Caturday felid trifecta: Cats who owned famous scientists; caterwauling set to music ; Chinese cats in art and literature; and special lagniappe

December 10, 2022 • 9:30 am

Do people still want Caturday posts? If not, we can discontinue them. Here’s a poll where you can vote (and vote regardless of whether you like cats)

Should the Caturday Felid posts continue?

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Back to regular business.  First, from Discover magazine, we have five cats who were staffed by famous scientists. I’ll show each one and give a brief excerpt (click on the screenshot to read the whole thing):

Albert Einstein:

Albert Einstein famously loved animals. “If a man aspired towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals,” he said, and was himself known to own multiple pets, including a dog and a parrot. But it was his cat Tiger who seemed to get the most attention, at least as far as posterity is concerned. Biographers have recorded that Einstein was sensitive to Tiger’s moods, noting for example that the cat got depressed when it was raining.

Cats apparently held a big enough place in Einstein’s heart that they pop up in quotes historically attributed to him. In his analogy explaining the telegraph, Einstein is said to have likened the technology to a long cat. “You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles,” he said. Cats were less useful in helping to explain his own work in the special and general theories of relativity, which won him everlasting renown. Still, there can be little doubt that Einstein enjoyed Tiger’s company, especially when he had difficulties, as we all sometimes do, in his work and his life.

“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life: music and cats,” said Einstein.

I couldn’t find a photo of Einstein with Tiger, but here’s a portrait of the pair by artist Michael Mathias Prechtl:

Edwin Hubble:

If there was a center to Hubble’s universe, you can bet that his cat, Nicholas Copernicus, lived there, making a beloved nuisance of himself. According to the Huntington Library, where Hubble’s personal papers are stored, references to the giant black cat abound in the archives.

He was clearly the darling of the family. Hubble frequently referred to his home as “Nicholas’ estate.” And in her diary, Hubble’s wife Grace noted the close bond between her husband and the cat. In a moment that every cat owner will recognize, Grace observed that when Edwin would retire to his study to work, Nicholas enjoyed lolling on Edwin’s desk, “sprawled over as many pages as he could cover,” she wrote. “‘He is helping me,’ [Edwin] explained.”

A photo (caption from Discover):

Edwin Hubble and his beloved cat, Nicholas Copernicus, uncharacteristically not sprawled across important papers or books. (Credit: Image courtesy Edwin Hubble Papers (HUB 1035-9), Huntington Library, San Marino, California.)


Isaac Newton (no photo available!):

Legend has it that, in between developing the fundamental laws of motion and gravitation, doing groundbreaking work on optics and helping to invent calculus, the great Sir Isaac Newton also found time to invent the cat flap.

As one version of the story goes, when Newton was at Cambridge, he requested that a hole be cut into his door and a leather or cloth flap put over it so that his cat, Spithead, could come and go at will. Cat owners the world over can easily envision the father of modern science being driven to distraction by the scratching and meowing of a cat wanting to be let out … then 30 seconds later yowling to be let back in. So, the story certainly feels true.

But feelings aren’t facts. While some scholars dispute whether Newton even had a cat, historical evidence makes it pretty clear that he didn’t invent the cat door. Apart from anything else, cutting a hole in a door — even one you might put a flap over — hardly qualifies as an invention.

I take issue with this; what is the historical evidence showing that somebody else other than Newton invented the catflap?

Erwin Schrödinger:

The most famous cat in science history owes its name to the physicist and Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, who won the honor in 1933 for his early work in quantum mechanics. But he is best-known for the thought experiment involving a theoretical cat in a box, and whether it could be said to be both dead and alive. Schrödinger proposed the scenario in a 1935 paper as a criticism of quantum theory at the time.

Forever after known as “Schrödinger’s Cat,” the paradoxical thought experiment has become a permanent — although frequently misunderstood — fixture in both science and popular culture.

People have sometimes wondered why Schrödinger used a cat in his example, instead of a rat or a plant or almost any other living thing. Some stories allege that Schrödinger had an actual cat, named Milton, and infer that the pet may have provided some inspiration to the physicist.

Well, there is some supporting evidence that Schrödinger had a such a cat, like here and here, but it’s sketchy at best. So why do they include Newton and Schrödinger if the evidence is thin?

Nikola Tesla: (this one seems real):

A brilliant but eccentric pioneer of electricity, Nikola Tesla has become something of an icon to science nerds everywhere. It turns out Tesla was a bit of a fanboy himself, at least when it came to his childhood pet, Macak, whom Tesla once described as “the finest of all cats in the world.”

