Home Science In 1975, a cat co-authored a physics paper

In 1975, a cat co-authored a physics paper


When one reads a physics paper in an esteemed journal, one does not
generally wonder if it was written by a cat. But such was the case for
an article in the 1970s credited to co-author F.D.C. Willard—the Cat Who Published.
Jack H. Hetherington was a professor of physics at Michigan State
University in 1975, when he finished what would become an influential
and often-cited physics paper. The academic writing, entitled, Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc 3He, was
an in-depth exploration of atomic behavior at different temperatures.
It would have flown over the heads of most lay people, not to mention
He was all set to send it to Physical Review Letters, which today describes itself
as “the world’s premier physics letter journal.” However, before he
dispatched it, Hetherington gave the paper to a colleague to get one one
last set of eyes on the piece. This is when he ran into a strange
Hetherington had used the royal “we” throughout the paper. As
his colleague pointed out, Physical Review Letters generally only published papers using plural pronouns and adjectives like “we” and “our” if the paper had multiple authors.
Now I Know points out that
in 1975, Hetherington couldn’t have simply done a find-and-replace to
correct the offending articles. In fact the whole paper had been
produced on a typewriter.

In the 1982 book More Random Walks in Science,
Hetherington gave other reasons for not wanting to add another human
authors, including the fact that the compensation for a published piece
is changed with each additional author, that a scientific writer’s
reputation is tied up in what they publish, and that prestige can take a
hit when multiple authors are involved. 

Hetherington wrote that after giving the issue “an evening’s thought,”
he decided the paper was so good that it required rapid publishing.
Unwilling to go back and replace the plural voice in the document, he
did the next best thing and just added a second author: his Siamese cat,
Chester. Of course just listing “Chester” as a co-author probably
wouldn’t fly, so he invented the name F.D.C. Willard. The “F.D.C.” stood
for “Felix Domesticus, Chester.” Willard had been the name of Chester’s father.  
Portraying F.D.C. Willard as one of his colleagues at Michigan State,
Hetherington submitted his paper, and it was published in issue 35 of Physical Review Letters.
Hetherington didn’t feel too bad about the deception, recognizing the possible publicity value of such a stunt. In More Random Walks in Science,
he wrote: “Why would I do such an irreverent thing? … 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.”
After the paper was published, it didn’t take long for Willard’s true
identity to come to light. The first time anyone outside of
Hetherington’s close colleagues learned of the cat scientist was when a
visitor to the college came looking for the authors. Hetherington was
away. As quoted in a piece on Today I Found Out, Hetherington said, “Everyone laughed and soon the cat was out of the bag.”
After that casual reveal, Hetherington leaned into the joke and even
issued a handful of article reprints signed by both authors. His was a
standard signature, while Willard’s was a pawprint. Clearly,
Hetherington wasn’t too worried about how the community would take to
his kitty co-author. He even began describing Chester/Willard as the
university’s “Rodentia Predation Consultant.”
University officials seemed to love the idea of the cat as a sort of
physics mascot. In 1975, the college’s Physics Chairman, Truman
Woodruff, even wrote a letter to Hetherington,
asking him if he could persuade Willard to join the department full
time. The letter read, in part, “Can you imagine the universal
jubilation if in fact Willard could be persuaded to join us, even if
only as a Visiting Distinguished Professor?”

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According to Hetherington, the only people who didn’t think the joke was very funny were editors. Willard went on to publish another paper in 1980, this time being
credited as the sole author (assumedly Hetherington helped out a little,
too). This paper, written completely in French, was published in the
popular science magazine, La Recherche. While it didn’t hold the prestige or exciting surprise as his first published piece, who knew the cat spoke French?

Willard’s short but sweet publishing career did have a lasting effect
on cat-authored physics papers. Inspired by the kitty’s contributions
to physics, the American Physical Society declared in 2014 that all cat-authored papers would now be available as open-access documents.