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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

A patented egg parachute

I am getting on a bit and some bits of me are no longer working as well as they might, but I have some good yarns still to tell.  Some of them are even written.  The thing is, I lack the patience to cajole nervous publishers into taking them on as projects, so I plan to use some of my tales as blog entries here, while others will probably emerge as e-books.  We'll see how it turns out.

Mostly, these items, whether in e-book form or blog entries, will relate to my curious mind and assorted temporary obsessions: some of them entail revisiting things I write about years ago, like seahorse teeth, which I will come back to later.  Today, let me talk about crazy inventions.

From US Patent 5813165
In the superficially crazy stakes, there are probably few inventions which could hold a candle to U.S. Patent 5813165, granted in 1998 to Franklin Wayne Dougherty Sr. for a biodegradable snake trap, designed to be dropped by parachute, and incorporating an egg and a fish hook. Surely, I thought when I read this patent, the specification was part of a complicated shaggy dog story?

Then I recalled an experience, one hot tropical dawn, five years before the patent was granted.  That experience gave me a context in which to examine the idea and recognise just how amazingly clever it was. So I have to wonder: how many of those crazy ideas that we see as "ludicrous" ideas only appear ludicrous because we lack a key detail?

I was working on the island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, between Guam and Hawaii. I was there for a science curriculum development in a new nation, and I began each day by going for a dawn walk, usually along the Deketik causeway that ran over to the Pohnpei International Airport, about 1 km away.

Traffic on the causeway was usually light, and there were wetlands to admire, making it a pleasant walk. One day, I noticed a lot of activity around the airport and realised that many people were moving around, and they all seemed to be in army uniform. Micronesia is pleasant and civilised, so a coup was unlikely, but I decided to retreat.

Later that day, the locals had a good laugh at my expense when I told them I had run away. From time to time, aircraft coming in from Guam arrived with one or more brown tree snakes, and when a snake was spotted, the army was called out to hunt the snakes down.

Guam's snake infestation of Boiga irregularis originated, around the end of World War II, probably in a ship that came from Papua-New Guinea. The population levels are now high, most song birds on Guam have been wiped out, and the rain forests are declining because song birds pollinate many rain forest species.

The snakes also invade electrical systems, shorting them out. They seem to be quite capable of getting into cargo containers that can end up on other islands. Nobody really wants that.

The snake trap can be dropped into inaccessible areas from an aircraft, and it will hang in trees where only the snakes can get at it. They will swallow the egg whole and then crush it, at which point they will be hooked, and in the end, they will die.

Pohnpei has rain forests, and there are rain forests on Saipan and many other Pacific islands. Until snake numbers are reduced in infested places like Guam, we can expect to see the army called out in any places that are snake-free. That apparently crazy biodegradable trap may just help a few soldiers get the chance to sleep past sunrise.

In short, that turned out to be a clever solution to a serious problem caused by brown tree snakes in Micronesia. So how many of the other "ludicrous" ideas that we have seen are only ludicrous because we lack a key detail?

The devil is always in the details, as we can see here.

There was a tale doing the round in the 1840s about a sailor who had broken his leg, and was advised to share the details of his case with the Royal Society. It seems he had fallen from the top of the mast, and fractured his leg, he had dressed it with nothing but tar and oakum, and yet in three days was able to walk as well as before the accident.

The collected Fellows of the Royal Society confessed that they were amazed, but sorely puzzled. Despite what Bishop Berkeley may have believed about tar water, he was not a medical man, and so tar was not a recognised medication. Neither was oakum. Quite a few of them doubted whether the leg had really been broken, and they demanded more details and more proof.

Certificates were delivered, attesting that yes, the leg had indeed been broken, and that truly, absolutely no other dressing had been applied. Letters went back and forth, and surgeons began to worry that they might have been losing a valuable portion of their practices. Imagine how relieved they must have felt when the honest sailor, in a postscript to his last letter, added these words. "I forgot to tell your honours that the leg was a wooden one."

So when you scrutinise something that is new, different or unexpected, it all depends on where you are standing, but stand not in judgement, not even on a broken wooden leg, until you have all the details!

The tar water?  That's another story for another day.

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