Saturday, November 20, 2010

Retirement Projects – Experiments for Idle Hands

Like many folks, I’ve been contemplating how I’ll occupy myself after I retire (besides writing more.) What sort of projects will fill my days of leisure? I think I’ve found the answer. I’m going to conduct freelance science experiments.

A recent New York Times article reported on research into the question “How do cats drink?” It was prompted by the observation that cats drink far more neatly than dogs. I’m a long-time cat lover and owner, but I have not been kept up nights wondering about this. Apparently, a group of engineers has.

Four of them collaborated to conduct experiments to probe this issue. These were no backwater engineers; they work at MIT, VPI and Princeton—or did anyway. Who knows how their institutions will react to their report in Science on cat-lapping.

The team concluded that cats lap by balancing “opposing gravitational and inertial forces.” The tip of the cat’s tongue touches the water surface. Then they pull it up quickly, “drawing a column of water behind it.” There was a lot more information, such as lapping frequency for optimal efficiency relative to the cat’s size, and so on. It was very much the type of data one would expect to see in Science.

The Times article implied that the research was conducted on the scientist’s own time, but we all know what that means. What was clearly stated is that the project required no financing; the robot used in the experiment was “borrowed… from a neighboring lab.”

Although I doubt I have neighbors from who I can borrow robots for my retirement projects, I feel confident I can devise experiments that employ ordinary household materials. The trick will be to find issues to probe that have been overlooked by scientists, but are of burning interest to ordinary people. People who might read my blog.

Here’s one example. Cat owners know there is an irresistible magnetic force between cat hair and their owner’s clothes. We also know that the strength of that attraction increases the more disparate the tone of the cat’s fur and the owner’s attire. A white cat will shed far more hair onto its owner’s black lap than onto her white sweater.

I shall devise an experiment to determine why this happens. I fully expect static electricity to play a role in my research. I’ll also measure whether or not the attraction of black hair to white clothing is equal to its inverse. I can see some of you black-cat owners out there nodding “It most definitely is.” When I’m done, we’ll know for certain.

There may be skeptics among you thinking: “She won’t be able to answer questions like these without a fancy laboratory.” Consider the following account that my nephew shared many years ago. It was one of the winning entries in some contest similar to the Darwin Awards, but for clever inventions.

We know that cats always land on their feet when they fall (or are dropped) from heights. Murphy’s Law also tells us that a piece of buttered toast will always land buttered-side down. The budding inventor who won the competition combined these two pieces of information to devise a perpetual motion machine. Here’s how you build it.

Strap a row of well-buttered toast along the back of large cat. Drop the cat from a substantial height. As it starts to fall, the cat will turn paw-side down so it can land on its feet. The toast will counter by flipping the cat’s back toward the floor, so the toast can land buttered-side down. These two opposing forces will set the cat into a spin that will keep it airborne indefinitely, thus creating a perpetual motion machine.

I rest my case.

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