Felicia, Felicia, oh have you met Felicia?
Felicia the Fermilab Ferret!
(sung to the tune of Lydia the Tattooed Lady)
As part of the process of writing my book Back Roads, Dark Skies, I’ve probably gathered five times more material than I actually need, so some really interesting stuff won’t end up in the final version. To wit: a minor character in the history of Fermilab, a trained ferret named Felicia.
I mentioned Felicia in passing on my social networks (because small fuzzy aminal!), and suddenly found other people sharing the Fermilab history page I linked to. Obviously the story isn’t mine, but it can be mine to tell. Though it doesn’t fit in my book, here’s the brief story of Felicia the Fermilab Ferret, drawn from the website and the official Fermilab history book.
Fermilab — more officially known as Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory — is a major particle physics facility near Chicago in the United States. For many years, the heart of the lab was the Tevatron, consisting of several accelerators constructed to smash protons and antiprotons together at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. However, all the experiments required extremely clean tubes held at high vacuum for the particles to travel through, to avoid random collisions and other undesirable contamination.
This problem was especially bad in the spring of 1971, when a series of technical problems and mechanical failures led to construction debris in the Tevatron’s Main Ring. Some enterprising staff members, including Robert Sheldon and Walter Pelczarski, decided to see if they could clean the vacuum tunnels inexpensively. Since they are very intelligent and famous for liking confined spaces, a ferret seemed a logical choice. Fermilab spent $35 on Felicia the ferret, and set her to work dragging a cleaning cloth through the smaller tunnels at Fermilab’s Meson Lab.
As the articles on the history page point out, Felicia was a minor celebrity in her day, inspiring many newspaper and magazine articles, even a short educational film. (Even before there was an internet for cats to rule, small animals still were good for headlines.) However, though Felicia was indisputably cute, 100 meters (about 300 feet) is a lot of pipe to travel through for a small fuzzy critter, and the Meson Lab had several sections of tubing that long for her to clean. Felicia didn’t like the job, and who can blame her? As the official history states, she accepted “early retirement”.
Fermilab staffer Hans Kautzky developed a robotic device to replace Felicia, but that was always the long-term plan anyway. (Since I own small fuzzy animals, I suspect Felicia’s shedding might have been an unwelcome source of contamination.) As Sean Carroll described in The Particle at the End of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland uses a kind of sturdy Ping-Pong ball equipped with radio controls to check for obstructions. Such things aren’t as fun as a ferret, but are less stressful for both animals and the people involved.