In 1971, scientists at the National Accelerator Laboratory (NAL) had a problem. The NAL's new Meson Laboratory was nearing completion, but its piping — through which subatomic particles would fly — was dirty. And it needed to be spotless to work properly. Someone had to figure out how to remove the innumerable tiny steel particles, dust and other debris from the pipes' interior before they could be used. The first idea: Create a mechanical cleaner to wipe out the 12-inch (30-centimeter)-wide, 300-foot (91-meter)-long tubes. A good idea, but an expensive one. Then, visiting British physicist Robert Sheldon came up with another idea: a ferret [source: Fermilab].
Ferrets are small, curious creatures that love to duck into holes and burrows, which they'll zip along until they reach the end, just to see what's there. Sheldon recalled how, back home, ferrets were sent down rabbit holes to, um, ferret out bunnies. The scientists agreed to give the inexpensive option a try, and so the NAL purchased Felicia, a petite 15-inch (38-centimeter) ferret, for a mere $35. Employees taught Felicia to scurry down the piping while fitted with a special collar and string; as Felicia ran through the pipe, she pulled the string with her. When she emerged at the other end, workers fastened a tight-fitting swab soaked in cleaning fluid to the end of the string, then pulled it back through the pipe to clean it [source: Fermilab].