Das Buch der verrückten Experimente


The Annals of Improbable Research tipped me off to Reto Schneider's Das Buch der verrückten Experimente (The Book of Weird Experiments in English), a collection of descriptions of one hundred scientific experiments throughout the course of history. As you might expect from the title, the experiments are all somewhat strange, yet nevertheless fascinating.

For example, how do cats always manage to land on their feet? Newton's laws would say that it's impossible:

The problem is that a falling cat has nothing to push against. Each turn that it makes with its forequarters causes its hindquarters to turn in the opposite direction. A half-clockwise turn in front means a half-counterclockwise turn behind. Theoretically, the cat should land all twisted up, which obviously is not the case.

The web site includes excerpts in German and English, including links to videos of cold research, feathers dropped onto the surface of the moon, and of course, falling cats.

Despite the tease of English-language excerpts, the book itself is available only in German. Unfortunately my German is not strong enough that I'd be able to read this book with very much success. (I can only just barely read Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen without the aid of a dictionary.) But I'll at least add it to my list of "books I might be able to read someday".

[Updated 2pm to correct the English URL.]

Comments (24)
  1. MattC says:

    Saying that Newton’s laws state that a cat cannot twist in mid-air is surely like saying that a trampolinist cannot twist in mid-air for the same reason.

  2. FelixTheCat says:

    A cat can right itself in mid-air using the same principle that Microsoft used to turn itself around to embrace the internet in the mid 90’s:  exploitation of angular momentum.

    Now, go clean out my box.

  3. s_tec says:

    It’s quite easy to do:

    1. Put back legs out, front legs in.

    2. Rotate front.

    3. Put front legs out, back legs in.

    4. Rotate back.

    5. Repeat until vertical.

    No laws of physics are violated, since the total angular momentum never changes. In fact, there are many variations of this idea that allow an object to twist itself around in space.

  4. Rick Scott says:

    MattC:

    A trampolinist uses the initial foot position to start the twisting/flipping force before he leaves the canvas. If the force isn’t near-perfect, they don’t land on their feet.

    Trust me on this one: I’ve got a trampoline and rarely land on my feet if I put my feet over my head.

  5. Mark the HTML Guru says:

    “Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen” reminded me of the Ancient Greek edition http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-158234826x-0 I saw in Powells recently. I like the way the age level is listed as “10 and up”. (err. and the language is English??!)

  6. If you drop a shuttlecock from sufficiently high, it will always land on the ball end.  Assuming you’re not in a vacuum.

  7. Frederik says:

    Luckly, air and friction help out the poor cat.

  8. Miles Archer says:

    Rick Scott,

    All this proves is that you are not a cat.

  9. Niko says:

    Hey Jorge,

    actually…. V = G*T (Speed = gravitational acceleration by time).

    meaning longer the cat falls… faster it gets.

    it’s why if you jump from a table you don’t smash yourself on the floor at 200miles/hour.

    but if you jump form a plane you do….

  10. Nawak says:

    Niko: but does a tree-leaf falling from a plane land at 200mph?

    Same thing for… everything! There is a speed limit caused by air friction.

    NOW, does a cat have enough friction to achieve what Jorge said… I don’t know, but given enough cats, I think I could answer that as well! :)

  11. Nawak says:

    Cancel my cats order! I don’t need them, the answer for the falling-cat trick is on the page:

    http://www.verrueckte-experimente.de/leseproben_e.html

    (Your URL is wrong Raymond, it’s .html not .htm)

  12. Arno says:

    Some other "scientists" (coincidentally from Germany as well) approached the how-do-cats-always-manage-to-land-on-their-feet phenomenon with quite an unorthodox experiment (which has to do with toast bread):

    http://www-stud.uni-essen.de/~sdjafroe/index_projekte.php?page=projekte/16/p16

  13. Moz says:

    The best thing on that page

    http://www.verrueckte-experimente.de/leseproben_e.html

    is "the Sony Aibo warrenty does not cover damage done by real dogs". But surely the eVet can eFix it?

  14. Laut dem Auszug aus dem Buch hat s_tec recht. In dem Auszug steht weiterhin, daß die Fähigkeit der Katze, sich zu drehen, nicht mit dem Luftwiderstand zusammenhängt.

