The Buttered Cat Paradox


Some things we all know are true appear to contradict each other, and even though we are aware of the facts, we cannot always know what will happen when these concepts come together. One such concept is that of the buttered cat. In most cases of scientific conundrums, experiments are used to find the answer. When there is a cat involved, getting the required cooperation from the test subject makes this all but impossible. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let's understand the paradox of the buttered cat.

We all know that if you drop a piece of buttered toast, it will land on the floor butter-side-down. Common knowledge? Sure, but Rob Cockerham tested that adage with a series of experiments. He found that it doesn't always happen. In his trials, anywhere between 5% and 20% of the toast landed butter (or jelly) side up! Still, those are disappointing odds. Some say that the buttered side faces downward because that side is heavier, you know, because it has butter on it. Jelly has the same effect.

Image by Flickr user Mini Mookiy.

In the same vein, we know that a cat, when dropped, always lands on its feet. Or does it? The existing literature says that cats need some time to orient themselves in space, and cannot land on their feet when dropped from a height less than 1.5 to 2 feet. This is especially true if the cat is asleep. The side effect of such research is often a very annoyed cat.

Image alteration by oceanwest.

So we can say that dropped toast almost always lands butter side down, and dropped cats always land on their feet under under most conditions. But in 1993, artist and quantum thinker John Frazee posed the question in OMNI magazine about what would happen if you were to attach toast to a cat's back -butter side out, of course. One reader said that you could go ahead and skip the toast, since it is the butter that is attracted to carpet. Chicken tikka masala would work even better, if you were dropping the cat on a white carpet. I'm not sure that changing the parameters would aid in solving this paradox. Most researchers tend to stick with toast, although some use butter and others use jelly.

What would happen in such a scenario? Both the butter on the toast and the cat's feet would be attracted to the floor -or possibly the opposite side of both objects would be repelled by the floor. This conundrum became known as the Buttered Cat Paradox.

Those who have tackled the problem as a thought experiment (meaning, no cats were harmed) have come to the conclusion that the buttered cat would stop falling at some point above the floor. Then, as the cat tries to orient its feet against the attraction of the butter to the floor, the cat would begin spinning -and never stop. The result could be called a true perpetual motion machine. The principles involved are explained in Perpetual Motion, an award-winning 2003 short by Rochester Institute of Technology student Kimberly Miner, seen below.

How could we harness this amazing power? The first thought, proposed by Frazee back in 1993, is that many "anti-gravity cats" could be used to power a monorail system.

It has been posited that extraterrestrials use this power to drive UFOs. The humming of the spacecraft is attributed to many cats purring as they spin. The theories and mechanics of such a perpetual motion energy system are explored in breathtaking detail at Uncyclopedia.

Image alteration by britishbandit.

The center of energy production from the cat is in the feet, because a cat with no feet will never land on its feet. The cat is necessary, because feet will not land by themselves, but the legs just flail about and take up room. Therefore, it has been proposed that cats for the levitation system be bred with feet, but no legs.

Image alteration by Flabbergasted.

The danger in this type of power is the possibility that the cat might somehow manage to eat the toast (or butter or jelly), in which case the system would immediately fail. Also, if the spinning cat were to reach critical mass, the results would be "cat"-astrophic, as illustrated in this animated explanation. Then there is the fact that cats will eventually die of old age, which lends plausibility to the plan, as we all know "true" perpetual motion systems do not exist. Of course, these problems may be avoided if the cat itself is eliminated from the equation. To this end, idle minds are working hard on the Double Butter Theory.

As usual in such thought experiments, more research is needed to work out the kinks. However, there are many "scientists" working on the puzzle, which you can see here.