Caturday felid: how do falling cats right themselves?

Here’s a cat video with intellectual meat. Applying both slow-motion video and the principles of physics, a cat-loving scientist demonstrates how a falling cat rights itself.   The solution involves angular momentum in a manner similar to that used by ice-skaters in their final spin.  None of this, of course, is consciously decided by the cat: the motions have been worked out by natural selection programming the cat’s neurology.

The high speed camera used was a Phantom Miro M320S. Rent one yourself by clicking here: http://bit.ly/ON8gMg Tell them GiGi the cat sent you

h/t: Michael

26 Comments

  1. teacupoftheapocalypse
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    If you taped a slice of buttered toast to the back of the cat before it was dropped (dry side to the cat, wouldn’t want to get a buttery cat), would you end up with a perpetual motion device?:)

    • darrelle
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

      No. Once the cat expends all of its available curiosity, which is what gets it into all those precarious situations, the system will begin to lose energy.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Step 1: Curiosity Thrilled the Cat. [HT Science punners vs NASA]

        Step 2: Curiosity Killed the Cat. [Ibid]

        • darrelle
          Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          Nice!

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      No. You would get an angry cat, and an opportunity to experience the medical care system of the country wherein the experiment occurred.

  2. Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Just noticed upon second viewing that the copyright frame [the last frame] references Psalm 111:2

    Great are the works of the Lord;
    they are pondered by all who delight in them

  3. Reg
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Just wondering if you noticed the plug for Psalm 111:2 in the closing credits. Interesting content nonetheless, even if the motivation is incorrect.

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      Yes, I find those kinds of Christians funny; they fully accept science and do not cherry pick but the whole endeavour is basically worship. It is a neat trick to court cognitive dissonance I suspect.

  4. Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    After watching Olympic divers deal with “right side up” and perfect entry, I wonder if humans have the same ability as cats.

  5. fullyladenswallow
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Always thought the tail rotation was the key, but I was mistaken.

    This also reminds me of the physics of dog shaking:

    I’ve not seen cats display this type of move. Not sure I wanna try and dunk or hose down my cat Sarah to find out.

  6. Beachscriber
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    “… the motions have been worked out by natural selection programming the cat’s neurology.”
    – That doesn’t make any sense to me. *The cat* has it worked out! Obviously it’s physiology gives it the capacity and I can see a role for natural selection there but it strikes me a classic category error to say that natural selection worked out how to do this.

    Or is it a figure of speech – a transferred epithet, or something?

    • zendruid1
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      My quasi-educated opinion is that it is a function of the evolved limbic system, which governs reflexes.

    • lamacher
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      You’re wrong. The cat hasn’t worked anything out. She’ll do that the very first time she’s dropped. She doesn’t ‘learn’ how to do it. Her nervous system has been programmed by natural selection to accomplish such feats, and a lot more.

      • Beachscriber
        Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Lamacher, that is an interesting point you make. Here’s my best shot at a defence:

        1. I could reply that cats as a species have it worked out. Learning things is not necessarily an individual affair. I figure that animals pass on what they learn both by teaching the next generation as well as by hard-wiring. The latter is achieved by choosing mates that have the desirable capacities and skills and so from one generation to the next they are improved on.

        2. That twist the cat does remains quite obviously a conscious response to a situation; the cat initiates it to avoid hurting itself. If that were not the case, cats would never have learned to do it. The fact that she’ll always do it does not make it unconscious and does not allow you to equate it to breathing or pumping blood.

        • bringoutyourinnergeek
          Posted August 16, 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

          “The latter is achieved by choosing mates that have the desirable capacities and skills and so from one generation to the next they are improved on.”

          And the difference between this and natural selection is…?

          • Beachscriber
            Posted August 16, 2012 at 3:22 am | Permalink

            It’s deliberate, a matter of animals making choices based on desires, thoughts, feelings and similar stuff that scientists have difficulty with.
            (Just bouncing the idea around, trying to avoid making the category error)

  7. Another Matt
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    None of this, of course, is consciously decided by the cat: the motions have been worked out by natural selection programming the cat’s neurology.

