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Buttered cat paradox

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A cartoon illustration of the thought experiment

The buttered cat paradox is a common joke based on the combination of two adages:

The paradox arises when one considers what would happen if one attached a piece of buttered toast (butter side up) to the back of a cat, then dropped the cat from a large height. The buttered cat paradox, submitted by artist John Frazee of Kingston, won a 1993 Omni magazine competition about paradoxes.[1][2] The basic premise, stating the conditions of the cat and bread and posed as a question, was presented in a routine by comic and juggler Michael Davis, appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, July 22, 1988.[3]

Thought experiments[edit]

Some people jokingly maintain that the experiment will produce an anti-gravity effect. They propose that as the cat falls towards the ground, it will slow down and start to rotate, eventually reaching a steady state of hovering a short distance from the ground while rotating at high speed as both the buttered side of the toast and the cat's feet attempt to land on the ground.[4] In June 2003, Kimberly Miner won a Student Academy Award for her film Perpetual Motion.[5] Miner based her film on a paper written by a high-school friend that explored the potential implications of the cat and buttered toast idea.[6][7]

In humor[edit]

The faux paradox has captured the imagination of science-oriented humorists. In May 1992, the Usenet Oracle Digest #441 included a question from a supplicant asking about the paradox.[8] Testing the theory is the main theme in an episode of the comic book strip Jack B. Quick. The title character seeks to test this theory, leading to the cat hovering above the ground and the cat's wagging tail providing propulsion. The March 31, 2005, strip of the webcomic Bunny also explored the idea in the guise of a plan for a "Perpetual Motion MoggieToast 5k Power Generator", based on Sod's law.[9] In Science Askew, Donald E. Simanek comments on this phenomenon.[10]

The idea appeared on the British panel game QI, where the idea was discussed. As well as talking about the idea, they also brought up other questions regarding the paradox. These included:

  • "Would it still work if you used margarine?",
  • "Would it still work if you used I Can't Believe It's Not Butter?", and
  • "What if the toast was covered in something that was not butter, but the cat thought it was butter?" (the idea being that it would act like a placebo).[11]

The paradox also appeared in the episode "Gravitational Anarchy" of the scientific podcast Radiolab.[12] Later, a humoristic explainer animation[13] was put together by the animated production company Barq, based on an extracted audio clip from the Radiolab episode.

Brazilian energy drink brand Flying Horse released a 2012 award-winning commercial[14] that simulates the recreation of this phenomenon, which is then used to create perpetual energy.[15][16]

In Creatures[edit]

In the Creatures 3D Ecology Plan, it is stated that Dr. Bottleous Bubbleous is the first Shee to develop a perpetual motion engine based on crossing toast genes with cat genes "in the correct way". With this energy source, the Shee were able to power their latest devices. Dr. Bubbleous became the top Shee scientist, and the Chief Science officer of the C3D expedition.

In reality[edit]

Cats possess the ability to turn themselves right side up in mid-air if they should fall upside-down, known as the cat righting reflex. This enables them to land on their feet if dropped from sufficient height.[17][18]

Toast, being an inanimate object, lacks both the ability and the desire to right itself. A study at Manchester Metropolitan University involving dropping 100 slices under laboratory conditions established that toast typically lands on the floor butter-side-down as a result of the manner in which it is typically dropped from a table, and the aerodynamic drag caused by the air pockets within the bread. The toast is typically butter-side-up when dropped. As it falls, it rotates; given the typical speed of rotation and the typical height of a table, a slice of toast that began butter-side-up on the table will land butter-side-down on the floor in 81% of cases.[19]


External links[edit]

Due to technical limitations, the complete revision history of this page can be found at wp:Buttered cat paradox, excluding edits newer than this page's first edit.