Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Author of This Physics Paper Is 7 Years Old (and Also a Cat)

By Brandon Specktor, Senior Writer | February 8, 2018 07:06am ET

On April 1, 2014, the American Physical Society announced a landmark change in policy: All scientific papers authored by cats would henceforth become freely available to the public.

The announcement was a joke (it was April Fools' Day), but the cat that inspired it was not. His name is Chester — better known to the scientific community as F.D.C. Willard, arguably the most famous cat in physics after Schrödinger's.

In 1975, Chester/Willard's name appeared alongside Michigan State University physics professor Jack Hetherington's on an influential paperabout the low-temperature physics of helium-3 isotopes — versions of an element (helium, in this case) with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei — published in the journal Physical Review Letters. Hetherington was Chester's owner, and he had initially included the 7-year-old Siamese cat's name on the paper to resolve a grammatical blunder. [The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

As a colleague pointed out while editing the draft, Hetherington listed himself as the study's sole author, yet he had nevertheless written the entire paper using the "we" pronoun. This was against the journal's style rules, the colleague noted. Hetherington's paper would surely be rejected if it wasn't retyped.

Hetherington, however, was eager to submit his work. "Changing the paper to the impersonal seemed too difficult now that it was all written and typed," Hetherington said in the book "More Random Walks in Science" (CRC Press, 1982). "Therefore, after an evening's thought, I simply asked the secretary to change the title page to include the name of the family cat." 

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