Zeus the Cat Confronts the Greatest Mystery of His Life

For the pets, we have a water bowl with a three-gallon reservoir, and every time I fill it up and put on top of the water bowl, it eventually “burps,” sending several large air bubbles to the top of the reservoir. And when it does so, it absolutely fascinates Zeus — enough so that if he sees me filling up the reservoir he will wait until I’m done to watch the bubblation. He views it so intently and with such intensity that it’s pretty obvious (to me, anyway) that what he’s trying to do is figure out where the bubbles come from. One day, he seems to be saying, I will learn the secret of the bubbles. And when I do, all the mysteries of the universe will be open to me. And what a day that will be! The problem, of course, is that he will never figure out the secret of the bubbles. Because, you see, he’s a cat. And while he’s a pretty nifty cat, the intricacies of bubble formation are forever beyond his comprehension.

I think about Zeus on occasion, when people confidently predict that humans will one day be able to explain everything about the universe. The human brain is a marvelous thing, and to be clear, I don’t think we’ve come close to the limits of its abilities to understand and comprehend the world around us. But the fact of the matter is the thing is limited. And just like my cat will never quite grasp the Mystery of the Bubble, eventually we’re going to come up against stuff that, no matter how hard we rack our brains, we’re never going to get. And then we’ll know what Zeus knows every time he sees those bubbles go up. I think it will be an interesting day when that happens. I don’t expect to be around for it, I should say. It will be an interesting day nevertheless.

76 Comments on “Zeus the Cat Confronts the Greatest Mystery of His Life”

  1. I figured out all of the mysteries of the universe many years ago. Then the drugs wore off.

  2. My cat Nicky has a similar fascination with the same water fixture. Occasionally it’ll burp while he’s drinking, causing him to stop, stare intently at the jug and the little cave underneath it, and reach inside with a paw to see if some creature has invaded it. I’ve also seen him jump when it burbled as he walked past.

  3. “The problem, of course, is that he will never figure out the secret of the bubbles. Because, you see, he’s a cat. And while he’s a pretty nifty cat, the intricacies of bubble formation are forever beyond his comprehension.”

    Of course, you are wrong. Cats figured everything about universe thousands of years ago and that bored them so much that they decided the best way to spend life is napping. :)

  4. The fact you even had that thought means that there’s a difference between you and Zeus beyond mere brain size. You are capable of Thinking About Thinking.

    For example, our slightly-better-than-chimp brains can’t natively think about numbers any bigger than around ten, but if I tell you you’ve won a million dollars, you know exactly what that means, because you were taught Mathematics in school.

    What I’m getting at here is that your cat is gorgeous and that’s a great picture.

  5. We had a cat who learned how to stick his paw up and hit the little plunger thing that sends more water down. We figured this was his way of saying “Why are my owners too cheap to get me a fountain?”

  6. A friend and I were walking our dogs once and one of the dogs went the wrong way round a sign post but could not grasp the concept of reversing to rectify the problem. He just walked forward until he got to the end of the leash and looked at us for help.

    My friend said, “He does this all the time. He has no concept of what the leash is and how it’s holding him back. I wonder what the equivalent is for humans.”

    I think about that all the time.

  7. humans have a great capacity to complicate the experience of discovering the universe, relegating almost completely to the mind. Zeus seems to have full commitment to his curiosity, something that seems increasingly rare among scientists.

  8. When Zeus understands “The Bubbles” will the secret of Digital Watches also be revealed to him? Because then he could truely rule the world!

  9. I have one of the drinkwell fountains (like this, but with an aquarium pump to keep the water circulating). Once, on a whim, I dropped an ice cube into the bowl and my cat went bezerk. Now it’s a recurring game. First he freezes, then he does the stalking belly crawl. Finally, as the ice cube’s about to disappear, he’ll get up the courage to stick a paw into the water. He begs for ice cubes any time anyone is near the fridge.

    I once dumped a tall tumbler of ice cubes into the fountain…just to screw with him. He was twitching for about an hour after that :)

    He gets twitchy over the bubble noises, but nothing holds a candle to the ice cube game.

