As everyone knows, Saturday is Caturday. And todays amusing feline fact relates to a paper published in Physical Review Letters back in 1975. The paper’s title was “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc ³He”, which is already pretty cool★. So what was odd about this paper? Well you see, one of the authors was a cat.
Physicist Jack Hetherington had prepared his manuscript using the typical formal writing style used in many papers. He used active voice but avoided singular personal pronouns. Unfortunately, at the time, using plural pronouns in a single author paper was grounds for rejection from Phys. Rev. Lett. (apparently, they disapprove of people using “the royal we”). In those days, Hetherington had used a typewriter to compose his manuscript, so changing all the pronouns in the paper would have been immensely troublesome♠︎. Instead, as ever-pragmatic as many physicists are, he simply decided to include his siamese cat Chester as a co-author.
Because a single name would never suffice, and doubtless to prevent colleagues from recognising who this extra author really was, Chester was given the full name of F.D.C. Willard, Short for Felis Domesticus Chester Willard (Willard having been the name of the cat’s father).
The paper, Hetherington & Willard (1975), was published and does indeed have Chester the cat listed as Hetherington’s co-author! He’s therefore the only cat to have ever published anything in the field of low temperature phsics. Amusingly, this also means that this Cat has an Erdös number of 7, which I’m pretty sure is lower than mine. He probably has a lot more citations too.
There are a couple of stories as to how the fact became known that F.D.C. Willard was actually a cat. Rumour goes that a professor visiting Hetherington’s University asked to see Willard. Another says it was because of telephone enquiries asking to speak to the coauthor when Hetherington was absent. A third says it happened at a 1978 conference on low temperature physics in Grenoble. Either way, Willard was evidently a talented cat. Shortly after that conference an essay was published in the French publication La Recherche, entitled “L’hélium 3 solide. Un antiferromagnétique nucléaire.” with Willard as the solo author!
Lower Erdös number, awesome research topic, higher citation count and better at speaking French. This cat was clearly a better scientist than I am.
Hetherington himself had this to say on the matter:
“Why was I willing to do such an irreverent thing? Against it was the fact that most of us are paid partly by how many papers we publish, and there is some dilution of the effect of the paper on one’s reputation when it is shared by another author. On the other hand, I did not ignore completely the publicity value, either. If it eventually proved to be correct, people would remember the paper more if the anomalous authorship were known. In any case I went ahead and did it and have generally not been sorry. Most people are amused by the concept, only editors, for some reason, seem to find little humour in the story.”
Sadly, following his debut in France, F.D.C. Willard retired from the academic world. However, if you know where to look in the scientific literature, you might occasionally see F.D.C. Willard, private communication pop up in the bibliographies of some journal papers. Occasionally you might also see his name in the acknowledgements, thanking him for “helpful discussions.”
★ Because solid helium is a cool thing to study. No pun intended.
♠︎ Somedays, we really don’t appreciate how difficult life would be without being able to use find and replace. Or ctrl-z.
Upper – Sadly not an actual picture of Chester. Credit: stefan_fotos/Wikimedia Commons
Lower – Source unknown, a scan of one of 10 printed copies of Hetherington & Willard (1975) signed by both authors.