Saturday, 9 June 2012

Lost in Translation: Mussels, Muscles and Fossils…

 Once again I find myself at the airport. Headed back to the UK after the splendid SR2A meeting in New York and last weeks beam-time at the Stanford Synchrotron. The SR2A meeting went well and many new contacts have been made that will no-doubt shed some new light (possibly of the infrared variety) upon the fossils that the group spend so much time studying.

Speaking of the fossils, these were my assemblage of beasties that had been bathed in X-rays the prior week at SSRL. Travelling with Dinosaurs can be fun…when I say fun, it can lead to some interesting conversations with the airport security officers. I have now learnt to send my shoes and belt first through the X-ray machine, as at least I have a sporting chance of getting my feet and trousers secured before I hear those special words, ‘Bag Check!’ This is partly why I now get to airports 3-4 hours before a flight, as the ritual unpacking, gasps of amazement and repacking can dent your smooth passage onward.

Today was no exception. I knew that the fossils in my bag were both large, dense (plenty of iron sulphide) and obvious…in X-ray, my bag must have looked like a petrified smorgasbord training video in the making for my attentive security officers. Thankfully my shoes and belt did make it through the scanner, just before the X-ray operator scanned my Pelicase of Cretaceous goodies. Here s what happened next…

Security Officer, ‘Sir, is this your bag?’…’Yes, it is mine. I have a pile of fossils in there’ I say this while trying to look as if this is a normal thing to be carrying. ‘Sir, I will have to take your bag over there and take a look’, happily I agree and head to the polished steel tables that will see the dissection of my prehistoric case. ‘Is there ice in here Sir?’….’Ice’ I reply cautiously…’No, why should I have ice in my bag?’.  He starts to open my bag carefully and takes a peak inside, ‘Is there water in here Sir?’…My curiosity is now raised. Had someone surreptitiously squirted water into my bag when I had not been looking? Had one of my antediluvian beasties relieved themselves…somehow take a prehistoric pee? Now beginning to look and feel a little confused I engaged again trying to make sense of the line of questioning, ‘I often transport fossils, and always try to avoid water and even ice’. The security officer looks blankly at me…I decide to push-on... ‘While these are affectively stone, water might still damage them’. The security guard sighed, ‘Sir, I thought you said ‘Mussels’…in an instant the hydration line of questioning made sense, ‘So…these are fossils…what kind’. This is when a small part inside of me quietly groans, as I know that I have to give a micro-lecture on each carefully wrapped package…and my flights departure is getting closer by the minute. The now growing assembly of Security Guards wants to be entertained. Maybe I can count this as part of my public engagement/outreach target for the year? 


  1. I found that the TSA has gotten a lot friendlier, and a lot more human in the course of the last few years. Yes, that means when something out of the ordinary pops up the officers will ask question out of curiosity beyond their job training, which does cost a few minutes - but so what? It's fun answering them :)

  2. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.