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Museum Displays the Weasel that Brought Down Particle Physics

A stone marten that disrupted the Large Hadron Collider in November goes on display in Rotterdam in an exhibit about human-animal mishaps

CERN Weasel 2 (Kees Moeliker/Natural History Museum Rotterdam)
smithsonian.com

Kees Moeliker, director of the Rotterdam Natural History Museum, has an affinity for animals that get themselves into deadly predicaments and tells the stories of some of the unfortunate creatures in the museum's permanent exhibition “Dead Animal Tales.”  Now, the exhibit has acquired a prized specimen—a stone marten that hopped the fence at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva and fried itself to death.

According to Ian Sample at The Guardian, the stone marten—a small mammal similar to a weasel—made its way into a substation for the collider in November and was instantly electrocuted by an 18,000-volt transformer. The incident briefly knocked out power to the collider. Moeliker requested that officials keep the tiny furry carcass so he could stuff it and include it in the exhibition. “It’s a fine example of what the exhibition is all about,” Moeliker tells Sample. “It shows that animal and human life collide more and more, with dramatic results for both.”

In fact, Moeliker’s 2.3-foot marten is dubbed “Cern Weasel 2.” That’s because back in April 2016 another marten, aka CERN Weasel, made it into the supercollider and chewed its way through a 66,000 volt transformer. Workers found its charred remains, but disposed of the body before Moeliker could request it. That incident took the collider offline for a week. In November 2009, the LHC was also put out of a commission when bird dropped a piece of baguette into the system that keeps the collider from overheating. That led two physicists to suggest that the bird was sent from the future to keep the LHC from exploring secrets nature does not want humans to know.

There’s no word on whether the martens come from the future, but Moeliker tells Sample they perfectly illustrate the underlying meaning of his exhibit. “We want to show that no matter what we do to the environment, to the natural world, the impact of nature will always be there,” he says. “We try to put a magnifying glass on some fine examples. This poor creature literally collided with the largest machine in the world, where physicists collide particles every day. It’s poetic, in my opinion, what happened there.”

Many of the other deaths featured at the museum are not so poetic. Moeliker was inspired to create the exhibit in 1995 when a duck hit the glass façade of the museum. Though the male duck was dead, Moeliker then observed another male duck approach its corpse and copulate with it for 75 minutes. In 2003, he wrote a description of the incident for a journal, which earned him an Ig Nobel Prize. “Thanks to the Ig Nobel Prize that my First-Case-of-Homosexual-Necrophilia-Paper won, the story of that poor bird became widely known and people wanted to see and admire the duck,” he tells Mindy Weisberger at Live Science.

That duck is on display, along with a hedgehog that died when its head got trapped in a McDonald’s McFlurry cup, a sparrow that was shot after it knocked over 23,000 carefully set up dominoes during a competition, and “Trauma Gull,” a black-headed gull which flew into a medical helicopter in 2011 that forced an emergency landing.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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