Return Home

Taking the Plunge

Back to Episode

Three stories that upend our pre-conceived notions about falling:

3. Falling Cats: David Quammen ponders the terminal velocity of a plummeting cat, teaches Jad a new word, and helps clear up some fallacies of feline physics.

4. Constantly Falling: Brian Greene explains why he can't answer the most basic question you can ask a physicist: "why do we fall?"

5. Falling Fortunes: Garrett Soden and Joan Murray introduce us to the 20th Century's greatest "gravity hero"--who, despite being the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, ultimately landed in a poorhouse.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece gave an incorrect location for the Animal Medical Center; the correct location is 510 East 62nd Street, New York, NY.  The piece also featured an incorrect estimation of the rate at which falling cats were seen by the Animal Medical Center over a five-month period; the correct rate was approximately one cat per day.  The audio has been adjusted to reflect these changes.




Brian Greene, Joan Murray, David Quammen and Garrett Soden

Comments [31]

Richard from Arizona

I enjoyed the cat falling segment, which was just replayed here in Phoenix. But I must remind listeners they should be diligent and not allow their cats to roam freely if in high-rise buildings. They should still be responsible pet owners and keep windows closed or screened in. I'm visiting Phoenix, but live in Hong Kong. Years ago I used to volunteer at the SPCA there and was told the top reason for injured or dead cats was falling from heights. IMO what they landed on (concrete vs tin roofing on lower floors) was just as important as their velocity.

Oct. 15 2017 04:53 PM
Marcus Kobrin from California

I listen on both KUOP and KQED. I need to correction Jad's idea about humans no longer treating cats OR ANY ANIMALS as badly as humans did a thousand years ago. IF, humans treat animals better than a millennium ago, why does PETA or the ASPCA still exist? They both still exist BECAUSE humans STILL treat animals badly. If you haven't seen PETA or the ASPCAs TV ads at least once a week, that may be why Jad said that on the episode. Thanks.

Oct. 11 2017 04:21 PM
Gary from Oakland, CA

Re: your falling cats report
While it was very interesting about the cats, I couldn't help wondering- if a cat a day is falling from New York apartments, how many people are getting hit by falling cats? How are they fairing injury-wise?
I think a hit-by-falling-cat report is required.
Gary Quinn

May. 11 2016 12:36 AM
Howard from Maryland

You all missed the greatest punchline/tie-in in the history of radio:
Annie Taylor's cat was sent over the Falls first, to test the barrel. The cat lived and Annie posed for pictures with it.
I had heard long ago that she went over with the cat. I don't know if it's true, but that would have made a bad decision infinitely worse.
I imagine the brave kitty died in poverty like Annie.

Apr. 30 2016 02:28 PM
Steve from NYC

I use the part about falling cats to start a discussion about evaluating data in my middle school science class.

Oct. 23 2015 10:21 AM
Par from Sydney, Australia

this seems relevant to the cat falling section of the podcast:

(It shows a cat falling from a high height - likely uninjured)

May. 11 2015 09:00 AM
Max from Northern NJ

Okay, so space is a rubber sheet, stretched tightly, and mass deforms the sheet so we are attracted toward large masses.

Conceptualizing this in one dimension less than reality is fine on one level, but still leaves open the question, what is the gravity that pulls us onto the rubber sheet? We still need gravity in a perpendicular dimension to pull us down into the deformation of the sheet caused by the presence of mass.

Corollary: The conundrum of dark matter is premised on space being uniformly distributed. Suppose space is not uniformly distributed. In those places where the density of space varies, or where space is deformed slightly into an orthogonal dimension, we detect dark matter. Call it a "grey hole" if you will, a dimple in space, invisible, yet exerting a gravitational force.

Feb. 10 2015 11:53 AM
GonneYeats from Albany, NY

There are a couple of things that have always bothered me about this episode, which others have commented on here (for example, the jab at the barrel jumper who eventually died from gangrene). However, what is really annoying me today is that apparently the veterinarian, who sounds like an educated and fluent native speaker of American English, never learned the basics of verb conjugation . . . "Cats have fell!?"

me ee ow. . .

Feb. 09 2015 02:37 PM
LANVY NGUYEN from Vietnam

Hi RadioLab,

I recently came across this awesome math teacher who does a video blog (SMARTER EVERDAY) which explains things from the perspectives of mathematics and physics. You guys would make for great collaborations

May. 15 2014 03:29 PM
galo from Cuenca, Ecuador

Dec. 13 2013 12:44 PM
Sparky from Charleston, SC

The noise of that cat falling is, like, the funniest thing I've ever heard on public radio. I started crying when I heard it, and I was in public too, so...

