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Science | The Atlantic
Science | The Atlantic
Everyone Loves a Cat in a Box
On Monday morning, my partner laid a carry-on suitcase down on the floor, preparing to pack for his first post-vaccination trip to visit his parents. The moment he unzipped the bag, our cat Calvin promptly clambered inside.A piece of me would like to think that Calvin was attempting to covertly join my partner on his trip, or perhaps thwart his inevitable attempt to spirit away. But I’m pretty sure #OccupyLuggage was less a heart-wrenching bid to tag along on a flight, and more a textbook example of a central scientific tenet: Cats are absolute suckers for boxes. And sinks, and vases, and grocery bags, and shoes, and Pringles cans, and the nooks and crannies between furniture and walls, and just about any other space they deem cozy, confining, and swaddly. (Cats, in case you were wondering, are a non-Newtonian liquid.) It’s the one thing about which our pointy-eared companions are not terribly picky: If it fits, they sits. And when they do, we humans can’t help but obsess over them.Across the internet, felines’ beguiling fluidity and vaguely psychopathic tendencies spark a mixture of adulation and fear. Internet cats vibe, LOL, lust after cheeseburgers, and vaguely resemble the Führer. But it’s perhaps cat booty, and the spaces it parks itself in, that commands one of the most interesting and best publicized cultural memes of all. In April 2017, the phenomenon of cats moseying into boxes took over Twitter with the hashtag #CatSquare. And last week, a new study plumbing the depths of the cat-box phenomenon went viral, spawning thousands of likes and a stream of cat-stanning coverage. “I can’t believe how much attention this is getting,” Gabriella Smith, a behavioral biologist who led the study at Hunter College, told me. The allure of the boxed cat is perhaps a kind of entrapment in its own right—time out of our days, space taken up in our brains, while the felines are none the wiser. Humans have cohabited with cats for thousands of years. But we still can’t tell exactly who is domesticating whom.[Read: How cats used humans to conquer the world]For all the hype that box-cats command, scientists still don’t fully understand why felines both big and small so fervidly flop their keisters into anything and everything. And because cats are generally uncooperative study subjects, humans have had a hell of a time trying to suss it all out. “We can’t get into those little brains,” Mikel Delgado, a cat-behavior expert at Feline Minds, a cat-behavior consulting group, told me.But at least a handful of theories have been tossed around. One posits that cats squish themselves into small spaces in search of solace. The world is a legitimately terrifying place, and grocery bags, drawers, and Amazon packages might be the best analogue to a cave that a house cat can find. “To a cat who’s nervous, a box represents shelter and safety,” Delgado said. Certain containers might also provide an insulating effect—a sort of crude cardboard hug. Some animal behaviorists think that being squeezed by enclosures might even remind cats of being snuggled by their mothers and littermates. Whatever the exact source of the comfort, having a hidey hole to retreat into seems to embolden cats: One 2014 study found that shelter cats who were gifted boxes in their new home were less stressed than their boxless housemates, and adjusted to their surroundings faster.Another idea holds that cats aren’t retreating into receptacles, but strategizing from them like the ruthless assassins they are. “A box provides cover for a predator,” Delgado told me. Enclosed spaces, it turns out, are excellent vantage points from which to stalk and ambush prey, be it a mouse, a feathery wand toy, or a hapless human foot.But none of these explanations can really account for why the mere shape of a box is so beguiling to some cats, who have been documented planting their butts down on mouse pads, letters, place mats, baking sheets, even rectangles demarcated by tape. Calvin is one of the weirdos for whom wall-lessness is no barrier: He will commandeer any vaguely polygonal object in sight. “It’s truly mystifying,” says Gita Gnanadesikan, an animal-behavior researcher at the University of Arizona who fosters undersocialized cats. “They have the whole floor to choose from, and they sit on a sheet of paper.”It’s possible that cats are just extending their impulse from high-sided containers to shallow ones. They might even be gambling on the off chance that something that appears to be flat is deceptively deep, Delgado told me: “I’m going to err on the side of, It’s a box.” But another big driver, she said, is almost certainly the classic cat Achilles’ heel: curiosity. The appearance of an unfamiliar object is a surefire way to pique a cat’s interest, perhaps even enough to try to ensconce themselves in it.Even a box without any true borders seems enough to trip cats’ shape-seeking senses. Smith tested this notion in her new study using the Kanizsa-square illusion—a visual trick in which strategically placed Pac-Man shapes evoke the perception of a square that’s not actually there. A small number of lab-trained cats had been documented falling for the illusion before, but Smith and her colleagues were keen on finding out whether pet felines would instinctively spring for the faux squares. Just 30 cats saw the experiment through to the end, most of whom expressed no interest in any floor shapes at all, illusory or not. But the felines who did were about as likely to sit on a Kanizsa square as a definitively outlined one. It’s a small group of cats, Gnanadesikan told me, but the trend the team observed isn’t terribly surprising, given that researchers already knew that cats covet flattened shapes with obvious perimeters. “This is just one more step in that direction,” she said.