    This is, of course, redundant to anyone who follows your posts, since in your view no conscious decisions are ever made, decisions being precluded by determinism.

    • Beachscriber
      Posted August 12, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

      Matt, that seems a little simplistic to me. The more I think about it, the more I disagree with Prof Coyne’s determinism, but I don’t take his view to preclude conscious action. I think, in his view, the consciousness is there but just every bit determined as everything else.

      So his view is a bit more complex than that but I still think if you think it through, you find nonsense,

      • Another Matt
        Posted August 12, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

        Yeah, maybe that was more snarky than it needed to be.

        In any case it’s not the consciousness that is at issue (consciousness being “along for the ride” in his view, I think), but “decision.”

        He has denied the existence of decisions and choices in the past to make rhetorical points, but he also helps himself to those concepts — and “could have done/been otherwise” — when he needs them.

        It’s just hard to know where he stands on this — does he think there are any conscious decisions cats make, and this just isn’t an instance? Or is “decision” being used as a metaphor here, for something that isn’t quite as situationally automatic and dependable as a reflex born of natural selection?

      • Beachscriber
        Posted August 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        Interesting that you say he denies decisions and choices, as opposed to using the term free will’. I’m also inclined to avoid using the term. I consider it pretty much meaningless, even nonsensical, and I think if one does a proper job of unpacking ‘decision’, ‘choice’, ‘will’ and ‘freedom’ one finds them quite adequate just as they are for describing a non-deterministic existence.

        I find that ‘consciousness along for the ride’ view of his quite bizarre – can’t help thinking it reduces life to a weird out-of-body experience.

        I think it’s hard to know exactly where he stands because he stands on a square triangle. I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about his determinism since I started reading this blog and I find it philosophically very unsatisfying. I now have quite a long list of objections and the cat-egory error is right there at the top.

  8. kansaskitty
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    I don’t believe I would try this experiment with my chubby kitties. They would probably drop like rocks.

    • Posted August 12, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      You could always try dropping them onto a nice soft bed.

  9. Dave Ricks
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    I read this claim about the consciousness of a cat:

    None of this, of course, is consciously decided by the cat: the motions have been worked out by natural selection programming the cat’s neurology.

    The video showed some physics, but I didn’t see any science about the consciousness of a cat. As one hypothesis, a cat’s moves might be reflexes, like tapping a human below the kneecap. As another hypothesis, a cat’s moves might be conscious choices based on priors a cat finds self-evident. Up this thread at 6, lamacher notes a cat will make these moves without previous learning, but I still don’t see that ruling out the hypothesis of a cat making conscious choices based on priors a cat finds self-evident.

    The priors we find self-evident are worth revealing. The U.S. Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” but that claim didn’t include black men and all women (who got their rights to vote later, in that order). And many people I know find the existence of a creator-god self-evident.

    So the priors we find self-evident may be inconsistent, baseless, and obsolete in zero-gravity. So I’m not saying the priors we find self-evident are correct, I’m saying maybe natural selection gave cats a set of priors about kinematics on Earth that cats find self-evident, and maybe cats make conscious choices based on those priors. To see the cat change behavior in the zero-gravity video, the cat is not stuck with one response like an insect, or like my leg jerking in response to a tap below my kneecap.

  10. E.A. Blair
    Posted August 12, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Not all cats land on their feet. Here’s proof.

  11. IW
    Posted August 13, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    “how do falling cats right themselves?”

    It’s not because they’re Catholic; maybe they manage it because they hate catastrophes or because any other kind of landing would be cataclysmic?

    …because they’re a catapault which evolved in the caternary period?

    …because they’re not cattle?

    …because they have catercorners?

    …because the cations emitted from the cathode repel the anions?

    …because they’re catabolic?

    …because they’re not catatonic?
    (ad to E.A. Blair, someone needs to give that cat a tonic!)

    To put it briefly, it’s hard to categorize….


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