The Doomed Mouse Utopia That Inspired the 'Rats of NIMH'

Dr. John Bumpass Calhoun spent the '60s and '70s playing god to thousands of rodents.

Calhoun inside Universe 25, his biggest, baddest mouse utopia. (Photo:   Yoichi R. Okamoto/Public Domain  )

Calhoun inside Universe 25, his biggest, baddest mouse utopia. (Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto/Public Domain)

via Atlas Obscura

By Cara Giaimo

On July 9th, 1968, eight white mice were placed into a strange box at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Maybe "box" isn't the right word for it; the space was more like a room, known as Universe 25, about the size of a small storage unit. The mice themselves were bright and healthy, hand-picked from the institute's breeding stock. They were given the run of the place, which had everything they might need: food, water, climate control, hundreds of nesting boxes to choose from, and a lush floor of shredded paper and ground corn cob. 

This is a far cry from a wild mouse's life—no cats, no traps, no long winters. It's even better than your average lab mouse's, which is constantly interrupted by white-coated humans with scalpels or syringes. The residents of Universe 25 were mostly left alone, save for one man who would peer at them from above, and his team of similarly interested assistants. They must have thought they were the luckiest mice in the world. They couldn't have known the truth: that within a few years, they and their descendants would all be dead.

The man who played mouse-God and came up with this doomed universe was named John Bumpass Calhoun. As Edmund Ramsden and Jon Adams detail in a paper, "Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B. Calhoun & Their Cultural Influence," Calhoun spent his childhood traipsing around Tennessee, chasing toads, collecting turtles, and banding birds. These adventures eventually led him to a doctorate in biology, and then a job inBaltimore, where he was tasked with studying the habits of Norway rats, one of the city's chief pests.

In 1947, to keep a close eye on his charges, Calhoun constructed a quarter-acre "rat city" behind his house, and filled it with breeding pairs. He expected to be able to house 5,000 rats there but over the two years he observed the city, the population never exceeded 150. At that point, the rats became too stressed to reproduce. They started acting weirdly, rolling dirt into balls rather than digging normal tunnels. They hissed and fought.

This fascinated Calhoun—if the rats had everything they needed, what was keeping them from overrunning his little city, just as they had all of Baltimore?

Intrigued, Calhoun built another, slightly bigger rat metropolis—this time in a barn, with ramps connecting several different rooms. Then he built another and another, hopping between patrons that supported his research, and framing his work in terms of population: How many individuals could a rodent city hold without losing its collective mind? By 1954, he was working under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health, which gave him whole rooms to build his mousetopias. Like a rodent real estate developer, he incorporated ever-better amenities: climbable walls, food hoppers that could serve two dozen mice at once, lodging he described as "walk-up one-room apartments." Video records of his experimentsshow Calhoun with a pleased smile and a pipe in his mouth, color-coded mice scurrying over his boots.


Still, at a certain point, each of these paradises collapsed. "There could be no escape from the behavioral consequences of rising population density," Calhoun wrote in an early paper. Even Universe 25—the biggest, best mousetopia of all, built after a quarter century of research—failed to break this pattern. In late October, the first litter of mouse pups was born. After that, the population doubled every two months—20 mice, then 40, then 80. The babies grew up and had babies of their own. Families became dynasties, carving out and holding down the best in-cage real estate. By August of 1969, the population numbered 620.

Then, as always, things took a turn. Such rapid growth put too much pressure on the mouse way of life. As new generations reached adulthood, many couldn't find mates, or places in the social order—the mouse equivalent of a spouse and a job. Spinster females retreated to high-up nesting boxes, where they lived alone, far from the family neighborhoods. Washed-up males gathered in the center of the Universe, near the food, where they fretted, languished, and attacked each other. Meanwhile, overextended mouse moms and dads began moving nests constantly to avoid their unsavory neighbors. They also took their stress out on their babies, kicking them out of the nest too early, or even losing them during moves.

Population growth slowed way down again. Most of the adolescent mice retreated even further from societal expectations, spending all their time eating, drinking, sleeping and grooming, and refusing to fight or to even attempt to mate. (These individuals were forever changed—when Calhoun's colleague attempted to transplant some of them to more normal situations, they didn't remember how to do anything.) In May of 1970, just under 2 years into the study, the last baby was born, and the population entered a swan dive of perpetual senescence. It's unclear exactly when the last resident of Universe 25 perished, but it was probably sometime in 1973.

Paradise couldn't even last half a decade.