[Read: Why we think that cats are psychopaths]The last variable in the cat-box equation is, well, us. We’re the agents of chaos who built our environments to be amenable to cats. Cats sit in boxes because we provide them. Their videos go viral because we film them and share them. Some cats, left to their own devices, might not go gaga for boxes at all, if not for the fact that the humans they love lavish attention on them when they oblige. Perhaps we so desperately and doggedly document cats because we’re finally trying to tame them for good. But in the end, it’s almost always we humans who end up boxed in.Something about the box behavior is almost certainly ancient and ingrained, written deep into the DNA that cats and humans share. A year into the pandemic, people can certainly relate to a craving for security and a desire to define our own boundaries, made up though they might sometimes be. But Delgado, who has made a career out of assessing cat behavior, says there’s merit to giving in to the mystery. Cats are, above all else, inscrutable creatures. In a particularly cheesy demonstration of the box phenomenon, one of Delgado’s own pet felines once plopped his tush into a pan of lasagna. (Warm? Check. Secure? No. Stealthy? Depends on where he was headed next.)On Monday, after Calvin relinquished the suitcase, I tried a version of Smith’s Kanizsa experiment on him by cutting out four Pac-Man shapes and arranging them to hint at a square. Calvin strode confidently over to the configuration and parked his booty not inside the square, but onto one of the illusory cutouts. It was a moment enshrined in tragedy: He could not squeeze the entirety of his substantial rump into a three-quarter circle. In the end, he had fallen prey to the greatest deception of them all—the true size of his own bum.
2050 Is Closer Than 1990
Every week, our lead climate reporter brings you the big ideas, expert analysis, and vital guidance that will help you flourish on a changing planet. Sign up to get The Weekly Planet, our guide to living through climate change, in your inbox.In February 2020, I traveled to New York to celebrate a zeroth birthday and an 80th birthday. First, I saw a close friend’s baby, who had been born only a month earlier. The next day, I went to my grandmother’s birthday party at a crowded Italian restaurant near Times Square.I would say that this experience made me think about aging and what the alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss (of all people) called “the Great Span”: the way that seemingly distant history is only a few lifetimes away. But this would be a writer’s white lie. I think about time’s bucket brigade probably too much, and I am constantly looking for tidy anecdotes. Weeks earlier, I had already written in the notes app of my phone: “When my friend’s baby is my grandmother’s age, it will be 2100.”And 2100 is an important year in climate science.Last week, two major papers on sea-level rise were published. Both try to answer the greatest outstanding questions about sea-level rise: How much will the oceans rise, and how fast? Their conclusions are either reassuring or frightening, depending on your optimism about how quickly the world will get a handle on its carbon pollution.The first paper, written by 84 scientists, shares the results from a portfolio of the newest climate models and is clearly meant to shape the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report. If countries follow the path they have currently committed to under the Paris Agreement, the world’s average temperature will rise about 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. That will induce about 25 centimeters, or about 10 inches, of sea-level rise, according to the median model run, the new paper finds. But if countries manage to hold warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as they now aspire to do, then the median sea-level rise falls to about half that amount.But the second paper has a more worrying message. Led by the glaciologists Rob DeConto and David Pollard, it looks specifically at how Antarctica will melt. For the past few years, DeConto and Pollard have investigated a hypothetical phenomenon called marine ice-cliff instability that could vastly accelerate Antarctica’s demise. Several of the largest glaciers in West Antarctica form massive ice cliffs that rise hundreds or thousands of feet above the