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The Big Idea: why the airport security rigmarole is off the planet

Laura Poitras is suing the US government. The creator of Pulitzer Prize-winning, Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour, about the whistleblower Edward Snowden, wants to know why she has been detained more than 50 times by border patrols in the past six years when trying to re-enter the United States.

She has taken legal action because her freedom-of-information requests for her national security records were fruitless.

Who hasn’t been irritated by the belt-, boot-, wallet- and watch-removing palaver that pertains to getting on a plane nowadays? Planetary scientist and astrobiologist Kevin P. Hand has, but suggests we chill and instead think about the moons of Jupiter. That’s because the fundamental physics that alerts airport security to the presence of forbidden items in your luggage by sensing changes in electromagnetic fields is the same physics that revealed that one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, had a 100-kilometre-deep global ocean under its10km-thick outer ice shell.

The same technique will presumably be in use over the next 16 months as scientists work on the deluge of data from the New Horizons space probe to determine whether Pluto has not only icy mountains but icy oceans too.

Poitras accused the US government of using the border to bypass the rule of law, and said she acted “in support of the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subject to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders. We have a right to know how this system works and why we are targeted”.

It’s a safe bet that physics will deliver a more elegant explanation for the mysteries of Pluto than she will ever get for her detention at airports.

Twitter: @smharmitage

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