That Time the TSA Found a Scientist’s 3-D-Printed Mouse Penis
July 1, 2017 4:04 AM   Subscribe

This was a great story, thanks!

Astrophysicist Brian Schmidt 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.”
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:25 AM on July 1 [38 favorites]

“Technically it’s not even my dolphin vagina mold,” she says. “I was carrying it for someone.”

Of course, it's company policy never to imply ownership in the event of a dolphin vagina. We have to use the indefinite article, "a dolphin vagina", never … your dolphin vagina.
posted by radwolf76 at 4:39 AM on July 1 [21 favorites]

What I want to know is, was it a male TSA agent who winked at Cohn's colleague when they found the mouse penis, or a female TSA agent who did so? Still not sure which would be funnier.
posted by Paul Slade at 5:11 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]

"Um, I'm afraid it's a bomb, officer."
"Go on, that looks like a mouse penis to me!"
"Yo BobbEE! We got another mouse dick here!"
"Let's see how his lectures skills hold up. "
posted by evilDoug at 5:54 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]

3 weeks before 9/11 - when the TSA was non-existent - I went through airport security from Boston to Newark and back again in steel toed work boots, carrying a metal box with a flip switch, a dial, two rocker buttons , two small LED screens and a boatload of electronics. Noone batted an eye. I literally had to ask them to at least investigate it and poke at it to show some level of interest in the thing. With that said - they did make sure I turned on my laptop... also, I was through security and to my gate in 15 minutes.

Incidentally, it was a test rig for high tension power lines - nothing nefarious... just scared the shit out of me that nobody cared.

By December, I drove back and forth anytime I needed to go to Newark.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:27 AM on July 1 [7 favorites]

“And then,” Cohn recalls, “she pulled out this mouse penis by its base, like it was Excalibur

So much good stuff in this article. Great pull quotes.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 7:43 AM on July 1 [6 favorites]

If I were a mouse, I believe that my tiny mouse-brain might be filled with pride.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 8:10 AM on July 1 [3 favorites]

A properly trained TSA agent would know that a Nobel Prize is chock-full with black tar heroin.
posted by dr_dank at 8:22 AM on July 1 [4 favorites]

Man, we never get TSA shit over our animal tissues--just over our sound equipment, which is highly specialized ultrasonic equipment and consequently always gets searched, although it's much too big to fit in a carry-on so we just put in a letter on university letterhead explaining and hope for the best. It seems to work okay. On the other hand, I do have a story of anticipated TSA intervention helping me win an argument...

When I was packing for my very first field season, at the time I was trying to see if I could create a naturalistic assay of fine motor skills in wild mice by squirting them in the face with a premeasured quantity of oobleck, which is an opaque, gooey mixture of cornstarch and water that goes all solid if you put too much pressure on it and sticks otherwise. I figured that maybe mice with better fine motor skills would be able to remove it more efficiently than mice with poorer fine motor skills. (It wound up not working so well because it's hard to standardize the exact amount of oobleck with which to hit an animal in the face and even harder to work out how to say "yep it got all of it off", but it wasn't a bad idea.)

Anyway, that meant I needed to either pack corn starch or know for absolute sure I could buy some in Costa Rica, where we would be working. My advisor wanted me to pack a number of single-use packets with just enough corn starch in them for a single day's experimenting, so there couldn't be any contamination from day to day. As the person actually working out this assay, I thought that was kind of silly, since I usually just mixed up a batch in a weigh boat, drew it up into a needle-less syringe, and used it as needed. Besides, if I was going to be packing white powder, I wanted it to have the official label still on it. But he was adamant, so as the lowly grad student I spent a rather amusing afternoon carefully packing some 5-mL clear vials I'd found with white corn starch powder. Then I packed them all into a clear plastic bag, tossed in a few of the syringes I would be using for good measure, and cheerfully marched down to my advisor's office and held up the unmarked bag of each to show him. "I'm ready to pack up the corn starch!"

He stared at me for about a minute, and then said faintly "...oh. Oh, I suppose we can't pack that, can we...."

We bought some corn starch in a grocery store in San Jose and called it good after that. I bet the vials are still here somewhere in the behavioral suite I'm working in on this fine Saturday morning, too.
posted by sciatrix at 8:38 AM on July 1 [26 favorites]

I'm a fur seal, Greg. Could you milk me?
posted by katemonster at 10:32 AM on July 1 [1 favorite]

Not really a science-related story, but this is as good a place as any to tell you about my husband's run-in with the TSA.