ocean’s surface. DeConto and Pollard have worried that, as the ocean warms, these ice cliffs could destabilize, entering a runaway feedback loop that disintegrates the entire glacier in a matter of decades. It would be bad. (Other researchers doubt that this rapid decay is even possible: It was the hottest debate in glaciology in the 2010s.)Happily, DeConto and his colleagues found that rapid ice-cliff collapse is unlikely to happen if we keep global temperature rise below 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius. But if countries continue on their current path of 3 degrees Celsius, then ice cliffs could very well decay and abruptly bump the pace of sea-level rise after 2060. Sea levels would rise about an inch every five years by 2100 entirely because of Antarctica; ice melt from Greenland, mountain glaciers, and the expansion of warmer ocean water would contribute too. That pace is at least 10 times what Antarctica is contributing today.I’ll have more to say on these studies soon. But first I’d note that the first paper goes up to only 2100. That year has been the end date for climate projections since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s first summary report, in 1990. Yet when sea-level-rise scientists share further projections of their work at academic panels, and in the DeConto and Pollard paper, many of the results are scarier for the 22nd century. Some runaway feedback loops that have not kicked in by 2100 will kick in by 2150.“Who cares?” you might think. “That’s a long way away, and surely we’ll have technology to modify the climate by then.” But that gets to the second and more interesting finding of DeConto and Pollard’s paper. They also model the effect of direct carbon removal: What would happen if we stayed on the current high-pollution pathway until 2040, 2050, or 2060, and then—in a moment of pique—began to aggressively remove carbon from the atmosphere?And here the runaway nature of marine ice-cliff instability really kicks in. If you start rapid carbon removal anytime after 2070, they find, West Antarctica’s largest glaciers have already slipped into a feedback loop of doom. The problem becomes unfixable. If you begin carbon removal by 2060, on the other hand, then you can preserve much more of the ice sheet.Ten years, in other words, makes a world of difference. That tight timeline is one reason that I think it’s important to spend public funds on direct carbon-removal technology today. I read once that it takes about as long to develop a new technology as it does to raise a child. We need to start the clock on carbon removal now so it will be ready when we need it.It’s worth remembering how quickly American progressives’ positions on the timing of climate policy have shifted; a few years ago, the leftmost senators endorsed the 100 by ’50 Act. This bill aimed to phase out fossil fuels on the power grid by 2050; President Joe Biden’s target for the same goal is now 15 years earlier. (He shares the bill’s larger goal of reaching a net-zero economy by 2050.)The U.S. target has moved forward for many reasons, among them that the public now better understands the dangers of overshooting 1.5 degrees Celsius. But these closer targets, I have come to think, are not just better for the planet’s long-term geologic stability. They are easier to think with too; they bring climate change within our mental horizons. I entered the full-time labor force in 2013, and the software that runs my 401(k) account assumes that I will retire sometime between 2055 and 2065. By then, under the Biden plan, the U.S. should be ironing out the final kinks in its decarbonization, and developing countries should be near to joining it. I say should; nothing is certain—a technological leap, a political upheaval, or God forbid, world war could derail the timing. But aiming to settle climate change within the U.S. by 2050 is clarifying nonetheless. It puts decarbonization on the same timeline as questions about how to spend a life—where to work and live, whether to start a family, and the rest.The 2050 timeline means that decarbonizing will be the work of a lifetime: my lifetime. You could say our lifetime, if you were born between 1980 and 2005. We will see the task through. For people much older, the journey will end with miles left to travel; for younger people, decarbonizing will—or, at least, should—be something like a solved problem. A child born today won’t enter the professional workforce until 2043; under the current timeline, decarbonization will be just about licked by the time they turn 30. Their job will be to live with climate change: They will see Antarctica’s crucial 2050s in the prime of their career. Today’s babies are the scientists, engineers, and policy staff who will deal with marine ice-cliff instability.James Hansen turned 80 earlier this year. In 1988, when he presented his climate models to the Senate, he was 47. The year 2100 was a long time away—far outside any plausible policy-making range. But 2100’s Social Security beneficiaries are today’s toddlers. Their children will see the 22nd century.
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