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Scientists put a ferret named Felicia in a particle accelerator

Felicia the Ferret

Felicia was her name, and she was a working animal.

No, she wasn’t a service dog. She wasn’t a herding animal. She wasn’t pulling a carriage.

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She was a ferret and she worked with scientists, helping them make the most fundamental elements of the universe.

National Accelerator Laboratory began testing a proton synchrotron particle accelerator in 1971. At the time, it was the world’s biggest machine and it lived in Batavia, Illinois. The director of this laboratory was Bob Wilson and he was in a tight spot. The US Department of Energy had given him and his research associates 250 million dollars to get their machine working. Four years in and they were nowhere near close to fulfilling their promise.

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The main issue was that they could not keep the magnets – which weighed 13 tons a piece – working. There were over 1,000 of these giant, 20 foot magnets and they were essential to the operation.

Atlas Obscura gives us details on how the accelerator works:

The NAL—today known as Fermilab, after the physicist Enrico Fermi—has a chain of accelerators: a linear accelerator (linac), a booster, a recycler ring, and a main injector ring. The linac provides the proton beam and the initial jolt of energy; the booster accelerates it; the recycler “batches it” into groups of protons for a more intense beam; and the main injector ring zips the beam around tens of thousands of times to nearly the speed of light. The particles are then sent to various testing facilities, where they’re smashed together or against a fixed target. The resulting collision, observed by a particle detector, reveals their interiors and sometimes creates exotic particles.

Back in 1971, the design was a little different; for one thing, the injector and recycler rings didn’t exist. What did was an accelerator four miles around called the main ring. It was outfitted with magnets, which guide the beam through the accelerators.

At first, most of the magnets held up. Just two broke during the first try. Then the glass fiber insulation around the coils broke. After that, two magnet a day broke. 350 magnets later, physicist Ryuji Yamada found out why. Previously, they had cut into the vacuum tubes, which left little slivers of metal behind. Because these metal slivers were slightly magnetic, they would stand up and essentially stop the beam. 

Once the problem had been identified, British engineer Robert Sheldon (who had been commissioned by the lab to find money-saving alternatives) had a bizarre but cost-effective solution: a ferret.

In Yorkshire where Sheldon had lived, they used ferrets for hunting. They would put ferrets into rabbit warrens to flush them out, making them very easy sport for hunters. You can find videos on YouTube that shows you how this works. If you like furry little bunnies like me, I wouldn’t advise it.

Because ferrets have no aversion to tunnels or tight places, they were perfect candidates to scamper through the nearly 4 miles of tubing the accelerator was made up of. The team reached out to the Wild Game and Fur Farm in Gaylord, Minnesota and received a small 15 inch ferret for $35. They named her Felicia.

Felicia the Ferret

They put a custom-made collar around her neck and attached a string with a swab on the end that had been dipped in a cleanser. They fitted her with the tiniest of diapers as well, to keep from getting ferret feces in the tube. Felicia was afraid of the dark and endless tunnel at first. Atlas Obscura tells us how they conditioned her:

Faced with a recalcitrant ferret, the scientists reassigned her to a section of 12-inch-wide tubes in the Meson Lab, a testing facility that was still under construction. “She was taught to scamper through progressively longer tunnels until she was ready to try one of the 300-foot sections that will be joined together to make the Meson Lab’s tubes,” Time noted.

After her first run, she emerged “looking a little tired and bemused but otherwise quite healthy,” according to Beck. She’d pulled the string all the way through. As planned, workmen pulled the swab through the tubes. It came out covered with specks of dust and steel.

Felicia the Ferret

Before the inevitable trolls come rushing in yelling ‘animal abuse’, we know that while Felicia was doing her runs there was no real power to the machine. Everything had been under construction at the time. As far as her getting stuck, the team relied on her instincts as a ferret. In the wild they traverse tunnels all the time; Felicia would not likely choose a path where she could not make it completely through.

She was famously spoiled by the scientists at NAL as well. She was taken home with the scientists on some nights and she was fed copious amounts of her favorite foods. She was especially fond of raw hamburger.

The team knew that they would eventually have to find an alternative to Felicia. The runs were getting too long for her and it was coming close to her retirement. Engineer Hans Kautzky created a device he called the “magnetic ferret”. He attached a dozen Mylar disks to a steel rod, along with a malleable, 700-meter steel cable that played the equivalent to Felicia’s string. They also attached a metal-attracting permanent magnet—the counterpart to Felicia’s swab dipped in cleanser. Hans shot the device through a section of the main ring with compressed air and it worked (after about 12 operations). 

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It worked well enough that over the next couple of months they could turn up the energy without shorting the system. In March, 1972, they finally reached the target they promised to the US Department of Energy. They reached 200 BeV.

In Felicia’s retirement, she spent most of her time as a pet on a mink farm. The scientists still periodically brought her home and one night while with Charles Cros, she fell ill. On May 9th, 1972, just a few months after the team reached their goal, she died.

She was rumored to have been stuffed and put on display to symbolize the progress and innovation of the NAL. However Valerie Higgins, who is the historian and archivist for the lab, says nothing has ever been found – not even in the dustiest corners of their storage.

Felicia’s method of cleaning manageable sections of particle accelerators is still used today (although, not with ferrets). We may not have Felicia on a shelf somewhere, but at least we have some damn cute pictures.

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