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Physical Chemistry

Coping With Whiskers

'The Five Stages Of Metal Whisker Grief'

by Sophie L. Rovner
July 16, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 29

An encounter with metal whiskers can be devastating. Henning W. Leidecker, a whisker expert at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, recalls one man who operated a computer room in which "75% of the computers blew the fuses in their power supplies in the space of a few hours. It took him several months to trace the cause to zinc whiskers," Leidecker says.

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Coping With Whiskers

The whiskers probably had been growing for years beneath the room's raised floor, but hadn't created trouble until a water spill occurred, Leidecker says. Air blown into the space between the tiles and the subfloor to dry up the water dislodged the whiskers, which then wafted into the computers through vents in the floor.

As the man recounted what he went through during the ordeal, his experiences reminded Leidecker of the five stages of grief described in Elisabeth K??bler-Ross' book "On Death and Dying." That resonance prompted Leidecker to adapt K??bler-Ross's list as follows:


"Metal whiskers?!? We ain't got no stinkin' whiskers! I don't even think metal whiskers exist! I KNOW we don't have any!"


"You say we got whiskers, I rip your $%#@ lungs out! Who put them there—I'll murderize him! I'll tear him into pieces so small, they'll fit under one of those *^&$#% whiskers!"


"We have metal whiskers? But they are so small. And you have only seen a few of them. How could a few small things possibly be a problem to our power supplies and equipment? These few whiskers should be easy to clean up."


"Dang. Doomed. Close the shop—we are out of business. Of all the miserable bit joints in all the world, metal whiskers had to come into mine … I'm retiring from here … Going to open a 'Squat & Gobble' on the Keys."


"Metal whiskers. How about that? Who knew? Well, clean what you can. Put in the particle filters, and schedule periodic checks of what the debris collectors find. Ensure that all the warranties and service plans are up to date. On with life."

Leidecker says that colleagues and others who have suffered through a whisker infestation have told him they "recognize their own sequence of reactions in this version of the 'Five Stages.' They can usually smile now at these stages, but the pain of their whiskering adventure usually is still present, too. So, it is a bittersweet description."



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