Cat's Landing: A Purrfect Science

in stemng •  4 months ago

The dogs may be man's best friend, but the cat, on the other hand, is happy to be cool. Afterall, it has a lot in its arsenal to be that way. First, you may have heard about the proverbial nine lives of the cat. A mythical number of lives which was something people say due to its incredible agility and quick reflexes to jump out of harm's way. Without letting the cat out of the bag (pun intended), we may we may partly blame the English proverb- "A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays", for lending credence to the myth of nine lives of a cat, a cat only has a life.

Image credits: Pxhere Commons]

The oldest living cat, Creme Puff died at a ripe old age of 38 years plus 3 days (August 3, 1967, to August 6, 2005) and made into the hall of fame of the Guinness World Records. Sadly, cats are like us and have only one life to live. But we should not to be too sad for the cat, it is a fascinating animal, one which the physicists have taken a liking to it. And no, their liking has nothing to do with a cat's purr or smooth fur. It has to do with its incredible ability to always land on its feet when released from a height irrespective of the orientation of the feet at the moment of such a release.

This is not the first time physicists have something to do with a cat. Remeber the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment? If you don't, I would quickly do a short summary of it. It was a paradox because there's an element of conflict, inconsistency, and of course, contradictory proposition. It was named after the Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrodinger. The thought experiment takes a look on quantum mechanic's superposition which Schrödinger believe is a flawed assertion. The quantum superposition theory states that an object can possibly exist in multiple states until someone checks in on it. Using a simple analogy, Greenrun can be a bot, an alien, or a human, until you met me and found out I am truly a bot. So your checking in to verify just reduces the possibility to a single outcome.

But what has that got to do with a cat? Well, let's us imagine a cat in an enclosed box away from prying eyes. The box was in a room that has a Geiger counter, a device that can detect and measure ionization from radiating substance or environment, and a radioactive material which may or may not decay. If it does, the Geiger counter can measure it and the poisonous fumes released will kill the cat.

If a person closes the door of the room where this box was, the Schrodinger's cat is now both alive and dead, or in a quantum state of superposition. The only way to find out us to interfere via opening the door to check on the cat. The outcome will be either a dead or live cat. The opening of the door is where the paradox sets in, the observation (measurement) has affected the outcome which beforehand was not there.

If you have ever had a cat, you will notice about from being quite agile with quick reflex, that they always tend to land on their feet when they fall from a height. This reflex has some interesting science behind it. It is one that scientists have not only found interesting but also very fascinating in past centuries.

[From the 1894 movie, Falling Cat
Image credits: Wikipedia Commons]

Some notable scientists also caught the bug of the cat-dropping craze. One of them is no other than James Clerk Maxwell popular for Maxwell's equations; an important equation in the electromagnetism and optics.

The Maxwell got in on this cat-throwing fest for the love of science; he wanted to verify that the cat can turn and land on its feet while keeping the concept of conservation of angular momentum.

During his residence in Cambridge he endeavoured to investigate the process by which a cat is enabled invariably to alight on her feet. The mode of conducting the experiments and the impression they left on the mind of the College will appear from the following extract from a letter written to Mrs Maxwell, from Trinity, on January 3d, 1870, when Professor Maxwell was examining for the Mathematical Tripos :
There is a tradition in Trinity that when I was here I discovered a method of throwing a cat so as not to light on its feet, and that I used to throw cats out of windows. I had to explain that the proper object of research was to find how quick the cat would turn round, and that the proper method was to let the cat drop on a table or bed from about two inches, and that even then the cat lights on her feet. Archive Text of The life of James Clerk Maxwell : with a selection from his correspondence and occasional writings and a sketch of his contributions to science*

If we closely examine the process, we will come up with three stages of how the cat accomplishes the feat of always nailing the landing on feet.

[image credits: Wikipedia Commons]

First, due to the flexibility of the cat's muscle, it curls up (folds). At the point, the angular momentum is at zero as the body of the cat is moving in opposite directions during the folding process.

As it moves on to the next stage, each of the now folded body moves in opposing direction. Again, there is zero angular momentum- the two halves rotation was in the opposing direction.

Finally, we got to when the cat almost hits the floor, it unfolds its body landing on the four feet. Due to the same reason encountered on the first stage, the angular moment is also zero here. This is an extremely simplified version of the process which paints the picture of the process.

The "cat dynamics" of body rotation "cancel out" any angular momentum of movement ensuring it is at zero.

The studies of how cat land may not just be something a bored physicist who needs something to spice up his evening came up with. It has some real-life applications. The process has application in satellites via attitude control when a space vehicle's sensors help in orientation and avoidance of obstacles and redirection of an antenna for optimum communication with the Earth station.

