The airport security line has ground to a standstill. Again. Some bozo packed a giant plastic penis in his carry-on, and of course the bozos working for the TSA couldn’t resist. From the depths of the man’s carry-on, one TSA worker unsheathes “this mouse penis by its base, like it was Excalibur.” Yep. A Gigantic. Plastic. Mouse. Penis. 3-D printed.
If it makes you feel any better, it’s for science. The biologist carrying it is on his way to a two-day conference, and so has no checked luggage. Other times, scientists carry on stuff that can’t go into the cargo hold even when they’re checking luggage. Permits issued to biologists to collect live specimens may stipulate the specimens must be hand-carried onto planes. Other live specimens simply don’t travel well in cargo holds. A duffel bag full of ants. Live frogs in Tupperware containers. Roaches. These things:
Those are amblypygids. Whip spiders, colloquially. They’re not dangerous. Just horrid-looking. Which isn’t to say venomous spiders aren’t ever your fellow airline travelers. Scientists have been known to pack along black widows, too.
Ophidiophobes might be relieved to know that snakes are perfectly happy in the cargo hold. According to guidelines, not only do snakes go in the hold, they’re very securely packed:
Snakes should go into a pillowcase or cloth bag tied with an overhand knot and then into another pillowcase that is also tied.
The animals should then be placed inside a box, which can be made of plastic foam. This whole package finally goes inside a wooden box, which has to be screwed down.
Venomous snakes are permitted, though they must be duly labeled as such. Of course, these guidelines don’t keep smugglers from secreting snakes and other reptiles somewhere on their persons, hoping they won’t get caught. Last summer, one smuggler was caught because airline security noticed a suspicious “wiggling in the passenger’s pants as he walked through the X-ray machine”.
It’s not always animals, of course. Eerie looking (and smelling) liquids, along with devices that look suspiciously like bomb hardware, might attract the most suspicion. Vials of blood and urine might be disgusting, but it’s the odd mechanical contraptions scientists sometimes carry with them that TSA personnel could be forgiven (if TSA personnel should ever be forgiven for anything) for mistaking for explosive hardware. Series of timers and fuses. Animal-monitoring collars that look like explosive belts. The “Petterson D500x bat detector“, which, as the scientist who got caught with it, explains,
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.”
Well, you know what they say about academics. Book-smart and life-dumb. Just the sort of people who’d thoughtlessly inconvenience regular Americans by forgetting about their bat detectors. Or by furiously scribbling away in “secret code” while looking dark and shifty. What’s worse, these thoughtless academics can hold up the line even further with their impromptu scientific outreach:
Airport security lines, it turns out, are a fantastic venue for scientists to try their hand at outreach. Various scientists are said to have claimed that you don’t really understand something if you can’t explain it to your grandmother, a barmaid, a six-year-old, and other such sexist or ageist variants. But how about this: can you successfully explain it to an TSA official—someone who not only might have no background in science, but also strongly suspects that you might be a national security threat? Can you justify your research in the face of questions like “What are you doing?” or “Why are you doing it?” or “Why are you taking that onto a plane?”
At least some scientists have the decency to keep their replies to the TSA short:
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.”