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][2] The idea may not have originated from Frazee since it had appeared on USENET by May 1992, if not before.[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][6] 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.[7][8]

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.[3] 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.[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 has released an award winning commercial[14] that simulates the recreation of this phenomenon, which is then used to create perpetual energy.[15][16]

It also appeared in a comics series called Kid Paddle where Kid tells the story to his gullible friend Horace while at the dinner table. The comic is fairly popular in France and Belgium.

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).[17]

Toast, being an inanimate object, 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.[18]

Cats can weigh between 2.8 kg (6.2 pounds) and 6.1 kg (13.4 pounds).[19] A 25 g (0.9 oz) slice of bread[20] will have a negligible effect on the movement of the much larger cat[citation needed].

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Morris, Scot (July 1993). "I have a theory...". Omni. 15 (9): 96. 
  2. ^ Verley, Jason C. (November 2001). "Letters: More on Alternate Theories". APS News. American Physical Society. 10 (10). 
  3. ^ a b Usenet Oracle (1992-05-04). Kinzler, Steve, ed. "Usenet Oracularities #441". Usenet Oracle. 
  4. ^ "UoWaikato newsletter" (PDF). University of Waikato. August 2003. Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  5. ^ Available at http://www.kminer.net/2011/07/perpetual-motion/
  6. ^ Snider, John C. (2004). "Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2003". Scifidimensions.com. Archived from the original on 2012-02-04. Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  7. ^ Klein, PG (2002-12-16). "Perpetual Motion". University of Leeds, School of Physics & Astronomy. Archived from the original on 2008-10-22. 
  8. ^ "Student wins Academy Award for animated film". Rochester Institute of Technology. Spring 2004. 
  9. ^ Davies, Huw "Lem" (2005-03-31). "Feline cunning and sods law". Bunny (webcomic). Retrieved 2014-01-15. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Toksvig, Sandi; Vegas, Johnny & Lloyd, John (2010-11-05). "Hypothetical". QI. Series H. Episode 8. London. BBC. BBC One. 
  12. ^ Krulwich, Robert; Abumrad, Jad; Quammen, David (guest) & deGrasse Tyson, Neil (guest) (2010-11-29). "Gravitational Anarchy". Radiolab. Event occurs at 20:48. NPR. Retrieved 2015-01-11.  Alternate link via iTunes.
  13. ^ barqvideo (2012-04-25). "The Cat and Jelly Toast Experiment aka the Buttered Cat Paradox explainer". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2012-06-20. 
  14. ^ "2012 Young Director Award CFP-Europe". AdForum. 
  15. ^ vibeFlyingHorse (2012-04-10). "Flying Horse - Gatorrada (Cat-Toast)". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-08-23. 
  16. ^ Beltrone, Gabriel (2012-05-14). "Energy Drink Makes the Most of the Buttered-Cat Paradox Age-old physics law inspires Ogilvy ad". Adweek. 
  17. ^ Nguyen, Huy D. (1998). "How does a Cat always land on its feet?". Georgia Institute of Technology, School of Medical Engineering. Retrieved 2014-08-23. 
  18. ^ McDermott, Nick (2013-09-03). "Why your toast falls butter side down". Daily Mail. Retrieved 2014-08-23. 
  19. ^ Kienzle, Ellen & Moik, Katja (October 2011). "A pilot study of the body weight of pure-bred client-owned adult cats". British Journal of Nutrition. 106 (Supplement S1): S113-S115. doi:10.1017/S0007114511001802. PMID 22005404. 
  20. ^ Whole Grain Resource for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs: A Guide to Meeting the Whole Grain-Rich Criteria (PDF). U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. January 2014. p. 21.  (printed page 21 shows up as PDF page 23)

External links[edit]