Fizyx for Felines: A Physics Textbook for the Curious Cat

Inter-Chapter Interlude

Posted in Uncategorized by skonabrittain on 28 May, 2010

Last week there was no post because my computer was still feebly recovering from a power outage. Next week there will be no post because I’ll be taking a group of high school mathletes to a competition in Las Vegas. And this week there is a special post that is not a section of a chapter. So the question of whether Chapter 3 will ever get written is still unresolved.
This excerpt is a historical tale about a magnificent cat named Magnus who had a historically significant tail. Not only is there no math in it, but there’s very little physics in it.

Inter-Chapter Interlude – Magnus

   …behind every great human
there is an even greater cat.

Norton, from behind Peter Gethers1

~  Historical Note  ~

Magnus (1596-1965) was a magnificent Scottish cat with two uncommon characteristics. He had an almost-canine enjoyment of accompanying his people on long walks, not from behind in a backpack like Norton, but along the ground and in all directions. His other unusual trait was a flair for physics. Fortunately, he had the opportunity to spend each of his lives with a physicist with whom he could contribute to the advancement of the field.

Magnus was very proud of his fine Scottish name and indeed spent almost all of his lives with Scottish physicists, half of whom bore the common Scottish name John. However, many historians of science feel that he did his most important work during the only life he spent outside of Scotland, his middle life. Since that work is the subject of the next chapter, this note will focus on his other lives.

His first life was spent with John Napier (1550-1617), a physicist, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, who actually did more lasting work in mathematics than physics. He was the inventor of logarithms, which allowed the complicated operation of multiplication to be replaced by the simpler one of addition, and also of a tool called Napier’s Bones, an alternative to the classic abacus. This latter invention was instigated by Magnus claiming the household abacus as a cat toy. He would delight in rolling the round beads along the wires with his paws whenever John was trying to do a calculation. Hence, Napier’s Bones used fixed straight rods instead of movable round pieces. See Figure i-1.

Figure i-1. Napier’s Bones.

After those accomplishments, along with raising a dozen kids, John began indulging his non-scientific side and acting increasingly weirdly. He was suspected of dabbling in black arts, and of using a black rooster as a “familiar spirit”, which is a demonic role more typically played by black cats. Magnus, who was almost completely black himself, became spooked by this behavior, and vowed to stay away from mathematicians in the future. Historians have wondered why Magnus attributed Napier’s questionable sanity to his pursuit of mathematics, but the correctness of his intuition was affirmed by a close friend during his eighth life, Georg Cantor’s cat.

The final act between Magnus and his first person was the pigeon incident. A neighbor’s pigeons wandering onto the Napier grain field so annoyed John that one day he got rid of them by poisoning them. This indirectly poisoned his beloved pet Magnus, who, ironically, would have been happy to eliminate the pigeons for John himself.

Thus ended Magnus’ first life. All the rest of his lives were spent with physicists rather than mathematicians, and it was several lifetimes before he deigned to associate with even a mathematical physicist.

His second life was spent with Joseph Black (1728-1799), a Scottish physicist and chemist, whom he found to be an exceptionally affectionate man, possibly because Joseph never had a wife or children to siphon his affection away from Magnus. Joseph founded the field of thermochemistry, a precursor to thermodynamics, with his 1761 discovery of latent heat. Henceforth, thermodynamics was Magnus’s favorite area of physics. He especially appreciated participating in experiments involving warmth and soft pressure.

In his next life, Magnus lived with John H.D. Anderson (1725-1796), who didn’t become a physicist until rather late in his life, in the 1760s. This John always had a strong pedagogical bent, and devoted himself to bringing popular science applications to underrepresented populations, such as the working class. To this end, he freely gave non-academic evening lectures, at which, in a radical break from the conventions of 18th century Scotland, he welcomed women, and even felines. After wandering into one of these events as an inquisitive young kitten, Magnus followed John home to further pursue the ideas presented, and John graciously obliged him. During the last decade of his life, John produced five editions of a physics textbook, Institutes of Physics, which Magnus scrupulously edited.

Magnus’s person in his next life, Sir John Leslie (1766-1832), also modified his career in mid-life, but in this case it was away from Magnus favorite area of concentration, the study of heat, to a more mathematical endeavor, at which point Magnus left him.

Even within the subject of thermodynamics, this John had a tendency to go in the opposite direction from Magnus’s inclinations. His interest in exploring the absence of heat led him to be the first person to artificially produce ice, which he did with an air pump in 1810. Magnus more fondly recalled John’s 1804 experiments with radiant heat. The legacy of their time together includes the creation of an object that John dubbed Magnus’s Cube, but that the rest of the world knows as Leslie’s Cube. It’s a cubic container with surfaces of different colors and texture (see Figure i-2). It can be filled with either cold water to study absorption or warm water to study emission. Magnus liked to directly engage himself in emission studies by curling up on the dark side.

Figure i-2. Leslie’s Cube.

Magnus’s happiest life was spent with Michael Faraday (1791-1867), an English experimentalist, who happened to be the least mathematical of all of Magnus’s physicist people. However, it was not the man himself but rather his other cat, Electra, who contributed the most to Magnus’s bliss. As mentioned above, you’ll hear more about them and their dynamic relationship in the following chapter.

After Electra’s death in 1849, in a halfhearted attempt to return to Scotland by suicide, Magnus next aligned himself with the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who was living in Cambridge at the time and extending Magnus’s previous person’s work. Although James is best known for the equations that bear his name, which are central to Chapter 3, he also made extremely significant contributions in both optics and kinetic theory, the latter of which were inspired by Magnus and will be featured in Chapter 4.

His seventh life was spent with John James Waterston (1811-1883?), a Scottish physicist specializing in Magnus’s favorite field of thermodynamics. Although this John did good work on the kinetic theory of gases, it was not appreciated during his lifetime. One day, in mid-June of 1883, the two of them went for one of their customary walks, from which John never returned and was presumed dead.

On the other hand, although he was also presumed dead then, Magnus did return, in his next lifetime, when he became the companion of James Dewar (1842-1923), a Scottish chemist and physicist. In 1892, he inspired James to invent the insulated bottle still known as the Dewar flask, the precursor to the modern thermos (see Figure i-3). James’s original motivation was the desire to keep Magnus’s cream insulated during their long walks. But he also found the flask to be very useful for transporting low-temperature gases for experiments in atomic physics.

Figure i-3. Dewar’s Flask.

Peter Higgs (b.1929), currently an emeritus professor of theoretical physicist at the University of Edinburgh, was homeschooled as a child due to his asthma, which unfortunately also precluded ever having a pet in the house. So Magnus had to confine his relationship with Peter, his last person, to accompanying him on outdoor walks. Fortunately, Peter loved to walk, and it was on one of their walks together, in 1964 in the Cairngorms, a mountain range in the Scottish Highlands, that he claimed he had his “one big idea”, now known as the Higgs mechanism. The Higgs mechanism is a broken symmetry theory in particle physics, which is beyond the scope of even Chapter 9 of this book. However, the main idea of the broken symmetry was undoubtedly, albeit perhaps subconsciously, inspired by Magnus’s anti-symmetric antics on the trail.

Figure i-4. Higgs’ Boson.

1 – Gethers, Peter, The Cat Who’ll Live Forever, Page 89, Broadway Books, Random House, ©2001. <return-to-text>


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