    That’s for Raymond to practise with ;)

    Now in English: According to the excerpt, s_tec is right. Furthermore, the excerpt claims that the cat’s ability to twist is not related to air friction.

  15. David Candy says:

    They can do it in 1 1/2 times their height. They use ear balance and sight. Shutting off either for a cat lengthens the distance needed.

    I ran my own experiments to prove this but not to prove the senses used (the cat said "please don’t poke out my eyes"). I did it on a bed so no animals were harmed in my experiments.

    There is a black cat that lives in the storm water drain at the end of Cuzco St, Sth Coogee, NSW Australia (on the ocean – very expensive). It is starving. Usually it runs back down the drain when it see’s me (at 5:30am) but last week it meowed. So I patted it but it’s bones stick out. And I couldn’t bare to see it.

    I just want to shame the evil people that live in this street for not feeding it.

  16. Marcel says:

    Heh, the joke is old, but the uni-essen site still made me laugh. Especially the phrase "landing behaviour of an unmodified cat" cracked me up.

  17. Norman Diamond says:

    Well, Einstein proved that Newton was wrong.  Obviously Newton didn’t have a cat.  Or maybe it’s just that cats don’t obey Newton.

  18. Jorge Coelho says:

    Friction helps. Plus, do you know it’s more likely for a cat to survive if he falls from a 6th floor than if he falls from a 4th floor?

    The answer is pretty simple: after a while the cat will reach terminal velocity (can’t fall any faster), so it doesn’t matter if he falls from a 10th or 6th floor, result is the same, *but* the extra floors give the cat time to relax. He will assume a shape (like a parachute) that will actually slow him down.

    Now, if only I could remember were I read this useless piece of trivia… :-)

  19. Tomaz says:

    Let’s simplify the problem: haw can a (flexible) cylinder rotate around its long axis (without external force action)? First, it bends into a letter U shape. Second, now it can rotate around (bended) long axis for 180 while keeping total angular momentum zero (because the ends of U letter rotate in opposite way so the angular momentums cancel each other). Finnaly, letter U streatches bac to letter I, but rotated 180 deg around long axis. Now, where did cat learn the alphabet?

  20. David Walker says:

    DavidCandy:  Feeding stray cats can be considered cruel.  

    A neighbor of mine used to put food outside her door for all the neighborhood cats.  It encouraged all the cats in the area to gather, and mate, and fight, and mate, and howl, and mate.  Soon there were more cats.  

    Much more humane to trap and neuter them.  I assert that feeding two stray cats leads to more total "hunger and suffering" (a larger eventual population of hungry cats) than letting those two original stray cats die (or euthanizing them) so they don’t breed.

    By the way, I have three neutered, well-cared-for indoor cats.

  21. David Candy says:

    In my street all cats have homes. The siamese (two of them – one was shot but lived) steal food so are scared of nearly everybody who object to paying for their food. (except in my building where they used to like me till another person started giving them chicken every day – they think I’m ok but boring) One doesn’t feed stray cats, one adopts them.

    I see the skin n bones cat about once every two months. I carry a can of sardines with me now.

  22. Norman Diamond says:

    My cat said she won’t obey Einstein either.  Though her movements often obey the laws of quantum physics, the only human physicist she’ll listen to is the inventor of string theory.

  23. In science, there’s no such thing as a proof. There’s only evidence.

    There’s no »true« and »false« either. There’s only »appropriate« and »inappropriate«.

    For most every-day mechanics a non-technician encounters, Newton’s laws of mechanics are appropriate.

  24. Hello. I am the author of "The Book of Weird Experiments". Happy to see that I could ignite a fascinating dicussion about cats Newton and Einstein. You might be interested in a research proposal I found on the web that wanted to simulate the falling cat with a two part cylinder. See http://web.mit.edu/16.62X/www/Hurdus_Ethan_621.pdf.

    If you are interested in strange animal research, there is a film about the first "scientific" meeting of a real dog and Aibo on my site. See http://www.verrueckte-experimente.de/leseproben_e.html#story_13.

    BTW: If you know of any English or American publisher that could be interested in my book, let me know. It was a bestseller in Germany and was given the science book of the year award.

    Reto

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