  10. I fully agree that there are likely some concepts that the human brain just isn’t equipped to fully understand. I also think that this is no excuse not to *try* to understand things. That sort of intellectual laziness certainly exists and it is, in a nutshell, what tends to annoy me about “intelligent design” and other supernatural explanations…

  11. Angie #8:
    Nope, it’s lingua cattus for “See my new toy? It’s mine. No, you can’t play with it.”

    If you ever do opt for a fountain, be sure you get one that has a very steady flow rate… Even a power surge can result in a cat suddenly more damp than it cares to be – and you can tear something trying not to laugh.

  12. We have one of those and our dog is terrified of the bubbles. This suggests ideological differences between our pets.

  13. Silly question of the day: Why the socket protectors in the electrical outlet?

  14. Darn. Here I was, hoping that some day I might be able to grasp why certain relatively popular/powerful male humans persist in sending photographs of a portion of their anatomy that compares unfavorably to a turkey neck to nearly complete strangers.

    You’ve dashed my hopes.

    Damn you, Scalzi!

  15. We have one of those for our cat, too, and she loves it when I fill the tank. She walks around rubbing against my legs until it finishes filling and I put it back in the base. She then usually tries to attack the water coming out of the little hole. It’s one of the best things we ever bought for her.

  16. You are probably right that we will never completely grasp the universe and all of its complexities. However, I believe we will eventually augment the brain (and body) to extend past its current limitations. We may even extend the brains of Zeus’s descendants, so they can grasp bubble formation.

  17. My parakeet, Sunny, likes to fly onto and chew anything that is shiny, especially iPhones. He’s such a lovely animal. He gets excited about things, loves the other birds in the house and thinks that I and The Boyfriend are awesome. He doesn’t “get” most of what’s going on around him. And sometimes I pity him. But then, with leaders like Weiner and Palin and Gingrich running around, I often feel just as clueless as my bird.

  18. One of my cats (the Siamese, naturally) is fascinated with loud-engined vehicles. He will run to the window to watch street-sweepers, trash trucks, and other such vehicles. My theory is that he wants to drive one.

  19. I had a cat who figured out that the burping meant fresh water was coming out, so he’d nudge the bottle with his paw, wait for the burping to finish, then lick the water just beneath the bottle’s opening. Of course, he’d also wait in the tub until you came in to pee, then meow until you turned the faucet on for a trickle from which he could drink.

  20. @Stephen Buchheit – Ahh I was parphasing Time Bandits and you did Hitchhikers Guide. Not everyday that you get two geeky quotes about digital watches. I’m impressed with your reference!

  21. In case someone missed the Time Bandits reference (and cares):

    Here is the quote from Evil:

    Evil: It’s a good question. Why have I let the Supreme Being keep me here in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness? … Look, SHUT UP, I’m speaking rhetorically. I let him keep me here in order to lull him into a false sense of security. When I have the Map, I will be free, and the world will be different, because I have understanding…of digital watches. And soon I shall have understanding of videocassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have understanding of them, I shall have understanding of computers. And when I have understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being! God isn’t interested in technology. He knows nothing of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time! Forty-three species of parrot! Nipples for men! Slugs!! He created slugs. They can’t hear! They can’t speak! They can’t operate machinery! I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I were creating a world, I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, day one!

  22. But John, clearly the bubbles are created as a byproduct of your divine design and action! (insert toothy, evil grin smiley here)

  23. Taoism has a saying ‘that which can be named is not the Tao’. when they say the Tao, they mean the way of the universe. I think they’re trying to say that on some level there will always be some aspect of the universe which cannot be put into words, equations, and so on.

    on the other hand, I think we are a long long way from reaching the point where we simply cannot understand anything new about how the universe works.

    and when I say ‘we’ I mean people way more smarter than me, and I just happen to associate with them by being of the same species.

  24. Elgion@26: Thank you. I thought that was a Time Bandits reference, but didn’t get back to ask about it. Thank you for anticipating my question.

