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Look! Up in the Sky! It’s Superman! It’s E.T.! No, It’s a… Flying Mouse?

According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is an art, or rather a knack, to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. If that seems too difficult — or potentially painful — a group of scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena has devised an alternate method. Working on behalf of NASA, they successfully levitated a mouse using only a superconducting magnet and some pixie dust. OK, actually just the magnet. But that’s only because the mouse wasn’t headed for Neverland to join Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.

No, the airborne critter, a svelte ten grams and only three weeks old, is an integral part of ongoing research into how to counteract bone and muscle loss during extensive time in low gravity, such as might occur on long space missions. A strong enough magnet will repel water in the body, causing said body to defy gravity. Earlier experiments involved frogs and grasshoppers (and strawberries), but since people are more genetically similar to mice than to amphibians or insects (or fruit) the effects on the mice are expected to provide a better representation of what might happen to human astronauts. Will they stay strong and fit, able to comport themselves in mid-air with grace and glamour like Neo in The Matrix? Or will they become all hideous and snot-covered, like Regan in The Exorcist?

Fortunately, once the time comes for people to put this knowledge to good use, they’ll have the advantage of understanding what the heck is going on. Pity the ignorant lab mice. One of the physicists, Yuanming Liu, said of the first hovering rodent, “It actually kicked around and started to spin, and without friction, it could spin faster and faster, and we think that made it even more disoriented.” Well, yes, one would think so. It probably helps to be from outer space originally: E.T. can lift himself and a whole fleet of bicycles in the air; in the Star Wars films, Luke Skywalker, Yoda and the other Jedi frequently employ the force to give themselves floaty power. (Although to be fair, when Luke levitates R2D2 and C3PO, the droids aren’t exactly thrilled with their predicament.)

Perhaps learning from 3PO’s droidian anxieties, the scientific team got the bright idea to sedate the subjects on the second go-round. But unlike stubborn robots, mice are quite adaptable and eventually they got used to their exciting new superpowers, eating, drinking and doing normal mousy things even while suspended in mid-air for three hours.

One day, the team may move on to levitating British nannies (à la Mary Poppins), evil monkeys (à la The Wizard of Oz), or even natives of Krypton (three guesses). But at present, the apparatus is far too small and weak to be used on primates. Could you build a person-sized model? “Theoretically I think you could,” says Liu, ” but the cost would be prohibitive.”

Maybe we can help. Think happy thoughts. And clap your hands if you believe that mice can fly.

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