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 tongue-in-cheek 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, New York, won a 1993 OMNI magazine competition about paradoxes.[1]

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.[2] In June 2003, Kimberly Miner won a Student Academy Award for her film Perpetual Motion.[3] 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.[4][5]

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.[6] 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, with 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.[7] In Science Askew, Donald E. Simanek comments on this phenomenon.[8]

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.[9]

The paradox also appeared in the episode "Gravitational Anarchy" of the scientific podcast RadioLab.[10] Later, a humoristic explainer animation[11] was put together by the animated production company Barq,[12] based on an extracted audio clip from this very RadioLab episode.

Brazilian energy drink brand Flying Horse has released a commercial that simulates the recreation of this phenomenon, which is then used to create perpetual energy.[13]

In reality[edit]

In reality, 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 (about 30 cm (12 in)).[14] Toast, being an inanimate object, obviously lacks both the ability and the desire to right itself.

Toast typically lands on the floor butter-side-down due to the manner in which it is typically dropped from a table. As the toast falls from the table, it rotates. Given the typical speed of rotation for a slice of toast as it falls from the table 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.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morris, Scot (July 1993). "I have a theory...". Omni 15 (9): 96. 
  2. ^ "UoWaikato newsletter" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  3. ^ Available at http://www.kminer.net/2011/07/perpetual-motion/
  4. ^ PG Klein. University of Leeds. Perpetual Motion.
  5. ^ "Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2003". Scifidimensions.com. Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  6. ^ Usenet Oracle, Usenet Oracularities #441 (1992.05.04), compiled by Steve Kinzler
  7. ^ "Feline cunning and sods law". Bunny.frozenreality.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  8. ^ Simanek, Donald E.; Holden, John C. (2002). Science askew: a light-hearted look at the scientific world. CRC Press. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-7503-0714-7. Retrieved 30 June 2010. 
  9. ^ "Hypothetical". QI. Series H. Episode 8. 5 November 2010. BBC. BBC One. http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/qi/episodes/8/8/.
  10. ^ "The RadioLab podcast". Itunes.apple.com. Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  11. ^ "The Cat and Jelly Toast Experiment aka the Buttered Cat Paradox explainer". Youtube.com. 2012-04-25. Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  12. ^ www.barqvideo.com
  13. ^ vibeFlyingHorse (2012-04-10). "Flying Horse - Gatorrada (Cat-Toast)". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-08-23. 
  14. ^ Huy D. Nguyen. "How does a Cat always land on its feet?". Georgia Institute of Technology, School of Medical Engineering. Retrieved August 23, 2014. 
  15. ^ Nick McDermott (August 23, 2014). "Why your toast falls butter side down". Daily Mail. 

External links[edit]