In which The Author digs out an old magazine article
Thanks largely to my friends Rhian, Wayne B., Liz the Good Twin and Neil R., a few months ago I was turned onto the hit US sitcom The Big Bang Theory. As a premise for comedy, it’s an unusual set-up. It began as the everyday story of three high-flying but socially awkward scientists, their sex-mad pal who develops equipment for NASA, and the wannabe actress from Nebraska living in the apartment opposite.
Over time, the relationships between the main characters have driven the comedy to new heights. The situation is terrific, the potential for comedy is almost unlimited, and its popularity is attested by its guest stars; Professors Stephen Hawking, George Smoot and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are amongst some of the well-known scientists who’ve appeared in the show. In the same way that celebrities queue up to voice themselves in The Simpsons, a walk-on appearance in The Big Bang Theory gives these big names a fair degree of street cred.
The venerable academic institution at the heart of the action is never mentioned, possibly for fear of marring its reputation. However, the frequent script references to Pasadena left me in little doubt that it’s set at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. I first came across this hotbed of genius in the May 1980 edition of Omni, when I was embarking on my O Levels. The article about the annual ritual of Ditch Day fascinated me. Its combination of extreme science and extreme pranking made National Lampoon’s Animal House look tame by comparison.
The next time I came across Caltech was when I was reading James Gleick’s book Genius: Richard Feynman and modern physics. It didn’t surprise me one bit to learn that the arch-prankster of Nobel prizewinners found himself living out his last years in Pasadena. I’m fairly sure that he’d have loved Ditch Day. I’m very surprised that The Big Bang Theory hasn’t done an episode about it yet. Then again, maybe truth would be stranger than fiction. With that in mind, I thought I’d share that original article with you:
BRAIN WARS Prime coverage of the nation’s “super bowl of tomfoolery” BY RICHARD CHAPMAN
As the desert sun evaporates the mists off the mountains overlooking Pasadena, California, Caltech seniors disappear from campus. Behind them, in the dim labyrinth of dormitory corridors, underclass “wimps” begin to stir. Night visions of quantum mechanics and chemical reactions still waft through their brains. Breakfast beers in hand, they ramble the halls, discovering the seniors’ doors bolted – not just with simple turn-the key locks, or even with complex combinations. These rooms are protected by a startling array of devices rigged to respond to sound, heat, light, magnets, water, pressure, computers, or … a snake, did you say?
From one door emanates a series of electronic boops, beeps, and tweedles – a synthesized musical code to unravel. A fearsome python named Aristotle writhes before another door, with clues suggesting his use as a door opener. Some doors, like senior Werner Pyka’s. are barred with masses of steel and concrete, but most feature computer terminals, spaghetti mazes of wire, tubing and gadgets that must somehow be manipulated to afford entrance. It’s as if Albert Einstein had been reincarnated as a “frat rat.” Rube Goldberg meets Luke Skywalker.
It’s Ditch Day, an eccentric yearly ritual at Caltech that’s an intellectual field day for the young geniuses who pit their considerable head muscles against one another in a daylong tournament of wit and brawn. These are the technocrazies, the same pack of whiz kids whose stunts have befuddled sober minions of order, ranging from the FBI to giant corporations.
Ditch Day had its origins in some distant, modest prank in which underclassmen broke into the seniors’ room while the occupants were off on a day of relaxation before final exams. Since then, Ditch Day has rumbled its way up the Richter scale (invented at Caltech) to become a major Caltech event; for some, it’s the highlight of four mind-splitting years of nearly uninterrupted pressure. This “super bowl of tomfoolery” is calculated to give these brilliant students a chance to blow off pre-exam anxiety and to avert a cerebral meltdown.
Ditch Day is governed by an established set of rules and a rigid code of honor. The wimps must follow – to the letter – any instructions posted on the seniors’ doors, and they must gain entrance before the seniors return at 5:00 P.M.
The rules list three kinds of locks, or “stacks,” on the doors. The first, the “brute force” stack can be opened by any means short of nuclear weapons. Getting into a brute-force stack, according to one senior who’s dealt with several, “requires no intelligence – just some dynamite.” A few years ago underclassmen resorted to hydraulic lifts on one brute-force stack and raised the room’s ceiling to crawl into a senior’s room.
The “finesse” stack must be opened by manipulating whatever technological device (electronic, chemical or biological) is installed on the door. This year an entire room would be transformed into a radio telescope, and every clue would relate to radio astronomy.
The “honor” stack requires wimps to solve a written problem or puzzle before opening the unlocked door. It’s claimed that this is the easy way out for lazy seniors, yet several years ago a senior devised a quantum mechanics problem that not only kept out underclassmen but also stymied a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
The wimps also have a few rules of their own. On Ditch Day any senior caught on campus after 8:00 A.M. can be abducted and tied to the nearest tree. When the security of a senior’s room has finally been breached, either the wimps can accept a “bride” of food, drink or other goodies left by the senior in hopes his room will be spared or they can reengineer the locks or leave unusual surprises of their own. One past “counterstack” was masterminded by a group of wimps who disassembled a senior’s sports car, then put it back together in his room, with the engine running. Another year a senior scuba enthusiast returned to his room only to be greeted by a pool of sharks. Last year a senior opened his door and found a horse and a cow rummaging through his closet. The designer of that counterstack was senior Tod Lauer, a New Jersey astronomer whose reputation as campus practical joker virtually ensured outrageous acts against his room this year: “I could leave three naked women, Colombian dope, and a bottle of Seagram’s, and they’d still counterstack me.” Lauer’s bribe this year would be a half-eaten cupcake.