Look, Jad, you made me look like a crazy dude, but darn if you can't capture the image of a surprised cat plummeting 20 stories.

Jun. 22 2013 02:58 AM
Nick from Hell

A lot of things can be viewed as both waves and particles. In fact, according to quantum physics, everything can. You can actually calculate any objects "wave function" with a fairly simple equation, as I remember.
But the nature of the wave/particle duality is that the wave component is only significant for small things. Photons, eletrons, protons, even atoms can all act as either wave or particle or both depending on the type of measurement being used. Try googling "bose einstein condensate" for some really cool stuff.
When you're sitting still, gravity is pulling you down, while the chair is pushing you up. The chair is also being pulled down, but the atoms in your pants don't know or care about that. All they know is that the chair atoms are pushing them with exactly the same force as the gravity is pulling them with. The chair atoms themselves are still because of other atoms pushing them up. In fact, you are sitting on a column of atoms that goes straight down to the center of the earth.
When the elevator pulls up and your weight increases, you must understand one thing: it only happens while the elevator is accelerating. You know that you generally only get that weird feeling in the elevator just when it's starting up (unless it's a fancy one in a high rise). It quickly reaches its maximum speed and keeps going at that speed until it has to slow down (negative acceleration), at which point you feel lighter.
The elevator, going at 1 million miles an hour, would not feel any different than one that is still. It is only the acceleration that mimics (and is equivalent to) gravity, according to Einstein.

Jul. 25 2012 10:26 PM
Nick from San Quentin

Can you stop completing each other's sentences? Really friggin' annoying.

Jul. 25 2012 10:06 PM
Si from UK

I also felt the comments about the death of the 2nd person to take the plunge over Niagara Falls were in spiteful - what if the roles had been reversed and the 2nd plungee was the pensioner, and, having subsequently gone on to tour the world, had died in an accident? Would Jad have thought this was 'karma' because the 1st person hadn't made much money out their venture?
Based on the podcast, it doesn't sound as though the chap lauded it over the plunging pensioner nor claimed to be the first to attempt it, so why the contempt? He only took the financial initiative that she didn't. For all we know (at least, based on the podcast), he may possibly have admired and empathised with her. If you had some reason to believe otherwise, this should also have been included as background in the story.

May. 09 2012 12:30 PM
Rin from Baltimore, MD

Saw an article on msnbc about a cat surviving a 19 story plunge, which of course reminded me of this show. I thought I would share it here:

Mar. 22 2012 04:55 PM


Yeah. I've listened to this show about 3 times and each time I get annoyed by that part. The heavens are merciful? There is cosmic justice? What did that guy do to deserve to die? :/

Jan. 20 2012 06:22 AM
Magnifico Gigantus

Re listening to this episode and it really I mean REALLY bothers me how they celebrate the death of a human being, Instead of placing blame on the culture of the time that let Anne go without fame you place it on this man who also dared to go down the falls in a barrel a decade later.

Karma is a concept made up to help some get to sleep at night.

Nov. 24 2011 01:22 AM
Renshou Dai from CA

Being an applied physicist myself, I have to point out something that counter against the opinion of the famous astrophysicist. I agree with him regarding the biased data sample, but on the point of weightless feeling during the fall, he was not quite right. On the first few seconds of fall when the cat was accelerating, the cat was weightless (all gravity force was translated to accelation, and all cat's internal organs and external body are falling at the same rate), but once the cat reaches the terminal speed (air bouyance or resistance balances the gravity), the cat not longer felt weightless. The air resistance functions like a support (as if the cat were crouching on an invisible bench, and the cat's external boy feels no net force and his internal organ feels the gravitational pull, which is what we normally feel while walking and sitting naturally). At the terminal speed (uniform rate with zero accelation), the cat would indeed feel more "natural" and hence probably less panic and more prepared for landing. So the animal behavior scientist actually has a point, and I believe he is right, although I consider myself a physicist. Personally, I felt awful when I was sitting on the pirate ship at the amusement park. The "simulated" weightless situation makes me feel sick. But in the simulated parachuting in a wind tunnel where the wind force balance the gravity, you do not feel sick at all, which also proves the point.

