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Why Physicists Tried to Put a Ferret in a Particle Accelerator

The National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, now casually known as Fermilab, was built between 1967 and 1972. The first accelerator built was a tube shaped into a ring four miles long. The scientists working there bought a ferret in 1971, a small creature named Felicia, hoping that she would run through the tube.   

The NAL staff doted on Felicia, feeding her chicken, liver, fish heads, and raw hamburger—her favorite. Some employees even took Felicia to their home for the night when the mink farm she generally bunked at had no room for her.

Now, I don't want to spoil the story, which is quite interesting, but I will assure you that they did not bombard Felicia with accelerated particles. And the "tried" part of the title is a little misleading, because they really did put a ferret in Fermilab's particle accelerator.

(Image credit: Fermilab)


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The thought of something organic like a string in a ultra high vacuum system makes my stomach turn. But so does the thought of ferret fur in a UHV system. A metal cable could have been installed, but would have required probably some serious design effort for it be stowed during operation and likely it would never be used if things worked the way they expected.

I think too often other constraints limit access and features in vacuum systems. Spending a couple hours hanging upside down trying to grab a fragments of a part with a long flexible tool, blindly because the borescope only fits 90% of the way there, is sometimes easier than making a system that is easy to clean.
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While this is a fun story, there is the concept of a pull-string. Whenever a section of conduit (not a pipe) is installed, a pull-string is run through it. That way the wires can be easily drawn through the entire length.

And what always gets installed along with the wires? Yes, you are right, another pull-string.
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