At 8:15 A.M. the wimps are massing before Pyka’s brute-force stack. A demolitions expert plays around with a mixture of gunpowder and mercury fulminate, while others explore the ventilation ducts and crawl spaces above the room. Another assault force, led by a muscular wimp nicknamed Froggie, attacks the steel plating with crowbars and sledgehammers. Outside, a third group of daredevils has scaled the dorm wall and is testing the windows. A cutting torch is on the way.
Downstairs, the wimps are stumped by Chris Lee’s musical door lock, emitting an insistent series of grating tones. After repeated attempts to break the code by serenading the door with a variety of musical instruments, a call goes out for any wimps with perfect pitch.
Across campus in Blacker House some underclassmen discover an entire corridor has been stacked. They crowd around a large spring-loaded Plexiglas window revealing a hallway resembling a giant pinball machine – festooned with beer bottles, Christmas-tree lights, and Penthouse centerfolds. The wimps listen intently to a set of recorded instructions, having just been informed the tape will self-destruct.
In the adjoining dorm a small, yet determined, group is already hard at work on what appears to be a simple honor stack. The senior has left five physics problems tacked on his door. Simple enough, yet quite lethal, since these problems can be attacked only after consuming four ounces of bourbon and the box of foul cigars left in front of the door. By 9:00 A.M., only one cigar remains, and one wimp lies passed out in the middle of the hallway.
But at Ruddock House the wimps are trying hard to penetrate Stan Cohn’s room. It would be a distinct honor, not to mention pleasure, to be the first underclassman to break into the room of the senior class president. By attacking the dorm’s electrical system, the wimps hope to neutralize a sinister silver box guarding Cohn’s door. Along the way, they’re discovered another bonus that Cohn had left them: a chemistry minilab, in which underclassmen are commanded to select several vials and mix various chemicals to obtain further clues. An energetic wimp heads to the bathroom, having just discovered the extent of Cohn’s villainy. One of the unmarked vials contains foul-smelling ether – thrown in just for laughs.
Anyone who’s survived four grueling years at the California Institute of Technology deserves a few laughs. It’s a deceptively peaceful and lush campus, where some 200 professors and 1,600 students ponder everything from black holes to the basic structure of matter.
Add up the I.Q.’s of the Caltech football team, and the sum exceeds the total number of pounds they weigh. But, then, Caltech’s linemen are not being groomed for the NFL. More likely, they’re headed for the JPL, Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates the sophisticated robot spacecraft that are now exploring our solar system.
Tech students also log time at the seismological lab, monitoring creaks and groans in the earth, trying to puzzle out when the Big One is coming – the super-quake that will see Californians treading water in the Pacific Ocean.
Caltech astronomers scan the night skies with their telescopes, including the 500-ton giant at Palomar – gathering light from quasars and exploding galaxies. With awesome responsibilities like these, it’s easy to see why “Techies” aren’t out on Saturday nights, simulating the fall of Rome in writhing flesh piles.
Caltech’s academic demands and its incredibly tough workload make MIT look like a trade school. Despite average national college entrance-exam scores in the ninety-ninth percentile for math and the ninety-seventh percentile for verbal skills, 30 percent of entering undergraduates never do graduate. Caltech is the toughest school in the nation. It is a boot camp for genius, the spawning ground for many leaders of government and industry who can speak the arcane language of science. The coolly efficient Harold Brown, secretary of Defense, is a former Caltech president, and Frank Press, presidential science adviser, once headed Caltech’s seismological laboratory.
By mid-morning, mounds of sand pour into the hall from Pyka’s room. The tenacious wimps crowbar their way through the first steel plating, shoveling out the sandbagged surprise, and are well into the second layer. They know it’ll be only a few more minutes before they punch through the sets of railroad ties and get into the room. “Brute force …” snickers a sledgehammering sophomore, “… it’s a piece of cake.”
Several excited students enter Blacker House under an archway with this sculpted motto: “Doest thou love life, then do not squander time.” Inside, a big group wastes no time in attacking the stacked hallway. A wimp standing at the Plexiglas window carefully aims a laser device directly at one nipple of a Penthouse centerfold. “We’re sure there’s a laser detector up there,” he shouts.
Across the courtyard, up several sets of crumbling stairs, and along a rabbit-warren maze of hallways, one of the day’s first finesse stacks has been conquered. But the victors are nowhere to be seen. Only the victim – an electronic glass contraption several feet high, which a sober-faced wimp explains is a computerized pot smoker – is still on the scene. The stack’s mathematical clues produced an equation stating the magic number of tokes necessary to open the door. Following the honor code undeviatingly, the underclassmen had been required to smoke 27 units of grass. The wimps explained that each hit of fully inhaled weed was counted by this “tokometer” when the puff interrupted a light beam in the tube. After 128 hits the device automatically released the door’s lock. The empty baggie at the base of the tube was mute testimony to their accomplishment, but the five wimps who did it were unavailable for comment. They were last seen in the vicinity of the cafeteria.
