August 20, 2012

The better mousetrap


Telecommunications and Internet service provider Level 3 Communications says that last year squirrels accounted for seventeen percent of all of their cable damage. Twenty years ago, when my father was working at General Electric's Research and Development Center, the rodent infiltrators met their match. Or did they?

Building the Better Mousetrap
A story of cold logic and sticky solutions

(as told to Eugene Woodbury by Hugh Woodbury, Ph.D.)

Soon after the Electronics Lab moved into the newly constructed KW west wing, unauthorized-entry security breaks reached such unprecedented levels that the occupants of KW wing had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. But as these seasoned scientists set out to rid themselves of the infiltrators, they could not help but be impressed by the audacity and ingenuity of the interlopers, who slipped through security checkpoints, bypassed magnetically locked doors, and set up house keeping in high voltage and radiation zones with carefree abandon.

A biologist might have pointed out that the predominant mammalian life form in the area--before a loud and unruly band of homo sapiens evicted them with several thousand tons of steel and prestressed concrete--was only reclaiming its original habitat. The occupants of KW wing would likely have acknowledged this ecological fact and shared their quarters peaceably had the mice not been doing the reclaiming in file cabinets and desks and leaving unsightly messes behind as they did so.

(How a mouse can get into a locked filed cabinet is still a mystery to all involved.)

Contrary to popular opinion, physicists are actually a tender and loving lot, except when small creatures start eating their floppy diskettes and technical reports.

When I spotted mouse droppings in my desk, I brought in some live animal traps. Three nights in a row I set the traps, and three mornings in a row each trap contained a mouse. Statistically speaking, if for each trap set, there was always going to be one mouse caught, then there must be an infinite number of mice that could be caught. Any finite number divided by infinity is zero, and because a finite number of traps exist in the universe, I realized that any further effort would be pointless.

Jack, our department manager, thought otherwise. The company that invented the artificial diamond could certainly come up with a better mousetrap. But with government contracts to fill there were no research facilities to spare, so he called in professional exterminators. They obligingly came to his office and put down extra wide, extra-sticky, double-sided tape in strategic areas.

Sure enough, the next morning, several unwary mice were stuck fast to the tape. As the morning wore on, however, the exterminators did not return. Moreover, Jack's secretary let it be known that her job description did not include word processing alongside struggling mice stuck to the floorboards. But when someone donned a pair of gloves and tried to attend to the problem, the molecular bonds holding the mouse to the tape proved stronger than the molecular bonds holding the mouse to the mouse. The implications were gristly indeed.

Surrounded by a wealth of brainpower, Jack was open to a more humane solution. I believe it was Ken who suggested that if people could be cryogenically frozen, well, then, so could mus musculus. He fetched a dewer of liquid nitrogen from his lab, dipped in tape and mouse, and instantly froze the rodent to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit, solid as a rock.

But as efficient as double-sided tape was at catching mice and liquid nitrogen was at killing them, Jack wasn't about to spend every morning cutting tape off the floor, finding a dewer with a wide enough neck to admit a medium sized mouse, and then disposing of the frosty results and the contaminated liquid nitrogen. Besides, if the exterminators did come in on time, they'd probably do something indelicate like step on them. Physicists can be squeamish about such things. As with a great many "better" solutions, this one caused more problems than it solved.

So the mice pretty much had the upper hand until I mentioned in my monthly report my discovery of the mouse infinite progression series. Word got around that I had a couple of live animal traps in my office, and I've been lending them out every since.

Now, in General Electric's ultra-modern research facility, small, unwanted rodents are handled the humane way. Several times a week, Electronics Labs personnel carry traps out to the wooded area behind KW wing to release field mice back into the wild, hoping that the mice will soon learn that admittance will continue to be refused until they obtain the proper security clearance.

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