    I haven’t heard many Time Bandit quotes lately. I think it’s slipping off the nerd radar, which would be a Terrible Shame(TM).

  25. on one hand getting there will always be some mystery to the universe can be useful. on the other hand, I hope we dont get so disinterested in discovery that we end up cataloged as ezplained in this xkcd cartoon


    read the alt-text

  26. Zeus does not need to understand the mystery of the bubbles

    Zeus invented humans to understand the mystery of the bubbles for him

    When he looks at the bubbles he is marveling at his own brilliance.

  27. Our brains are hardwired to recognize certain input, such as sight, sounds, touch, smell. We have a way to perceive and catalog those things. Suppose there are things that our brain has no way to perceive. Such things probably exist. We will undoubtedly not be able to grasp all the universe has to offer until our brains adjust to allow us to perceive, catalog and understand. But first we would have to perceive. And why would our brains evolve to perceive something that gives us no natural advantage?
    Its a conundrum.

  28. My cats took me aside once and told me that they do, indeed, know the secrets of the Universe. They said they’d be willing to tell me, but if they did, they’d have to kill me.

    I live on in blissful ignorance.

  29. It’s true – there will certainly come a time when the biology of our brain will make it impossible to grasp certain truths that our collective scientific efforts would have otherwise revealed. (Unless some sort of environmental or other catastrophe sets back our progress so gravely that never get a chance to hit those limits.) What seems most likely to me is that we won’t even realize we’ve hit that limit. Will we know that the bubbles are forever unknowable? Or will we just keep staring at them in wonderment? My money’s on continued staring.

    I sometimes think back to the much-maligned quote by the appropriately-maligned Donald Rumsfeld, referring to the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Okay, but what about the “known unknowables?” The epistomology of it all is sorta difficult to untangle.

  30. Brian C @ 17 – I strongly suspect the outlet covers are so those comtemplating where bubbles come from don’t fry their curious little brains whilest comtemplating…something about wet noses and electricity…bzzzzbt!

  31. I have to remove the gravity water bowl when my Min Pin found it a clear and present danger. (It made scary sounds.)

  32. this reminds me of a great short story by Robert Sheckley called “Fishing Season.”

  33. What disturbs me even more is the idea that there might be some sort of absolute cap on how far intellect can evolve. Perhaps if we truly understood the universe, somehow learned to touch it direct, we’d see something so terrible that is now hidden in the shadows beyond the light of our tiny fires, that to live with knowledge of its existence would be unthinkable.

  34. And how do you factor in the ‘brains’ that our monkey minds have managed to construct–the ones without which we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do about the universe?

  35. Frankly, this is why the extreme atheists who think they can replace religion with anti-religion are going to fail. We seek explanations for what we don’t know. We will never know everything. The explanations will always include the spiritual options. So I say let the “brights” tilt at their little windmills. The complexity of reality is against them as it is against every fundamentalist line of thought.

  36. @Sara, there are a great many things that our brain and senses are not designed to perceive. e.g. EM radiation outside the small band of “visible light”, neutrinos and many other things. But fortunately our brain as developed a marvelous solution for that: Being smart enough to build machines which translate these inputs into a format that it can process. Like dots a a screen, sound from a speaker, …

  37. Well, there’s this (which while often attributed to Richard Feynman is more likely a paraphrase of Niels Bohr’s more blunt remark on the subject)…

    “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

    Because quantum mechanics is so fundamentally at odds with the way our brains are wired to perceive the universe that we can never grasp what it implies intuitively. But we *can* build models that place the consequence of quantum mechanics into a simplified framework, which we *are* then able to comprehend. So, really, we’ve already long passed the point where our theoretical comprehension of the universe can be extended by direct observation – we’ll never be able to see collapsing probabilities at the sub-atomic scale with our second-rate macro-universe eyeballs and horrifically slow neural data intake.

    I suspect that the strongest argument for the inevitable creation of our penultimate AI Overlords(tm) is that once the models get too tough for us to work out, we’ll just build machines that are smart enough to figure them out for us, and can translate the ramifications of said models into major motion pictures.

