Jun. 29th, 2017

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That Time the TSA Found a Scientist’s 3-D-Printed Mouse Penis
And other tales from the intersection of science and airport security

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/05/that-time-the-tsa-found-a-scientists-3d-printed-mouse-penis/527673/


Other scientists who responded to a call for stories on Twitter have flown with bottles of monkey pee, chameleon and skate embryos, 5,000 year old human bones, remotely operated vehicles, and, well, a bunch of rocks. (“I’m a geologist. I study rocks.”) Astrophysicist Brian Schimdt was once stopped by airport officials on his way to North Dakota because he was carrying his Nobel Prize—a half-pound gold disk that showed up as completely black on the security scanners.
“Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?” they said. “The King of Sweden,” he replied. “Why did he give this to you?,” they probed. “Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.”....


Several people have stories about more animate luggage. Jonathan Klassen from the University of Connecticut studies leafcutter ants, and the permits that allow him to collect wild colonies stipulate that he must hand-carry them onto planes. “Inevitably, some poor security officer gets a duffle bag full of 10,000 ants and gets really confused,” he says. Indeed, many animals have to be hand-carried onto planes because they don’t fare well in the cold of cargo holds, (and often can’t be shipped for similar reasons). That’s certainly the case for the amblypygids—docile relatives of spiders with utterly nightmarish appearances—that Alexander Vaughan once tried to carry onto a domestic flight. “My strategy was to pretend that everything I was doing was perfectly normal,” he tells me. ....

Others were more upfront about their unorthodox cargo. Ondine Cleaver from UT Southwestern Medical Center once tried carrying tupperware containers full of frogs from New York to Austin. At security, she realized that she couldn’t possibly subject the animals to harmful doses of X-rays, so she explained the contents of her bag to a TSA agent. “She totally freaked out, but had to peek in the container,” says Cleaver. “We opened it just a slit, and there were 12-14 eyes staring at her. She screamed. She did this 3 times. A few other agents came by to see, and none could deal with the container being opened more than a bit. But they had to make sure there was nothing nefarious inside, so we went through cycles of opening the container, screaming, closing it laughing, and again.” They eventually let her through. ....

Many scientists have had tougher experiences because their equipment looks suspicious. The bio-logging collars that Luca Borger uses to track cattle in the Alps look a lot like explosive belts. And the Petterson D500x bat detector, which Daniella Rabaiotti uses to record bat calls, is a “big, black box with blinking lights on the front.” She had one in her backpack on a flight going into Houston. “The security people said, ‘Take your laptop out,” and I did that. But they don’t really say, ‘Take your bat detector out,’ and I forgot about it.”

When the scanner went off, she had to explain her research to a suspicious and stand-offish TSA official, who wasn’t clear how anyone could manage to record bat calls, let alone why anyone would want to do that. So Rabaiotti showed him some sonograms, pulled out her laptop, and played him some calls—all while other passengers were going about their more mundane checks. “By the end of it, he said: Oh, I never knew bats were so interesting,” she says.

Many of the stories I heard had similar endings. The TSA once stopped Michael Polito, an Antarctic researcher from Louisiana State University, because his bag contained 50 vials of white powder. When he explained that the powder was freeze-dried Antarctic fur seal milk, he got a mixed reaction. “Some officers just wanted to just wave me on,” he says. “Others wanted me to stay and answer their questions, like: How do you milk a fur seal? I was almost late for my flight.” ....

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