STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS1.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 1

TEKS: Science: 3.2A, 4.2A, 5.2A, 6.2A; ELA: 3.13, 4.11, 5.11, 6.10

A Better Brush

How an engineer's cat inspired an invention 

iStock/Getty Images

Alexis Noel has a cat named Murphy. One day in 2015, Murphy tried to lick a fuzzy blanket. Suddenly, his tongue got stuck. “I had to help him untangle it,” says Noel. “It was hilarious.”

Noel is an engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Murphy’s mishap gave her an idea. She decided to find out what makes a cat’s tongue grip so well. Now she’s using what she learned to make a better brush for people.

“The basic form of a hairbrush hasn’t changed for 10,000 years,” says Noel. “How do you improve on something so old?” The answer was purring right under her nose.

Alexis Noel has a cat named Murphy. In 2015, Murphy tried to lick a fuzzy blanket. His tongue got stuck. “I had to help him untangle it,” says Noel. “It was hilarious.”

Noel is an engineer. She works at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Murphy’s mistake gave her an idea. She decided to find out what makes a cat’s tongue grip so well. Now she’s using what she learned to make a better brush for people.

“The basic form of a hairbrush hasn’t changed for 10,000 years,” says Noel. “How do you improve on something so old?” The answer was purring right under her nose.

Say “Ahhh!”

Noel knew that a cat’s scratchy tongue helps the cat groom its fur. But she wondered how exactly it works. “I decided to take a closer look,” she says.

First, Noel filmed a cat’s tongue up close while the cat was licking itself. She saw that the tongue was covered in tiny hook-like spines. These spines catch tangles in the cat’s fur and tease them apart. 

Next, Noel used powerful X-rays to create a see-through image of a single spine. She saw that the spine was hollow, like a cup. This shape allows the spines to scoop up saliva and spread it over the cat’s fur, washing out germs and dirt. 

Noel realized she could use this knowledge to invent a hairbrush that spreads liquid while it brushes. People could use it to spread dye through their hair, shampoo their pets, or even scrub stains out of a rug.

Noel knew that a cat has a scratchy tongue. That helps the cat groom its fur. But she wondered exactly how it works. “I decided to take a closer look,” she says.

First, Noel filmed a cat’s tongue up close. She did it while the cat was licking itself. She saw that the tongue was covered in tiny hook-like spines. These spines catch tangles in the cat’s fur. They help pull the tangles apart.

Next, Noel used powerful X-rays. She made a see-through image of a single spine. She saw that the spine was hollow, like a cup. This shape allows the spines to scoop up spit. The spines spread the spit over the cat’s fur. That washes out germs and dirt.

Noel realized she could use this knowledge to make a hairbrush. It would spread liquid while it brushes. People could use it to spread dye through their hair. They could shampoo their pets. They could even scrub stains out of a rug.

Phil Skinner/AP Images for Scholastic Inc.

Alexis Noel designed a brush with bristles shaped like the spines on cat tongues.

Unbeatable Bristles

Noel jotted down her ideas in a sketchbook. She drew a brush with hooked, hollow bristles just like the spines of a cat tongue. Then she built a prototype, or testable model, of her design.

 Noel tested the prototype by combing fake fur made for costumes. But the spines broke off the brush too easily. So she made a new prototype out of a different material. “Design, build, and analyze—over and over until you get it right,” she says.

Noel hopes to someday sell her brushes. But no matter what happens, she says, she’s already learned an important lesson: “Keep your eyes open, because you never know where an idea will come from.”

Noel jotted down her ideas in a sketchbook. She drew a brush with hollow bristles. They were hooked like the spines of a cat tongue. Then she built a prototype. This was a model that she could test.

Noel tested the prototype. She combed fake fur made for costumes. But the spines broke off the brush too easily. So she made a new prototype out of a different material. “Design, build, and analyze—over and over until you get it right,” she says.

Noel hopes to someday sell her brushes. But no matter what happens, she’s learned an important lesson. “Keep your eyes open, because you never know where an idea will come from,” she says.

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