In a letter written to a young admirer in 1939, Tesla extolled the cat’s virtues at some length; the man was in his 80s by then, but time had clearly not diminished Tesla’s love for Macak.

He told the story of a winter evening where he found himself stroking Macak’s back. In a moment that inspired his lifelong study of electricity, Tesla was shocked — literally — to discover that the cat’s back became “a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of sparks loud enough to be heard all over the house.” It was a pretty dramatic moment — his mother told him to stop for fear he’d start a fire.

If you want to read more about Macak, go here; I couldn’t find a photo of Tesla with Macak or of Macak on his own, so I’ll use this to show the static electricity of moggies:

Darwin did not have a cat (he liked d*gs), and off the bat I can’t name any famous biologists who had cats. Can you?


From the Kiffness (there are more at the website). I love these videos!


Here’s an 80-minute episode about cats in Chinese history and literature.  Lee Moore, who runs the podcast, got his PhD last year at the University of Oregon’s Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures. Here’s the blurb for the podcast. Surely you want to learn about the Chinese attitudes towards cats as seen in their writings!

For any and all cat lovers worldwide, here’s a special episode for you. Fellow cat lover (ailurophile) Lee Moore of the Chinese Literature Podcast joins Laszlo for this CHP Special Episode where they chat about cats in Chinese history and offer up a few interesting anecdotes and stories. They both recite a selection of cat poems from the Song and Ming dynasties and go all out to discuss their favorite animal.


Special lagniappe: Here’s a short video about Willow, the Bidens’ White House Cat. We were promised a First Moggy for months before the Bidens finally broke down and got Willow, a rescue cat.  Willow now has her own Wikipedia page, and she’s the first cat to live in the White House since India, who was staffed by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

Here’s India, who died in the White House at age 19:

h/t: Neil, Ursula, Gregory

30 thoughts on “Caturday felid trifecta: Cats who owned famous scientists; caterwauling set to music ; Chinese cats in art and literature; and special lagniappe

  1. I don’t normally comment on the Caturday posts. I also don’t even clink the link on any of your articles unless I have a comment to post, as I can read the entire thing on the front page. The number of “views” is not actually indicative of how many people read a post. I’m guessing that most people don’t click on a link to read an article.

    If you want to remedy this and get far more accurate view counts, give only an introductory paragraph for each post (not just Caturday posts!) and make the entire meat of the post “below the jump.” The way you’re doing things now does not give you anything close to accurate engagement numbers on a per-article basis.

    Hope this helps!

    1. To each their own. I much prefer having all of a post available at the same time & place, and let me choose what to read simply by scrolling.

      1. I agree! I’m just letting Jerry know that the numbers he sees for post engagement do not in any way accurately reflect the real numbers. I also prefer reading all the articles on the front page without needing to click on any of them, but if he wants more accurate numbers, he will need to put the meat of each article below the jump.

  2. > Should the Caturday Felid posts continue?

    Absolutely, please do!

    I woke up this morning to find that my cat had left her collar five feet up in a holiday tree. It’s the first time I’ve seen a cat hanging an ornament!

  3. I love cats, but will never get another now that our beloved Tobi has died (about ten years ago). When she became unable to jump onto the bed to sleep with us or to climb the cat ramp to the bed, I slept on the floor in the living room. That lasted a year until she died.

    I’m not surprised that so many prominent scientists had cats as companions. Than you for highlighting just a few of them.

    1. When my first two cats became too frail to jump on my bed to sleep with me, I bought a chest of plastic drawers from BB&B. I removed the drawers and made little steps for them to walk up to the bed. The night before I knew we needed to put my second cat to sleep (lung cancer. She couldn’t breathe anymore), I slept on the floor with her.

      The things we do for the cats we love…

  4. The Triboelectric effect, a sort of contact electrification (says Wikipedia, I’m no physicist) where electrical charges built up on materials like cats’ fur through movement and friction like from petting and brushing. Tribo- prefix, Greek, meaning “to rub”, apparently. Thales of Miletus being credited with maybe the earliest description of the phenomenon with amber rubbed with fur attracting feathers and such. Professor Julius Sumner Miller had some neat demonstrations of the effects in some old videos available on da yootoobs. (Trigger warning: cat fur, minus the rest of the cat, was often used in such demonstrations)

    What I didn’t find out through a quick wiki mental refresher search was why cat fur is attracted to my eyeballs, my mouth, or my food.