Also, the study was put to use in astronauts training to develop a safer free fall. A $60,000 research grant was given to Thomas R. Kane a Professor emeritus of applied mechanics of the Stanford University in the 1960s by NASA to help develop a cat-like manoeuver falls for astronauts.

No cat was harmed during the making of this post :)

Thank you for reading.


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Amazing application of this cat dynamics in satellites to avoid obstacles.
But I'd ask, the first and last stage of cat landing requires flexibility, doesn't it affect the space vehicles, since they are rigid? I'm simply asking for more elaboration on relationship between the "flexibility in landing" and the "dodging of obstacles"

And Greenrun, the superposition theory doesn't apply to you, you're a human :) !!


Science mostly copies some part of nature as it may be impossible to replicate all. I think they may just need to copy some part of the amazing reorientation, not all.

Emmmm... how sure are you on me being human? :)


What are you then if not being human?

Hello boss, have you heard of the byteball airdrop? You can read my last post for info and win some free cash. It is general for all Steemians too. I got $20 for free, yours should be higher.


Yes, I've heard of it. Thank you.

Hi @greenrun

What an exposition. I really enjoyed this article and wondered how you came up with such an amazing title. The concept of cats landing on its feet having scientific connotation is totally new to me.

Thanks for sharing.

STEM contributor


Thank you. I have always wondered this was so.

... Greenrun can be a bot, an alien, or a human, until you met me and found out I am truly a bot.

Apt analogy!

Well I still don't know why Simba didn't land in his feet when Scar let him go (yes he didn't push him). Them satellites must also be made of flexible metal or numerous joints, if the engineers are using the studies of a landing cat, based on the knowledge shared.

Oh, and a cat has nine lives, just that curiosity kills it EVERY TIME.

Thanks for sharing the knowledge.


I have always suspected that curiosity have a hand in it somehow. Thanks for clearing this doubt :)

Come on man 38 years.
Is that even possible.
I have heard that a cats life span is only up to 12 years


It was in the Guinness Book of Records, the records only contain things deemed "not usual".

Hello @greenrun

It is interesting to know there is scientific explanation to the way cats lands on their feet, and twist their bodies in the process of such occurrences. And the fact that it has real life applications goes to show the depth of this research and amount of effort you must have put in in the process of creating this informative post. This is highly appreciated.

@eurogee of @euronation and @steemstem communities

Very nice one

Quite an interesting post. I actually used to think cats landing on their feet irrespective of how they are tossed had to do with their centre of gravity.

Before physics was something to learn there is an Igbo (Nigerian) proverb that says "the cats back never touches the group" fondly used to attest some wrestlers. Maybe the Igbos studied this too😆


The ancestors might be physicists :)

Hi @greenrun!

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It is so adorable how science and technology would often mimic nature in the designing of stuffs. Who would have thought about the application of cat mechanics in; even; astronomy? This is so awesome.

Now, the "graceful" falling and manoeuvring of cats have found applications.

PS: Is it ever possible for cats to fall with its back? :D

Nice piece buddy

If I say I am not waoooed reading this, I would probably be the greatest liar on planet to ever exist.

The best example that rings a bell now is the design of an airplane, technology incorporated the mechanism behind the flight of birds.
Quite the ingenuity of man. Reading this added more to my bank of knowledge.
This is really fascinating

This is really lovely

That's an epic blog you have written today have to say that its a purrfect one ;)

Swift, stealthy, agile, and smart. Cats have them all. Extending attention to the other cats in the cat family, one can only be awestruck by their ability to maneuver.

What if the cats really have nine lives?

That is quite sophisticated. Much, I don't know, (mechanics?) fit in a single action to save itself from suffering the consequences of falling on its back. I realised, apart from its tendency to land on its feet, cats also have paws which are quite soft. So I figure that too contribute to its survival?

i definitely enjoyed reading this article, the topic caught my attention and no regrets stopping by. i had read articles on the cats unique landing ability in the past, really, its awe-inspiring.
i read an article about a cat that jumped from a height of about 500 feet and did not die, to think of it, the probability of a human surviving that is almost close to zero (cos, damn, thats about 32 floors high). I learnt this was owing to the fact that while descending, the cats is able to spread its legs out horizontally and relax its muscles, descending in a parachute fashion, also, its ability to land on all fours can as well be attributed to a gyroscopic reflex, just as you have clearly explained with the logic of angular momentum.
Gradually, my long lost love with physics is being rekindled.

Super interesting! The animal with nine lives...oops, one live. I started loving cats only recently and I've always known that they have fascinating lifestyles. It's good science can explain one of them this much.