    Heck, it’s entirely possible that Hollywood will finally be rendered obsolete by “Unified Field Theory – The Musical”.

  38. I tried to get Caitlin to use a self-filling waterbowl. You had to detach the jug from the base, fill it manually, place the base on the waterbowl, then invert it so the base was at the bottom. Unfortunately, the jug had a handle. Caitlin was far less interested in drinking from the waterbowl than she was in hooking one paw through the handle, and watching the water come tumbling out as the jug tipped over.

  39. Okay, since no one’s mentioned it, I want to make sure we’re all together on this: from now on, whenever someone asks us a question that we find to be in some way onerous to answer, we’ll all just shake our heads and say, “It’s water bubbles to a cat, dude. Like water bubbles to a cat…”

  40. I know what you mean. I used to turn on the laser red dot for the Puff to chase, and when I was done I’d put the laser pointer on the sideboard. Then I saw Puff on top of the sideboard, trying to get under the picture hung on the wall right over the sideboard, no doubt thinking to himself, “Where is that red dot? It must be around here somewhere”

  41. I have figured out the mystery of the bubbles. My cat, on the other hand, has figured out the mystery of getting someone to attend to her every need for free.

  42. Someone smart described Zeus’s dilemma as “if the universe were so simple we could understand, we would be so simple we couldn’t.”

  43. Zeus should meet up with Fritz Leiber’s Gummitch. Then he would understand the bubbles.

  44. Nerd? you want to hear nerd? I turn my hearing aids to telecoil during a thunderstorm so I can hear the EM pulse from a lightning strike and time the thunder with my watch so I can tell how far it was from me.
    Actually pretty cool!

  45. How does he feel about the toaster?

    Bread goes in, toast comes out?

    You can’t explain that!

  46. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I just can’t grasp the idea that’s there’s something I might not be able comprehend.


  47. I don’t know – as a species we’ve done an excellent job of building tools that let us perceive things we can’t sense with our meager organic bodies (telescopes, Geiger counters, etc.) and we’re well on the way to building machines that can figure out things that simply can’t with our meager brains. Oh sure, the speed of a computer is really it’s big advantage now and there’s an argument to be made that we could have decoded the human genome on our own without its help (it just would have taken longer). But how far are we from building computers that can simply out-think us? Iain Banks posits a very nice ideal of this in his Culture novels where mere organic beings live lives of unimaginable luxury while literally incomprehensibly advanced computer AI Minds run everything for them. Sounds good to me!

  48. Well, after Zeus figures out the bubbles, he can come over here and confront the “critter that lives in the printer.” With our old computer printer, all the cats at one time or another tried to get that annoying pest…one cat actually went around with an ink stained paw for awhile. Alas, the new printer isn’t that interesting…

  49. That’s a swell way of expressing a complex & serious idea, and I’ll credit you when I quote it.

    Of course, among humans, in some spheres — most notably religion, economics, and politics — some people are very firm in their conviction that they know where the bubbles come from. I’d be much happier about that if substantially all of them agreed on the explanation.

  50. I’m fairly certain there are a nontrivial number of humans who can’t explain those bubbles.

    Although I know exactly what causes the bubbles, I’ve always been fascinated by them when they rise in a human water dispenser. The burble-y noise and silvery blobs are pretty.

    I suspect I also enjoy the tickle in my brain as it sets off the neurons in the bit that says, “Oh, yes, air displacement. Look at that–science in action!” I get the same feeling when I see rainbows from a prism. My brain likes being reminded that it knows stuff.

  51. I had one of those types of fountains for my cats. Buddy was always very intent on the bubbles too. A little too intent – he would attack the bubbles. Inevitably, I came home one day to a full gallon of water puddled on my faux-wood laminate kitchen floor. To prevent further destruction, I’ve switched to the domed animal planet fountain that doesn’t hold as much water, but is also impossible for him to knock over.

