The Secret Life of F.D.C. Willard

In the November 24, 1975 edition of the academic journal Physical Review Letters, there is a paper by two researchers titled “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc 3He.” The authors of the paper, abstract available here, were J.H. Hetherington and F.D.C. Willard, both identified as members of the Michigan State University physics department. Five years later, Professor Willard, showing that his expertise in that isotope of helium extended beyond the English language, published an article in a French science magazine (listed in the September 1980 issue here) on the antiferromagnetic properties of Helium-3. F.D.C. Willard was quite the scholar.

Except that he really was a cat.

Willard — that wasn’t his real name, but we’ll get there — was owned by Professor Hetherington, who actually was a human. Hetherington was, as his credentials correctly suggested, a physics professor at Michigan State, and he was the one who actually wrote both papers. And in almost all other situations, he’d be the sole author listed on the paper. But this situation had a wrinkle. Hetherington had written the first paper using “we” and “our” throughout (the “royal we“), but before he submitted it, a colleague noted that editors of Physics Review Letters frowned on the use of plural first-person pronouns for papers with only one author. Changing those pronouns to “I”s and “my”s, unfortunately, was not so easy as a find-and-replace, as the word processing technology of the day was the typewriter. Instead, Hetherington needed a collaborator to credit — something which was unlikely, at best, given that the paper was all his work.

So Hetherington added his cat as the second author. F.D. stood for Felis domesticus, the genus and species of the common house cat. The C stood for “Chester,” the cat’s actual name, and “Willard” was the name of the cat’s father — the closest thing young Chester had to a family name. Hetherington credited the fictitious professor Willard as a co-author and positioned the cat-man as a colleague of his at Michigan State.

Ultimately, Hetherington revealed his co-author’s true identity. (The commonly-told tale is that he was effectively forced to do so, based on this account, “when a visitor came to campus to see Professor Hetherington, found him unavailable, and then asked to speak to Willard.”) And he apparently was not sorry for his ruse, noting that most other scientists appreciated the humorous solution to his plural pronoun problem. The exception? Journal editors didn’t seem so fond of it.

Bonus Fact: Helium-3 may be a used as a source of pollution-free, non-radioactive energy. The Helium-3 isotope has two protons and one neutron (the regular, balloon-using helium, Helium-4, has two of each). In a fusion reaction combining two Helium-3 atoms, you end up with a Helium-4 atom and two extra protons. Those protons may be able to be used as the just-mentioned energy source. But there’s a big problem with this theory: Helium-3 is very rare on Earth. The good news, maybe? Helium-3 is relatively more common on the Moon. As recently as 2007, some people (and cats?) were considering the viability of permanent, moon-based Helium-3 farms for this very reason.

From the ArchivesOut of Gas: We’re low on Helium-4, too.

Related: A book titled “Physics for Dogs.” Close enough!