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Boy, the holidays sort of feel like a super-fun carnival ride that abruptly stops and tosses you out beneath an icy highway overpass in the middle of nowhere–which is to say, 2022 is officially rolling along now. Pursuant some of last year’s stories, we have a couple of updates: one sad and one uplifting.

Magawa retires after spending five years detecting landmines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. AKP

The sad update is that the much-lauded hero rat Magawa has retired from retirement and moved up to that great rat-burrow in the clouds. Magawa was a Gambian pouched rat who helped find and disarm 108 unexploded land mines and anti-personnel explosives in the killing fields of Cambodia. The oldest known Gambian pouched rat in captivity lived to be eight years old, and great Magawa too was eight when he passed away last weekend. His glowing obituary in the New York Times (!) extolled his work (and, by extension, the heroic work of Belgian NGO APOPO which runs the “heroRAT” initiative to save lives and limbs from forgotten weapons of yesteryear). We will not forget his work (indeed some…or maybe lots…of people will have entire lives because of it) and we should also remember what great things are possible when we collaborate with our animal friends. Requiescat (requiesrat?) in pacem, Megawa, and thank you!

The other (much happier) news is that the Webb Space telescope has fully deployed. The telescope launched from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas (2021) and ever since then it has been unfurling huge, sensitive, delicate components by means of robot manipulators in the cold (yet not cold-enough) darkness of space. My roommate’s brother was an engineer on the telescope, and he said that if the telescope’s mirror (a 6.5 meter (21 foot) gold-plated beryllium hexagon) were expanded to the the size of the United States, no part of it would be more than a meter or so tall (or, to be less poetic, its surface is nano-engineered to exquisite and inhuman smoothness). The infrared telescope must be kept extremely cold (50 Kelvin or −369.7 °F) in order to accurately measure long infrared waves. Since no coolant would last long enough to satisfy mission requirements, this has involved building an ingenuous array of radiators connected to a ponderous sunshield apparatus the size of a tennis court (but made of many layers of meticulously engineered super-plastic each the thickness of a human hair). The sunshield and the telescope mirror were too large to be placed in the rocket payload capsule when assembled. Therefore it was necessary to assemble them in space, far away from the contaminants and perils of low Earth orbit…and far away from any possible help if anything went wrong. It was NASA’s most complicated deployment yet (by quite a lot, apparently) and if anything went wrong, humankind’s great 10 billion dollar eye to look at the universe would be completely ruined. Mercifully, the deployment was a success and the incredible telescope is now undergoing calibration as it travels to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, 1,500,000 km (930,000 miles) away from Earth orbit.

It is still several months (or more) before we receive the first data and images back from the telescope, but the most harrowing stage of the mission has now passed. Ferrebeekeeper will keep you updated, but the telescope is already an astonishing achievement which has greatly advanced material science, optics, robotics, and sundry other disciplines! Mabe 2022 is already looking up (even if it is currently 265 Kelvin here in Brooklyn right now).

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Today we would like to say a special thank you to an extraordinary humanitarian whose heroic career has saved many innocent lives. Before we hand out the medals and the commendations though, it is worth looking back to one of Ferrebeekeeper’s most controversial posts. At the beginning of the Year of the Metal Rat (a year which, uhhhhh, frankly turned out to be pretty bad) we featured an article about rats and their social/emotional lives. Although people grasped the thread of the article, longstanding views about the grossness and dirtiness of rats intruded and caused some pretty painful cognitive dissonance.

This is relevant, because the humanitarian we are feting today is not a human but rather an African giant pouched rat. Meet Magawa, the most successful landmine-sniffing rat from the ranks of rats of APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling), a Belgian non-profit organization which seeks to find and remove unexploded land mines from nations once torn apart by war. For five years, Magawa has served in Cambodia on the front lines of this humane endeavor. Over the course of his career he discovered an astonishing 71 land mines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance. In acknowledgement of Magawa’s valorous service, a British organization devoted to recognizing animal heroism (since World War II!) presented the living land-mine detector with a rat-sized gold medal of valor.

People have a way of seeing past the truth of a thing, so maybe when you look at Magawa you could squint and turn the screen a bit. Perhaps that would help people who are squeamish of rats glimpse behind the large rodent to see 100 Cambodian children (or goodness knows who else) who have not been maimed or blown to bloody fragments by forgotten ordinances of a depraved era.

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Of course Magawa did not show up at the door of APOPO and volunteer. As is usually the case, the real hero is actually a team. Without animal trainers, sappers, donors, volunteers, liaisons, et cetera, Magawa would probably have never left his native Tanzania to travel to the killing fields and harvest their deadly fruit. Additionally, rats are preferred for this work because besides their sharp sense of smell and keen intelligence, they are generally too small to trigger the mines (although Magawa is certainly a mega-rat).

But whatever the case, it would be peevish to deny Magawa (and his team) a moment of well-deserved glory. African giant pouched rats can live for more than 8 years, but Magawa was born in 2014 (he trained for 2 years) and he is starting to slow down. With any luck other rats will follow in his (careful) footsteps and help us to undo some of the horrible things we have done. Imagine what would be possible if our two unstoppable species collaborated more!

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