  52. Kizz @ #10, two of my dogs have that same problem, but both of them were smart enough to learn that when I say “[dog’s name], uh-oh,” they should reverse direction. It makes walks simpler, especially when walking both at one time.

    John, re your main point, I think before we get there we have a bunch more iterations of “humans invent a situation totally without precedent in the history of our species. Small subset of humans turns out to be naturally very good at it, while a larger subset prove able to master it with work.” I’m thinking about everything from throwing rocks to flying jets to solving Rubik’s Cube.

    Ethelred @ #53: “Space-Time for Springers” FTW. I haven’t thought about that story in far too long.

  53. Elgion @ 26: Don’t forget later when he has his minion explain computers, fast breeder reactors, and the ultimate mystery – subscriber trunk dialing.

  54. My 2 cats have the same fascination, so I decided to put it to good use:

    When the water bottle glugs, especially after they’ve been drinking, I enthusiastically say, “Fishies! Good kitty – fishies!”

    They look in the dish for fishies (which they have never actually seen in real life but still somehow recognize the word as a desirable thing) and, not seeing any, they DRINK SOME MORE WATER, trying to get it to glug again.

    Marvellous way to increase the kitty’s water consumption, which vets say is important but difficult to do. My vet loves this trick & is recommending it to others now.

    This may not be the correct explanation, but we learned from (the new) Jack Holloway that sometimes using lies is for the good.

  55. Aw, this combination of cute cat moment and philosophical speculation makes for a winning combination.

  56. @Lysana: OK, I know what religion is, but what is anti-religion? If it encounters religion, is there a religion-anti-religion annihilation? Can this be weaponized?

  57. “Zeus seems to have full commitment to his curiosity, something that seems increasingly rare among scientists.”

    I’m curious (hah) as to your experiential basis for this statement. I am a scientist. I spend all day around people who either are scientists or whom I am helping to become scientists. Pretty much our whole process centres on a never-ending loop of “Huh, interesting. OK, so I wonder what would happen if….” Pursuing curiosity is what we do.

    “humans have a great capacity to complicate the experience of discovering the universe”

    No, humans have a great capacity to discover the universe, which happens to be a very complicated place, and so necessarily requires complicated tools to explore and complicated explanations to describe correctly. A cat can be fascinated by bubbles. A human can be fascinated by bubbles, and, with some effort, understand in incredible detail at the molecular level all the physical principles that make the bubbles happen. I’d rather be human.

    Although the license to nap for 16 hours a day is not without its appeal.

  58. I think about Zeus on occasion, when people confidently predict that humans will one day be able to explain everything about the universe. The human brain is a marvelous thing, and to be clear, I don’t think we’ve come close to the limits of its abilities to understand and comprehend the world around us.

    We’ve already run against them. Take for example the . Not only can nobody understand the , most people simply can’t even *comprehend* any reference to them.

  59. I have a cat who is equally curious about the sink drain. I think she can hear the water going down it and wants to know where the water goes. She likes to jump up there while we wash our hands (which means she likes to get in the way). Anyway, we’ve dubbed her the Professor of Plumbing Sciences. It seems you have an esteemed colleague boarding with you, Mr. Scalzi.

  60. My dog has figured out that if the bowl is empty of water, poking the bottle with her nose will fill it up again – either by breaking the vacuum and getting water to flow, or by alerting me that the bottle is empty and needs refilled.

  61. Zeus is at a disadvantage there. He can not read or write or communicate abstract ideas and his ability to pass on results of research is severely limited. Cats learn from their mothers about things like hunting, true, but there isn’t much specialization in cats. Sure. Some hunt. Some concentrate on just looking gorgeous.But even if a cat found out about the secret of the bubble, how could the knowledge be passed on?

    I do not know how friction *works* at an elementary level. But I am sure that, one day, we will know. And at some later time, a genius will find a way to explain it to people like me. But for any question allowing for a proveable answer (or even a reasonably well-supported-by-evidence one – go away, Gödel people! :) ), there is the possibility of an answer, given enough motivation to research it.

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