  5. Yes, I do want Caturday to continue.
    And the occasional cat posts during the week, too.
    And Hilli, Kukla, Szaron. And other readers cats.
    And the occasional cat posts during the week too.
    There cannot be too many cats.

  6. I recently read about Isaac Newton inventing the cat flap by cutting a hole in the door. The article went on to say that when the cat had kittens he made a smaller cut for them to use. Doh!
    Yes keep up the Caturday.

  7. CATURDAY FELID MUST CONTINUE. I’m sorry, but I had to shout. It is the highlight of my week. And please keep the Kitteh Trio of Poland as well.

  8. Subscribed to WEIT about eight years ago based on content of science + atheism plus its global outlook and more. During my daily visits I have learned a lot and broadened my outlook as well. It immediately became an important daily routine – WEIT with morning coffee. THE SMILES came from the many, many feline contributions and following activities at Botany pond.

    Hope you will decide to keep with the Caterday post.

  9. I would add another story about cats in science: American physicist Robert Wood ( used a cat to clean the spectrometer from dust and webs by letting his cat to crawl through the apparatus (I am sure the cat had a lot of fun with this!).
    I believe that this story was described in this book about Wood:
    but I could not find any sources describing this story on internet.

    This book was one of the most inspiring books for me as a kid!

  10. From the results of the poll at 1:30 pst, WEIT readers really want their Caturday fix. I hardly ever comment on the Caturday post, but I always read and enjoy it. Obviously, I voted YES.

    1. I hope so too, but doubt it would have been a significant problem if any had gone down. But surely, any surface static charge would have been neutralized by the conductive fluid (spit) used by cats in grooming.
      You’re making me wonder how those balls are made – and therefore, what surface chemicals might be added in the production process. I’d suspect a “drop tower” with a sprayer at the top for mixing styrene and whatever other monomer is used to emit the necessary CO2 to puff the mixture up. Which would mean not a lot of surface additives.

  11. On the subject of cat flaps, Wikipedia (I know…!) says:

    The 14th-century English writer Geoffrey Chaucer described a simple cat hole in the “Miller’s Tale” from his Canterbury Tales (late 14th century). In the narrative, a servant whose knocks go unanswered uses the cat door to peek in:

    An hole he foond, ful lowe upon a bord
    Ther as the cat was wont in for to crepe,
    And at the hole he looked in ful depe,
    And at the last he hadde of hym a sighte.

    In an apparent early modern example of urban legend, the invention of the pet door was attributed to Isaac Newton (1642–1727) in a story (authored anonymously and published in a column of anecdotes in 1893) to the effect that Newton foolishly made a large hole for his adult cat and a small one for her kittens, not realizing the kittens could use the large hole as well. Two Newton biographers cite passages saying that Newton kept “neither cat nor dog in his chamber”. Yet over 60 years earlier, a member of Newton’s alma mater Trinity College, one J. M. F. Wright, reported this same story (from an unknown source) in his 1827 memoir, adding: “Whether this account be true or false, indisputably true is it that there are in the door to this day two plugged holes of the proper dimensions for the respective egresses of cat and kitten.”

  12. Yes, please maintain the Caturday Felix Trifecta—it’s the first thing that I read on Sunday morning here in the Land of Oz while drinking my coffee. Sometimes Tschimi joins me, and enjoys it too! His name (not sure if it’s transliterated correctly) means ‘cat’ in Tibetan, although he’s a common, garden variety tabby.

  13. I feel everyone is overlooking the real issue in the Isaac Newton cat controversy: Why was it called “Spithead”?!?

    That’s even worse than George Washington naming his dog Sweetlips.

    1. “Spithead” may be a reference to the maritime feature ; the location has been used for a very long time for naval chest-puffing, so it’s relatively well known as a location in Britain.
      Waiting to discover that “Sweetlips” had some other meaning in Washington’s life. One of his slaves, perhaps?

  14. I tend to read every article here. I like cats, but tend to be more of a dog person.
    Regardless, I suggest you write what inspires or interests you. It has to be a lot of work to keep all of these plates spinning at the same time, and I would not presume to suggest changes.

  15. Another vote for Caturday Continuation. Also 733 votes compared to 21 (22, now) comments is an indication of the low-involvement versus high-involvement readerships.

    If there was a center to Hubble’s universe, you can bet that his cat, Nicholas Copernicus,

    I had to look a couple of times to spot the feline. A veritable Barnard amongst astronomical cats, seen more as an obscuration of the background than a luminous feature itself.

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