Cats Got One Thing Right

A cat eager for death—because that is what happens if a cat actually reaches the Heaviside layer. (Image: Universal)

Reader, I’m sure you came to Gizmodo expecting news of the impending climate apocalypse just as I woke up today expecting to write about it. But instead we’ve both improbably arrived here, at a site where I am about to explain that Cats is, in fact, a documentary. Or at least there’s one thing that’s not totally made up in it.

I must offer a disclaimer about what you are about to read: I have not seen Cats. To be fair, I want to see Cats (ideally the non-patched version), but I’ve been a bit busy with the holidays and whatnot.

But I have read Alex Cranz’s Gizmodo review of the original and patched movie describing it “like a corpse flower... utterly awful but absolutely captivating” as well as the Wikipedia page and I understand the atmosphere enough to be able to comment on the one real thing in Cats.

And that thing is a central part of Cats’ plot: the competition to reach the Heaviside Layer. Well, not the competition part. But the layer itself is an actual thing, and it’s an important one in the scope of human history.

It’s not full of cats in various states of Nirvana, though. No cat could survive a trip to the actual Heaviside layer without a special suit or vessel to protect against both freezing and sweltering temperatures and a lack of oxygen. The Heaviside layer is a real part of the upper reaches of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere. It sits anywhere from 80-150 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, and it’s discovery in the early 1900s helped explain a crucial part of how radio waves do their thing.

Back then, radio transmission was a relatively new thing. But scientists were puzzled as to why they didn’t just shoot off into space but instead followed the Earth’s curvature. Oliver Heaviside, a British engineer, hypothesised there was a layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that essentially helped radio waves skim around the planet. The hypothesis was proven correct and thus the Heaviside Layer was born.

Other researchers independently hypothesised the layer existed around the same time as well, including American engineer Arthur Kennelly. In a righteous letter to the journal Nature in 1925, yet another engineer named Alexander Russell put the world of radio nerds on blast: “If names are to be attached to this hypothetical layer it should be called, in equity, the ‘Kennelly-Heaviside’ layer, a name which is beginning to be used in America.”

Tell ‘em, Alex.

Anyways, there you have it. The Heaviside Layer is real and easily explainable. How so many top-notch actors were suckered into the disaster that is Cats remains a mystery.

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