“A 3-D print-out of an adult mouse penis.”
Oh no it isn’t.
The officer called over three of her colleagues and asked them to guess what it is. No one said anything, so Cohn told them. They fell apart laughing.
Cohn, who’s based at the University of Florida, studies genitals and urinary tracts, and how they develop in embryos. Around 1 in 250 people are born with birth defects affecting these organs, and although such changes are becoming more common, their causes are largely unclear. By studying how genitals normally develop, Cohn’s hoping to understand what happens when they take a different path. And like many scientists, he is working with mice. He recently analysed a mouse’s genitals with a high-resolution medical scanner. To show his colleagues how incredibly detailed the scans can be, he used them to print a scaled-up model, which he took with him to the conference in DC. And because the conference was just a two-day affair, Cohn didn’t bring any checked luggage. Hence: the penis in his carry-on.
Scientists, as it happens, are full of tales like this because as a group, they’re likely to (a) travel frequently, and (b) carry really weird shit in their bags.
In previous years, Cohn has flown with the shin bone of a giant ground sloth and a cooler full of turtle embryos. Just last month, Diane Kelly from the University of Massachusetts, who studies the evolution of animal genitals, was stopped by the TSA because she was carrying what is roughly the opposite of Cohn’s item: a 3-D-printed mold of a dolphin vagina. “Technically it’s not even my dolphin vagina mold,” she says. “I was carrying it for someone.”
Other scientists who responded to a call for stories on Twitter have flown with bottles of monkey pee, chameleon and skate embryos, 5,000 year old human bones, remotely operated vehicles, and, well, a bunch of rocks. (“I’m a geologist. I study rocks.”) Astrophysicist Brian Schmidt was once stopped by airport officials on his way to North Dakota because he was carrying his Nobel Prize—a half-pound gold disk that showed up as completely black on the security scanners. “Uhhhh. Who gave this to you?” they said. “The King of Sweden,” he replied. “Why did he give this to you?,” they probed. “Because I helped discover the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating.”
Anthropologist Donald Johanson has flown with probably the most precious—and the most famous—of these cargos: the bones of the Lucy the Australopithecus, who Johanson himself discovered. In a memoir, he recalls having to show her bones to a customs official in Paris. The man was an anthropology buff, and when Johanson told him that the fossils were from Ethiopia, he said, “You mean Lucy?” “A large crowd gathered and watched as Lucy’s bones were displayed, one by one, on the Customs counter. I got my first inkling of the enormous pull that Lucy would generate from then on, everywhere she went.”