This Week’s Book Review – Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

How falling cats, physics, science relate to one another

By MARK LARDAS

Dec 14, 2019

“Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics” by Gregory J. Gbur, Yale University Press, 2019, 352 pages, $26

A cat always lands on its feet. Generations of young (and not so young) boys have conducted experiments testing this. These reveal while not universally true, this saying proves generally so. The question is why?

“Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics” by Gregory J. Gbur, answers the question. He blends whimsy, the history of technology, the development of physics and cat curiosities to explain why cats land on their feet.

The ultimate solution to what appears to be a trivial problem takes Gbur and his readers on a trip rambling through apparently disconnected items: how a horse gallops, the development of photography, the Foucault pendulum, relativity, space travel, figure skating, skyscrapers, why warm water freezes quicker than cold water, and robotics.

These may not seem connected, yet as Gbur shows, each is an element in solving the puzzle of how a cat manages to twist itself to land feet first, even if it enters free fall upside down.

Take photography and galloping horses. Before high-speed photography, all theories about how cats fell were guesswork. Cats moved too quickly for humans to observe their motions when falling. Similarly, no one knew how horses really galloped.

Pre-photography paintings capture the motion of a galloping horse incorrectly. The camera was first used capture a galloping horse — and then falling cats.

Gbur explains how these falling cat photos demolished then-existing explanations of how cats righted themselves. “Falling Felines” proves as much a history of how science works as much as explaining how cats fall.

Scientists developed new theories on cat-righting. Although they proved incorrect, some scientists remained stubbornly fixed to their pet theories, creating controversies lasting for decades. Gbur shows this behavior isn’t limited to research on falling cats, but recurs frequently in science.

The book also examines cat physiology as well as physics. Gbur presents how cats developed their ability to right themselves and explains why cats survive falls from skyscrapers.

“Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics” is a fun book. It’s as much about scientific research as falling cats, an exploration of scientific inquiry. It playfully examines science and cats on multiple levels.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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4 thoughts on “This Week’s Book Review – Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics”

  1. No, but the cat-falling reflex is baked into the cat. Cats often fall long distances without the aid of curious children, so landing on their feet is a survival trait. Cats that did not did not pass on their genes.

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  2. This is a Smarter Every Day video starring Gigi the Cat showing, via slow-motion video, just how cats do it.

    You might then ask, what happens to a cat in weightlessness?  Here you go:

    In space, humans can behave as a nonholonomic system to change their orientation without applying an external force.  This doesn’t violate conservation of angular momentum because the body starts and ends in a state of no rotation.  Only parts of the non-rigid body are rotating with respect to one another during the motion, with net angular momentum of the system remaining constant.

    The large internal volume of Skylab allowed a much greater scope for weightless acrobatics than today’s cramped spacecraft.  Here is astronaut Alan Bean demonstrating conservation of angular momentum and nonholonomic motion.

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