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, New York, 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]

The buttered cat paradox has been highlighted as a paradigmatic example of a thought experiment.[4] Some people jokingly maintain that the experiment produces an anti-gravity effect. They propose that as the cat falls toward the ground, it slows down and starts 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.[5] In June 2003, Kimberly Miner won a Student Academy Award for her film Perpetual Motion.[6][7] 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.[8][9]

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.[10] 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.[11] In Science Askew, Donald E. Simanek comments on this phenomenon.[12]

Brazilian energy drink brand Flying Horse released a 2012 award-winning commercial[13] that simulates the recreation of this phenomenon, which is then used to create perpetual energy.[14]

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.[15][16]

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 lands butter-side-down on the floor in 81% of cases.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morris, Scot (July 1993). "I Have a Theory..." (PDF). Omni. Vol. 15, no. 9. p. 96.
  2. ^ Verley, Jason C. (November 2001). "Letters: More on Alternate Theories". APS News. American Physical Society. 10 (10). Archived from the original on 2021-02-24. Retrieved 2009-04-22.
  3. ^ The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, July 22, 1988. Event occurs at 3:35. Archived from the original on 2021-12-22 – via YouTube.
  4. ^ Emer Gentway , The Uncharted Present: On Softening the Edges of the Self (2022), p. 2.
  5. ^ "UoWaikato newsletter" (PDF). University of Waikato. August 2003. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2009-09-02. Retrieved 2012-06-20.
  6. ^ Miner, Kimberly (8 July 2011). Perpetual Motion. minerkimberly – via YouTube.
  7. ^ Snider, John C. (2004). "Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2003". Scifidimensions.com. Archived from the original on 2012-02-04. Retrieved 2012-06-20.
  8. ^ Klein, PG (2002-12-16). "Perpetual Motion". University of Leeds, School of Physics & Astronomy. Archived from the original on 2008-10-22.
  9. ^ "Student wins Academy Award for animated film". Rochester Institute of Technology. Spring 2004. Archived from the original on 2015-05-08. Retrieved 2015-01-17.
  10. ^ Usenet Oracle (1992-05-04). Kinzler, Steve (ed.). "Usenet Oracularities #441". Usenet Oracle. Archived from the original on 2021-05-07. Retrieved 2014-07-06.
  11. ^ Davies, Huw "Lem" (2005-03-31). "Feline cunning and sods law". Bunny (webcomic). Archived from the original on 2021-02-28. Retrieved 2014-01-15.
  12. ^ 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 2010-06-30.
  13. ^ "2012 Young Director Award CFP-Europe". AdForum. Archived from the original on 2015-02-10. Retrieved 2015-01-17.(registration required)
  14. ^ Beltrone, Gabriel (2012-05-14). "Energy Drink Makes the Most of the Buttered-Cat Paradox Age-old physics law inspires Ogilvy ad". Adweek. Archived from the original on 2021-02-25. Retrieved 2015-01-17.
  15. ^ Nguyen, Huy D. (1998). "How does a Cat always land on its feet?". Georgia Institute of Technology, School of Medical Engineering. Archived from the original on 2001-04-10. Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  16. ^ Sechzera, Jeri A.; Folsteina, Susan E.; Geigera, Eric H.; Mervisa, Ronald F.; Meehana, Suzanne M. (December 1984). "Development and maturation of postural reflexes in normal kittens". Experimental Neurology. 86 (3): 493–505. doi:10.1016/0014-4886(84)90084-0. PMID 6499990. S2CID 23606824.
  17. ^ Slater, Chris (2013-09-05). "(-Rav)/ t = R: Manchester boffins find formula for why toast lands butter side down". Manchester Evening News. Archived from the original on 2020-11-12. Retrieved 2017-03-06.

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