Dear Science: Answering Your Questions: Throwing Cats, College Smoking, and Eternal Sickness

Nicole Le, Columnist

Dear Science,

A friend’s been trying to convince me that if you throw a cat from a building above a certain height, it will survive — even though throwing it from a window below that height would be fatal. I don’t believe him. Who’s right?

As a kid you must have heard that cats always land on their feet, right? Though some childhood adages prove to be ridiculously false, this one proves to be at least moderately accurate. Sorry to break it to you, but your friend’s on to something. Veterinarians from New York City’s Animal Medical Center discovered this exact phenomena in 1987 when they looked at cases of cats that had fallen from tall buildings. They found that cats that had fallen seven to 32 stories were in much better shape than those that had fallen two to six stories. The answer to the “falling cat problem” is twofold: feline reflexes and good ol’ high school physics.

Cats are equipped with something called an “aerial righting reflex,” an involuntary and almost instantaneous bodily reaction they have when dropped from some height — a building, for instance. The reflex comes from a combination of inherent cat qualities: 1) they always know which way is up (thanks to super-sensitive balance organs in the inner ear) 2) they’re master contortionists with super-flexible backbones and no collarbone to get in the way and 3) cats don’t weigh much compared to their body volume, so they can easily spread out and become a little furry parachute.

Here’s where the physics comes in. Because of this last characteristic, cats reach terminal velocity, the speed at which the force of downward gravity matches the force of upward wind resistance, about twice as quickly as large animals like humans do and therefore stop accelerating earlier, too. Without the jargon: the force at which they’d hit the ground is reduced, and they reach free fall, the point where they won’t hit the ground any harder, earlier.

As far as why falling from taller heights is less dangerous than falling from shorter heights, it’s hard to answer with complete certainty since we can’t go around throwing cats off buildings and studying the results. We can only do what those vets did and study previous cases. That said, the most prominent theory is that with taller buildings, cats have more time to reach free fall, reorient their bodies and parachute themselves.

So now we’ve got the how, but what about when you and your friend get around to asking why the subjects of our favorite Internet meme need the ability to survive from high falls? House cats aren’t very dissimilar from their genetic ancestors (think lions, tigers and leopards) — animals which, not coincidentally, spend a lot of time hanging out in trees.

On the evolutionary time scale, the time gap between the emergence of domestic cats from wild cats is pretty minuscule, so it makes sense that our pets would still have the same suite of adaptations that makes a life above ground totally safe and fun for wild cats.

tl;dr: Check out Robert Dudley, et al. “Aerial Righting Reflexes In Flightless Animals” from Integrative & Comparative Biology available on Academic Search Complete to Obies.

Dear Science,

Will my lungs heal themselves after a few years of smoking?

You got to college; you were curious about cigarettes or had already begun experimenting in high school. However you started, the truth is that lots of people smoke at Oberlin, and I’m including everyone from “social smokers” to those who smoke a pack a day or more. I know it’s a touchy subject, but I’ll try and give you what I can glean from the various studies that have been done on the phenomenon of college-age smoking. What happens when you

smoke? Very short term — your airways are getting all red and swollen, and the little hair-like projects in the airways called cilia, which sweep icky stuff like mucus and dirt out of your lungs, are paralyzed.

The good news is that the permanent lung damage caused by smoking only shows up after about 20 years of smoking 10–15 cigarettes a day. Lucky for you, it’s only been a fraction of that. Still, that’s not to say that walking away from a less frequent habit means you’re good to go. Researchers can make a good, calculated estimate of the number of years it will take for an ex-smoker to return to nonsmoker risk levels for lung cancer by looking at their “pack- years” — the average number of packs smoked per day multiplied by the number of years spent smoking.

A big pack-year number would be 50 and above, but even the heaviest smokers at Oberlin probably wouldn’t push 10. All this means that yes, if you quit smoking after a few years, your magnificent miracle-worker of a human body can heal your airways in a matter of weeks to months. Inflammation will decrease, and the cilia will start wiggling around again. Huzzah! Breathing will get easier, going to Philips won’t seem like such a chore and one study even shows that if you quit smoking before you’re 30, they can’t show a statistically significant difference in when you would have died.

BUT — and there’s a huge but when it comes to smoking — the longer it takes you to quit, the higher and higher your susceptibility to lung-related illnesses and diseases will get. And the danger with starting to smoke is that it really is hard to stop. There’s a whole slew of things I could address (smoking has toxic effects on the heart, blood and brain; nicotine is just as addictive as hard drugs; drinking makes smoking worse; etc.), but for lack of space, I’ll have to save that for a Synapse article or perhaps a future Dear Science column. In the mean- time, I won’t condone or berate, just remind you to be respectful to others and yourself however you think is best.

tl;dr: Take a look at R.E. Schane, P. M. Ling, and S. A. Glantz, “Health Effects of Light and Intermittent Smoking: A Review,” from Circulation, available to the public online.

Dear Science,


Because y’all won’t stay in your dorm rooms when you’re sick! More on that later, but here’s the lowdown on this cold and flu season.

Firstly, colds and flus aren’t caused by cold weather — they’re caused by germs which get spread around more easily during cold weather because everyone’s staying together inside. Combine that with the high-density living conditions of college and you’ve got yourself a little germ factory (Politics Prof. Marc Blecher came up with that term).

“Germs” is a not-so-technical umbrella term that includes bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. As far as cold and flu season goes, at Oberlin and other college campuses,we’re most concerned with viruses (but for your interest — bacteria cause infections like tonsillitis or strep throat, ear in- fections or pneumonia; fungi cause stuff like athlete’s foot; and protozoan infections affect your intestines). Viruses are weird, to start. They’re non-living, so can’t technically be referred to as organisms, and rely on host cells (like the ones in our bodies) to reproduce. Viruses come in all shapes and sizes, but our cold-causing ones are called rhinoviruses, while flu-causing ones belong to the more familiar influenza family. Like all other viruses, these work on the basic principle of injecting their DNA into a host cell and hi- jacking the living cell’s reproductive abilities to make more copies of the cold or flu virus. All this cellular brainwashing eventually kills the host cell, which breaks open, releasing a bunch of viruses into the body.

The virus gets into the cells lining your nose and eyes, starts reproducing and your body’s immune response kicks into gear. Specifically with the Influenza virus, fever appears as a symptom because your body raises its natural temperature above 37 degrees Celsius to make it a less hospitable environment for the virus, which is temperature-sensitive. So Rhinovirus is more mild than Influenza, but otherwise, they work in similar ways. Your blood vessels open up to allow more white blood cells to attack the invader, resulting in extra mucous secretions and inflammation. That will make your nose run and your face feel stuffy, while all the extra fluid and irritation of the battle cause the sneezes. If the virus gets into your lungs, the same battle rages, but your body gets rid of all the excess fluid via coughing. As you recover, your mucus will become a different color and consistency as it becomes more saturated with dead cells, collateral damage from the mighty immune system response.

Okay, so viruses are tricky little devils and we all have classes to worry about, but really — stay in your room if you’re sick. Germs are spread more readily via surfaces than even by breathing all over each other, so it’s best to sequester yourself with a few bouillon cubes, ibuprofen, Gatorade and your favorite blankie (incidentally all items that can be found in Cold Care Kits available at Mudd, Wilder and Student Health) if you’ve got something flu-y. Cover up that cold with a tissue, and do yourself and everyone else a healthy favor — don’t hit up Splitchers next Wednesday.