Physics and psychology of cats – an (unlikely) conversation

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(THE CONVERSATION) Have you wondered why cats are so agile and seem to adapt perfectly to cups, boxes and other small places? Or how do cats communicate with humans?

Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies for the annual Ig Nobel Prize, Jean Berko Gleason, psycholinguist and professor emeritus of psychology and brain sciences at Boston University, and Marc-Antoine Fardin, researcher in rheology at the University of Paris, discussed this and other scientific questions about cats, probable and unlikely, in a fascinating and humorous webinar co-hosted by The Conversation and the Annals of Improbable Research.

Fardin is the winner of the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for exploring the use of fluid dynamics to probe the question “Can a cat be both solid and liquid?”

Here are some highlights of the discussion. Please note that answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Marc Abrahams: Rheology studies everything, everything that flows, and thanks to you, in large part, this now includes cats. How did it happen?

Marc-Antoine Fardin: I was on the internet a few years ago and saw this set of web pages that talked about whether cats are liquid. And then they had the definition of a liquid. And generally, the definition of a liquid is a material that takes the shape of its container. [For example,] if I pour liquid into a cup, the liquid will take the shape of the cup, and if I pour it into a wine glass, it will take the shape of the glass.

If you look at a bunch of different cats, there are many different images and experiments that have been done by many people around the world where you see the cats take on the shape of the container. [they are in], such as a box or a sink. People were asking themselves this question. And so I took that question and put it in modern rheology lingo.

Marc Abrahams: What does cat compressibility refer to?

Marc-Antoine Fardin: Gas compared to liquid is compressible. So that means if you pushed on it, you could change its volume. And so for cats, once you answered that the cat could be a liquid, you could also push the question a little further and ask if in some cases a cat could be a gas. And so if it’s a gas, it must be compressible. And that’s an experiment I didn’t do because I don’t want to get in trouble.

Beth Daley (to Jean Berko Gleason): Based on your expertise as a psycholinguist, do humans communicate effectively with cats? And if not, how should they?

Jean Berko Gleason: Cats communicate very effectively with us. We have had cats as pets for about 14,000 years. And in 14,000 years, cats told us that they wanted to live with us, that they would like a comfortable bed, that they wanted food and that we snuggled up to them. In other words, cats have really communicated all of their interests and needs, so we’re running around doing what they have in mind. So they do a very good job.

Our problem with communicating with cats is that you can try to train cats, but [they are very stubborn]. For example, cats that frequently take part in psychology studies…just leave. The cats don’t hang around for the rest of your study.

What people are really trying to do is learn a lot more about their body language. One of the things that has happened over the last few years is that we [have] started to understand that cats have different facial expressions. And there [are] some recent research where veterinarians or people who work in cat hospitals are able to tell the five or six facial expressions of cats apart, but we’re not very good at it.

Watch the full webinar to learn about the additional science behind Fardin’s study of cat physics, Berko Gleason’s famous research into children’s language learning abilities and more.

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