There is an old adage in the performing arts that you should never work with animals or children, though as a rule of thumb it seems to apply equally well to just about any profession. As an experimental physicist, I thought I had managed to steer clear of the troubles that working with animals and children can bring. But mother nature marches to her own tune and avoiding the attentions of animals is often easier said than done.
One of the most famous instances of animals getting in the way of science is when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were forced to clean up a “white dielectric material” left by pigeons in their radio telescope as they went about discovering the cosmic microwave background. The mighty Space Shuttle was grounded by horny woodpeckers, and I myself have had to deal with kangaroos getting in the way of laser beams.
There are many great stories of animals getting involved in science when they shouldn’t. Here are some of my favourites.
The birds are buzzing
The various species of cockatoos are some of Australia’s most iconic birds, but the noisy beasts have a penchant for property damage. They have powerful curved bills which, in the wild, they maintain by chewing on wood, but they have also taken a liking to furniture, window frames, and even electrical cabling. Last year they chewed their way through $80,000 worth of cable for Australia’s National Broadband Network. At one Australian radio telescope, the local cockatoos developed an addiction to the high-voltage cables.
At CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), cockatoos chewed the rubber cladding off the exposed high-voltage cables on the radio dishes, forcing the telescope to be shut down for maintenance. To prevent the same thing happening again, the ATCA engineers bolted steel mesh covers over the cables. But this did not stop the cockatoos, who managed to pry the steel mesh away to regain access to the cables.
But why were the cockatoos so determined to get at the cables? The engineers at ATCA have a hunch. The birds didn’t chew all the way through the rubber cladding. If they had, they would have been killed. Instead, the birds chewed part way through before moving on to another section of cable. The engineers think that the birds chewed deeper into the cable until they started to feel the buzz from the high voltage. The cockatoos enjoyed the tingling sensation in their beaks so much that they ripped apart steel mesh in order to get their fix.
The ATCA engineers considered tethering eagles to the telescope dishes to keep the cockatoos away. I think they were only half joking.
The AusLAMP project is an Australian multi-year geophysical survey to study the geological processes and makeup of the deep Earth. The survey involves taking magnetotelluric measurements at approximately 3000 sites across Australia. The Australian outback is a harsh environment and researchers can expect some attrition of their equipment due to floods and bush fires, but what they had not foreseen was wombat damage.
The muscular marsupials would take offence to the cables running to the sensors and monitoring stations and would rip them out, sabotaging the data collection and wasting the researchers’ time. The researchers had to resort to burying their equipment in trenches to avoid the unwanted attention of the wombats.
Fun fact – wombats do cube-shaped poops.
Black holes and black birds
The twin LIGO gravitational wave detectors in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana are the most sensitive instruments ever built. In 2015, LIGO made headlines when they successfully detected the passing of minuscule gravitational waves produced by the collision of two black holes more than a billion lightyears away. To make this detection, LIGO had to be able to measure its 4 km long arms changing in length by 1/1000th the width of a proton, equivalent to the 150 million km distance between the Earth and the Sun changing by the width of a single atom.
This extreme sensitivity means that small sounds on Earth, such as a truck on a distant highway or a humming refrigerator, can cause a big problem for LIGO. LIGO has a team of noise reduction physicists whose job it is to find sources of noise and either stop them or find ways to tune them out.
During the summer of 2017, a series of glitches appeared in the data from the Hanford detector. The LIGO scientists used sensitive microphones around the facility to locate the cause of the glitches. They traced the disturbance to a frost-covered pipe on the outside of the building with what appeared to be beak marks in the ice.
Thirsty ravens were turning up to chisel ice off the pipes in order to get a drink in the summer heat. Unfortunately for the ravens, the simple solution was to wrap the pipes in insulation to prevent frost building up.
Pop goes the weasel
Another of the world’s premier scientific facilities also suffered from interference from animals. In 2016, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which famously discovered the Higgs boson and continues to improve our understanding of the subatomic world, was taken offline by a weasel.
While most of the more impressive parts of the LHC are buried under the Swiss and French countryside, facilities like office buildings and electrical substations are above ground. The unfortunate weasel hopped onto a 66 kV transformer, shorted the terminals, and did its best impression of a 100 watt light bulb. The transformer was damaged, shutting down the LHC, but repairs were completed a few days later. The weasel, on the other hand, was burned to a crisp and unceremoniously disposed of by LHC staff.
A stone marten that met a similar fate a few months later became part of an exhibition called Dead Animal Tales.
Nature is truly wonderful, but could it please stop crawling into experiments where it’s not wanted?