice. This can be used to show which parts of the UK were reached from the continent, and which parts were settled by Vikings!
Mrs. Chippy and the Exploration of Antarctica
Mrs. Chippy is one of the most famous cats in the history of science and exploration. Curiously enough, “Mrs.” Chippy actually turned out to be a “Mr.” Chippy upon closer examination, but the name stuck. Mrs. Chippy was the only non-human stowaway on Ernest Shackleton’s famous voyage to the Antarctic. The crew got trapped in Antarctic seas and ice for over a year. Mrs. Chippy was invaluable in providing companionship and keeping the ship rat-free. His diary was later published by Caroline Alexander as “Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition” In this excerpt, you can read Mrs. Chippy’s own words about the insights that he had beyond the human scientists on the expedition:
Aug. 16: Busy on deck this morning, helping Clark and Wordie draw in their scientific nests. Greenstreet stopped by to watch me work and seemed very intrigued by my activities: He is not a scientist and so much of what we were doing was quite new to him. The nets are empty but they have very interesting scents which bear a thorough investigation and also a very nice knotty texture which makes them a pleasure to handle. “What have you found, Chippy?” he asked. He pulled on the net, making it twitch and ripple in a most interesting and provocative way. I followed it ashort distance and then snatched it, pulling it back in place while he continued to hold the other end. “Come on then, Chippy,” he said to me.
I had finished my investigation and so accompanied him under his arm. Later, when we were all gathering for tea in the Ritz, I was amused to hear Clark talking very excitedly about what he’d found in his nets, when I knew they’d come up empty except for some fishy-smelling yellow slime. And now here he was making a fuss about this and how it didn’t appear in winter and only when there was sun and so on and so forth. I would never say as much, because I don’t wish to cause any trouble, but it is clear that Clark failed to find fish or real specimens of any kind and so is pretending that the slime is a “discovery.” I’m afraid I share McLeod’s opinion that much of this so-called science is rather bogus. We have been here nearly an entire ear, and I am still exactly the same as when I came, as are all my shipmates. So much for Mr. Darwin’s theory that we’d all “evolve” into penguins and seals if we were to live for a long period of time on the ice
(Mrs. Chippy and the human stowaway on
Shackleton’s Antarctic adventure)
The Computer Mouse
How could we function in the 21st century without computer mouse technology? The “mouse” was invented by Douglas Engelbart of Stanford Research Laboratory in the 1960s, and patented in 1970 under the name “X-Y position indicator for a display system.” Originally a blocky wooden structure with large metal wheels, it didn’t become greatly popular until it was streamlined into its modern form in the 1980s. “It was nicknamed the ‘mouse’ because the tail came out the end,” Engelbart recalls.
Finally, let us not forget the revolutionary importance of the CAT-Scan, the amazing medical scanning device that allows for detailed imagery inside the body without surgery. We may never know the true identity of the cat whose name is honored by this important device, but he will be remembered well beyond his nine lives.
So you see … cats and mice have contributed enormously to the development of science!
Adams, Cecil: http://www.phobe.com/s_cat/s_cat.html
Frishberg, Manny, http://scientificsonline.com/article.asp?ai=43&bhcd2=1142411306
Harris, Tom, http://www.howstuffworks.com/cat-scan.htm
Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/catspurr.html
PhysLink.com – Physics and Astronomy Online Education and Reference, http://www.physlink.com
Roberts, Patrick, http://www.purr-n-fur.org.uk/famous/chippy.html
Slashdot, News for Nerds, http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/07/14/1620252