Sparky Saga Part Three: Wired Science

After having our patio lights destroyed by a particularly misguided squirrel on two different occasions, I was left with no option but to apply the scientific method to the problem.

Step 1: Observation/Question – The squirrels (possibly one particular individual, “Sparky”) are chewing the lightbulbs off my string of patio lights/how do I make the fuckers knock it off?

Fig. 1: String light (neither a fig nor an acorn) harvested by arboreal rodent

Step 2: Research – The research at this stage of the game is mostly my past experience. The style of the lights’ attachment to the line (stem vs. no stem) does not have an influence. Peppermint oil is not a sufficient deterrent, despite the internet’s insistence to the contrary. In previous observations, the squirrels have only chewed the lights that are strung directly along the fence. Lights along the garage roof and those spanning a distance have been unbothered. (I had hoped previously that any subsequent chewing might actually happen on one of these higher, freer strands and that the resulting plummet would be caught on our security camera, but no plummet has occurred. Good for the lights, bad for potential TikTok fodder, which is probably just as well, since I’m not on TikTok.)

Fig. 2: String lights both suspended and along fence

Step 3: Hypothesis – We were always taught in school to style a hypothesis as an “if/then” statement, and while I understood the explanation (to ensure we included what we were planning on manipulating and what we thought the outcome would be), it always felt unnecessarily simple (actual scientific papers pretty much never use if/then-style hypotheses) and grammatically clunky (specifically, “then” felt a bit redundant, like telling someone to “enter into” a building; you’re not going to enter out of a building, are you?). “If I slap you, it will hurt,” contains the exact same amount of information as, “If I slap you, then it will hurt,” but in a much more streamlined and natural way. If I have to write a hypothesis in this prescribed formula, then I probably am not thinking in complex and nuanced enough ways to really comprehend the data I’m going to collect. Okay, sorry, back to the squirrels. Because past observations have indicated that the fence might aid the squirrels’ assault on our lights, lifting the lights off the fence might disrupt Sparky’s lightbulb harvest. Or “If the lights are raised away from the fence, then Sparky won’t have anywhere to sit while he eats the wires (unless he engages in some Wile E. Coyote shenanigans).”

Fig. 3: Theoretical animation of squirrel comeuppance

Step 4: Experiment – To lift the lights away from the fence, we needed some kind of pole. We had previously purchased and installed a pole specifically marketed to hang patio string lights, as seen in Fig. 2. Ideally, we could have purchased one or two more of these to put at the other corners of the patio and put all the lights at the same height. Unfortunately, those other corners, marked by the wooden fence posts, didn’t allow for the simple “poke the pole into the dirt” method as they were at the junction of the concrete patio and the asphalt alley (not a euphemism, the alley is just paved with asphalt). Instead, we searched for something that could attach to our wooden fence posts and found something on Amazon that was designed for such a purpose. Once the extenders arrived, they weren’t quite as long as I had imagined, but they were long enough to ensure that the string of lights could hang roughly eight inches above the fence line. The aesthetic of the lights was thrown off a little, but that wasn’t really part of the experiment; if this solved the problem, we could make it pretty later.

Fig 4: Extension posts and lights now suspended above fence

Step 5: Analysis/conclusion – It’s been almost a week now and so far, the lights have not been chewed. It’s really an ongoing experiment, so I hesitate to draw any conclusions yet. We may have encountered an unforeseen consequences, however. Last night, at about four o’clock in the morning, the power went out.

This outage was especially worrisome as we have been under an excessive heat warning for the last several days with daily heat index readings around 115 degrees. The wiring in our house is not as reliable as one would hope, and sometimes the breaker box heats up enough to trip simply from the heat of direct sunlight shining on it. As it was 4 a.m., direct sunlight likely wasn’t the cause of the outage, so we blearily crawled out of bed to see if any of our neighbors’ lights were on. Finding only darkness outside (a sign that it wasn’t just our house), we reported the outage to the electric company and tried to get back to sleep while testing scenarios of where to keep ourselves cool throughout the coming day should the outage not be resolved quickly. Fortunately, the power was restored at six this morning and we received a report from the electric company of the cause: wildlife interference.

We changed the height of the lights, our key independent variable. Not to risk mistaking correlation for causation, it must be noted that Sparky, our key subject is a member of wildlife with a reputation for interfering with electricity. I’m not saying Sparky definitely sought out an alternate source of electrical eats, and it certainly wouldn’t be scientific to suppose that Sparky, enraged by our attempts to restrict his diet, sought out cold, calculated revenge. But it also wouldn’t be logical to strictly dismiss those possibilities without any shred of evidence one way or the other.

Step 6: Report – Well, here we are. I used that silly If/Then statement, so this is probably as reputable a publication as I’m likely to get, but if I’ve followed the scientific method at all (questionable), I’ve certainly done the reporting part. As the experiment remains ongoing, it remains to be seen whether Sparky has been thwarted, and if indeed he has, we may never know whether it was by our post extenders or his own thirst for vengeance, to the detriment of science.

4 thoughts on “Sparky Saga Part Three: Wired Science

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  1. Oh, my goodness! I love this! That Sparky may be toast! (or toasted, charred, seared, or cremated) I hope there is some way to find out if indeed it was a squirrel that caused the outage. Perhaps Sparky had a slight addiction problem and was going for the big high. I am waiting for the experiment to conclude as you gather even more data with every passing day! Keep writing and I will keep reading!

  2. You know, I always had problems with that whole “hypotheses must be an if/then statement” too. It really depends on the purpose of the experiment. Making a rule like that just makes awkward sentences and unclear communication. But leaving that aside, I’m glad the lights are surviving! I think you might have fixed Sparky’s wagon this time!

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