Now my husband, wonderful though he is, has a tendency to be frugal to a fault. It really bugs him to have to buy food in airports or on planes, and it bugs him even more to throw away good food when we leave on vacation. So one trip starting from Ithaca, NY, he packed his backpack with the remnants of our fresh food from the refrigerator. I wasn't really paying attention to what he put in there but figured it was apples, cheese, stuff like that. Of course, he also packed water bottles, which he carefully emptied before security (and would refill at the water fountains once we got past).

So we get in line, and the TSA agent pulled his bag for further screening and asked him if he had any water bottles in there. Nope he replied proudly, I had some but I've already emptied them out.

"Are you sure?"
"Well then, whaaat is this?" - she triumphantly pulled out what she thought would be a water bottle, but turned out to be half a shrink-wrapped English cucumber. With its plastic wrap, one sharp cut-off edge and mostly watery contents, it must have looked remarkably like a water bottle to the scanner. The TSA agent burst out laughing, told him he'd made her day, showed off the cucumber to another agent and then told him he was fine to carry that on. I believe we ended up throwing away that cucumber in the end and my husband has been a bit more judicious in his choice of fresh foods to pack in his carry-on ever since.
posted by peacheater at 10:41 AM on July 1 [5 favorites]

Thanks very much for posting this.
posted by theora55 at 12:29 PM on July 1

Really very funny stories!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:17 PM on July 1

Very amusing! I also want to know how a fur seal is milked.
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:39 PM on July 1

The first time I went to India, my wife was given a bag to take back to her mother, as one does. I didn't think much of it and my wife was happy to oblige. We cleared customs in both Singapore and in Los Angeles without even slowing. "Did anyone give you anything to carry with you? Have your bags been in your control the entire trip" No. Yes, of course.

We get back home and my wife casually opens the suitcase which contains hundreds of unlabeled ziplock bags containing various colored powders.

"What the fuck is that?"

"Oh it's different spices from home for my mom to give to all her friends."

"And you agreed to carrying unmarked mystery powder measured out for distribution with me through a country that executes people for smuggling drugs?"

"Well I couldn't very well say no to aunty could I?"

This was post 9/11, but just barely.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:18 PM on July 1 [2 favorites]

Another story from not too long after 9/11.. I was running just a little bit late for a flight home from back east but I figured I'd be alright -- it was a very slow time of day at the small airport I was traveling through and even though they were sending all luggage, including checked bags, through some sort of security screening there was only one person ahead of me in the security line and so even though it was the only line open, how long could checking one person take, right?

Well, it turns out the person ahead of me was a geologist or a soil specialist of some sort. His checked bag contained hundreds of soil samples, each one labeled with a number which I presume corresponded to a collection site, but otherwise appearing to be completely unidentified powdery substances. It took an inordinately time for the TSA people to decide what to do about his bag. At one point I was sure they were going to test every jar.

I think I still might have made my flight but when they finally took my bag and swabbed it out, then put the swap in the scanning machine, the thing lit up like a Vegas slot machine paying off a million-dollar jackpot -- I'm talking flashing lights, sirens, etc.. Every eye in what had, minutes before, seemed like a deserted terminal was suddenly looking in my direction. I had no idea what was happening and at first assumed it had had something to do with the soil samples guy.

The TSA agents seemed a little confused about what was going on too -- apparently the swab-analyzing machine was displaying some error code they had never seen before. After a series of calls a supervisor came out and consulted a large three-ring binder containing documentation on the scanning machine. It turns out that the machines had been deployed in this airport only a short time before. It also is apparently the case that the specific make and model of machine that was used in that airport has a duty cycle of some sort that requires periodic cleaning and unless you run the cleaning cycle periodically the machine will stop processing further swabs and alarm on every sample until the cleaning cycle is run. It had nothing to do with the soil samples, I just was the "lucky" 10,000th (or whatever) customer.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:14 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]

The only time I've been stopped for work related stuff was last year when I was returning home from a data visualisation conference where I'd been showcasing a virtual reality data visualisation I'd developed, and I had an HTC Vive headset, controllers, lighthouses, and a gazillion wires in a small carry-on bag. It was only a couple of months after these had been released, so of course none of the airport people had seen them before, and when my bag went through the scanner, the guy staring at the screen suddenly looked very alert, came over and took the bag aside, and asked me to open it up.

I started to say, as I did so, "It's a virtual reality headset - "
But he stopped me and said, "I know what it is. But I've never seen one before so I wanted to take a good look. Is it really fun? Should I buy one?"
posted by lollusc at 3:08 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]

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