Jan. 23 2011 10:33 PM

@Adam the music is Tortoise from Chicago.

Nov. 04 2010 04:51 PM
Mike from Lawrence, KS

Interesting story on cat terminal velocity, but probably not accurate. I am a Math teacher and used the radiolab story when I did a lab involving terminal velocity. It turned out to be a great opportunity to talk about random sampling when this textbook example was shown to me by a colleague.

Nov. 01 2010 02:42 PM
Patrick from Takoma Park, MD, U.S.A

I made a video about the cat section in the falling piece for my 7th grade science class.

No actual cats were harmed in this production!

Oct. 21 2010 08:36 PM
Mike from Chicago

I loved the stories, but a brief perusal of Wikipedia (high-rise syndrome) links to a more recent study of falling cats that contradicts the 1987 findings. Ted's comment on sampling bias makes a lot more sense than cats doing better when falling from higher stories.

Oct. 16 2010 12:45 PM
boosie from 11211

I thought I understood the concept of the warping of space-time but now I'm confused. If we are constantly falling, then so too should be the chairs upon which we sit. But if we (the chair and I) *are* both constantly falling (presumably at the same speed), would that not be more akin to the hypo of "standing" on a scale in a falling elevator? If it is more akin to that hypo because we are falling at the same speed, then the chair would not be "pushing" up on me (which the story analogized to the elevator pulling up on me). In the elevator pulling up on me hypo, the elevator is accelerating upward faster than I, hence the "change" in my weight. Were it not, my "weight" would be normal. So, at the end of the day, I don't understand how gravity is explained by saying I'm constantly falling. Needless to say, I'm very confused....

Oct. 13 2010 11:13 PM
Billy Sobczyk

I want to agree with Ted. I remember in high school reading that same paper also as an example of sampling bias. If the cat falls from less than five floors and walks away, the owner may not take him to the vet. If the cat falls and dies instantly, again why waste money on a vet? So the cats that fall and get hurt or fall and should have gotten hurt but didn't are the only cats in this sample.

Oct. 06 2010 01:34 PM
Ted Pavlic from Columbus, OH

It is unfortunate that the falling cats story aired on RadioLab. The particular paper that is the source of that story is commonly used in graduate-level biology courses as an example of sampling bias. Because the data is volunteered as opposed to sampled randomly, it appears like cats that fall from very high heights are safer than cats that fall from intermediate heights. However, it is more likely that most cats that fall from very high are too mangled when they hit the ground to even be brought into a vet. So the ones that do make it into see the vet are not a representative sample.

Oct. 05 2010 09:55 AM
Matthew McCoy from Atlanta

Jad, Jad, Jad, Jad,

Not only is celebrating "that guy's" death sick and disgusting, but claiming karma as retribution for the actions Annie Taylor's manager is wrong.

According to The Rules of Karma Handbook, Section 22.8, using the six degrees of connectivity gambit like that makes you "karmically responsible" for the words and actions of Rush Limbaugh and his myrmidons.

May God have mercy on your soul.

Oct. 02 2010 09:59 PM
Jeremy from Harlem from Harlem

@Marian from New Orleans, the curvature of space-time describes gravity within the framework of General Relativity. The graviton, a theoretical particle, mediates the interactions of gravity within a Quantum Mechanics framework. (Althought not completely comparable, think of a graviton as being to gravity as a photon is to electromagnetism, or the gluon to the strong force).

Oct. 01 2010 03:16 PM
Mike T

I loved this show, but I have just one bone to pick. Everyone cheered when we found out that the guy who toured the world riding on the fame afforded to him because of his Niagra Falls stunt, lost his life.

I don't think he deserved death did he? Was it his fault that this woman ended up in the poor house? Seems a little unfair to use him as a whipping boy.

Sep. 27 2010 02:33 PM
Anna Fridlis from Prague

Why does Garret Soden sounds exactly like George Clooney?
Also, great show! This is one of my favorites :)

Sep. 26 2010 11:40 AM
Adam from New Zealand

At 41:00 of the podcast, just as they find Annie Taylor alive in the barrel, what song is that guitar from? It sounds very familiar, but can't put my finger on it. Thanks.

Sep. 25 2010 11:55 PM
Marian from New Orleans

Loved this, but the episode with Brian Greene leaves me at the same level as high school physics. If gravity is nothing but the deformation of space, why are people still looking of graviton? Can gravity be both the curving of space and a particle?

Sep. 23 2010 04:27 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.