Convinced that he had found a real problem, Calhoun quickly began using his mouse models to try and fix it. If mice and humans weren't afforded enough physical space, he thought, perhaps they could make up for it with conceptual space—creativity, artistry, and the type of community not built around social hierarchies. His later Universes were designed to be spiritually as well as physically utopic, with rodent interactions carefully controlled to maximize happiness (he was particularly fascinated by some early rats who had created an innovative form of tunneling, where they rolled dirt into balls). He extrapolated this, too, to human concerns, becoming an early supporter of environmental design and H.G. Wells's hypothetical "World Brain," an international information network that was a clear precursor to the internet.

But the public held on hard to his earlier work—as Ramsden and Adams put it, "everyone want[ed] to hear the diagnosis, no one want[ed] to hear the cure." Gradually, Calhoun lost attention, standing, and funding. In 1986, he was forced to retired from the National Institute of Mental Health. Nine years later, he died.

But there was one person who paid attention to his more optimistic experiments, a writer named Robert C. O'Brien. In the late '60s, O'Brien allegedly visited Calhoun's lab, met the man trying to build a true and creative rat paradise, and took note of the Frisbee on the door, the scientists' own attempt "to help when things got too stressful," as Calhoun put it. Soon after, O'Brien wrote Ms. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH—a story about rats who, having escaped from a lab full of blundering humans, attempt to build their own utopia. Next time, maybe we should put the rats in charge.



Tweet the NY Public Library an emoji and it’ll tweet back a pic from its archives


Today in Fun With Bots, we take a look at @NYPLEmoji, a bot by the New York Public Library, which responds to emojis tweeted at it by fans with startlingly similar photos from the library’s public image collection.

It’s awesome.

The bot queries the library’s digital collection, which has more than 691,000 digitized images. It finds the one that most closely resembles the emoji, and tweets back the image. Sometime the bot just picks emojis itself and finds good photos to pair with them.

The bot is the work of Lauren Lampasone, a digital producer at the NYPL, and Leonard Richardson, a software architect there.

The Strange Second Life Of Vintage Pizza Huts

From pawn shops to mosques, a new project aims to document all the ways that the franchise's once-iconic huts have been repurposed.

via FastcoDesign


These days, you'll find Pizza Huts everywhere, from shopping mall food courts to nondescript retail storefronts. But in their glory days, Pizza Hut locations were every bit as iconic for their odd, hut-shaped structures as McDonald's is for its golden arches. And over the years, the rule that every Pizza Hut franchise should be shaped like a hut has lapsed. The old huts still live on, however, passing into a second life where they've been repurposed into everything from grocery stores to funeral homes.

Photographer Ho Hai Tran is obsessed with Pizza Hut second lives. He's on a quest to find and photograph every reincarnated Pizza Hut as part of Pizza Hunt, a new book project he's funding on Kickstarter.


According to Tran, no one knows how many vintage Pizza Hut buildings still exist. They were all largely built in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, modeled after the shape of "Pizza Hut Number One," the first franchise location in Wichita, Kansas. These locations all have a two-tiered, shingled red roof and trapezoidal windows, which makes their silhouette still clearly identifiable, even after the Pizza Hut branding has been stripped away.

The goal of Pizza Hunt is to find as many of these old buildings as possible, photographing them and mapping them for posterity. According to Tran, the hut's iconic shape possesses a allure that is unique to the Pizza Hut franchise. While a hut's shape makes its pedigree as an ex-Pizza Hut immediately obvious, it's also strangely adaptable to other contexts.

"The weirdest ones are the funeral homes and mortuaries," he says. "It's just such a juxtaposition." Even so, Tran says he's seen ex-Pizza Huts serve as everything from "churches, mosques, pool shops, and pawn shops—the list goes one. No matter what they become, they still always hint at their past."

But why should we be fascinated by the repurposing of old corporate architecture? To that question, Tran quotes author Philip Langdon, author of the book Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: "The chain restaurant is something of a strange object—considered outside the realm of significant architecture, yet swiftly reflecting shifts in popular taste and unquestionably making an impact on daily life."

If these huts could go from mainstream to forgotten so quickly, it really makes you wonder how quickly today's architecture could be swept away . . . and what strange second lives it will have.

SO Much Radio! The best internet radio stations

The best internet radio stations

via The Telegraph

There's a whole lot of good radio out there which isn't made up of soporific playlists and banal chatter but it isn't always easy to find. With this in mind, we've compiled a list of the best internet radio stations, which are guaranteed to introduce you to something fresh, whatever your tastes.

We'll keep listening and update this list regularly with the best new internet radio stations.

The List!