The city of Pasadena breathes a municipal sigh of relief on Ditch Day. It means at least 24 hours of peace for Pasadenans. A bastion of conservatism, Pasadena’s the kind of place where General George Patton would’ve retired to cultivate roses. Having Caltech in its midst can be a little unnerving for this staid community. It’s as if the behemoth, glittering mother ship from Close Encounters had set down in a sea of well-manicured lawns. And the locals have never been quite sure how to deal with it, especially when things begin getting out of hand.
Besides annoying the neighbors with an occasional good-natured prank, the students frequently engage in comic duels with the harried Pasadena police, who by now are thoroughly convinced that Caltech students can zap into other dimensions at will. This seems to be the only explanation (besides marsh gas) for some of the amazing student capers.
Techies once surreptitiously hauled a full-sized F-84 jet fighter on display at Caltech through three miles of downtown streets to install it on the lawn of the ROTC commandant’s home.
Giant signs, cannons, and sculptures routinely vanish from their rightful locations, only to appear in the courtyards of Caltech dorms. Entirely original decorations occasionally materialize in the most unexpected of places. When a newly-constructed auditorium resembling an ornate wedding cake was to be dedicated on campus, a huge bride and groom appeared atop it, gazing serenely down at the assembled dignitaries and crusty patrons who’d paid for the buildings. A gigantic Mickey Mouse, complete with hands, sprouted on the main Caltech clock tower another year.
A Caltech prank could lead to a scientific breakthrough, or it might just have some fun with national security. It was rumored one year that students were tapping phone lines, and an FBI agent showed up to check it out routinely.
“Somebody claims you’ve been tapping the professors’ phones,” the agent told a student who was a prime suspect as the culprit.
“Oh no, not the professors’ phones,” the student replied. “I tapped the Strategic Air Command hot line.”
For the next two hours, the student pleasantly explained how he’d tapped into the SAC’s hot line from a nearby air force base to the Pentagon. The student was warned not to attempt any further shenanigans, and the shaken agent emerged to phone his superiors. It was later reported that significant changes had been quickly made in the SAC communications system.
If they could get to the air force, another group of electronic zanies from Caltech reasoned, then they were ready for a tougher foe: McDonald’s. When the hamburger chain ran a promotional contest in California a few years ago, Caltech students exploited a loophole in the role and ginned up their computer to generate 12 million entries, bilking Ronald McDonald out of thousands of dollars in prizes, all of which were later donated to charity and to refurbishing the dorms. Honoring the hamburglars’ brilliance, a delighted rival, Burger King, awarded the intrepid students a $3,000 scolarship for their school.
But the proudest moment in the history of Caltrickery, the most sublime of all student pranks, is certainly the Great Rose Bowl Heist of 1961, pulled off during Pasadena’s most sacred civic event and witnessed by millions on national television.
The stunt was conceived by bored students in Lloyd House dorm during Christmas recess. The first step called for a student, disguised as a high-school reporter, to conduct a lengthy interview with the flustered student director of half-time events for the University of Washington, a Rose Bowl contender that year.
The student quizzed the unsuspecting director on how the planned card stunts were arranged and later managed to make off with one the instruction sheets. Back at Caltech, the students worked night and day, meticulously reworking and counterfeiting all 2,300 instruction cards. On New Year’s Eve a commando team broke into the director’s hotel room and pulled the switch.
At halftime of the Rose Bowl game, the cocky Washington card section went through their first nine stunts without a hitch. On the tenth, the director called for “a big Washington,” but, to his amazement, the cards came up “Caltech.” Nonplussed, he hurried ordered the next trick, which was to spell “Huskies” slowly across the section. It came out “Seiksuh.” The director became frantic and called for the next sequence, a picture of the Washington Huskie mascot. Up popped a leering Caltech beaver, and all semblance of order was lost as the shattered card section gave up. It was a shame, for the next trick, a patriotic appeal to “Buy Bonds,” had been transmuted into “Buy Blondes” by the Caltech students.
It’s noon and reports are flooding in from the field that more senior stacks have joined the growing casualty rolls: Pyka’s room was broken into hours ago and a counterstack is already in progress.
In another dorm Aristotle the snake is gingerly lowered on a sling through the transom into the room. The snake responds beautifully and wraps himself around a box containing the key. He’s pulled back through the transom, and another finesse stack bites the dust.
The Blacker beer bottle-laser stack is declared OUT OF ORDER, while smoke fills another dorm corridor. Several wimps try to scotch a fire caused while they attacked a heat-seeking finesse stack. An enthusiastic sophomore had poured hot wax into the lock, unintentionally setting fire to a pile of underwear on the other side of the door.
When they encounter a prank, the good gray heads of Caltech’s professors only nod appreciatively. They can hardly criticize, having engineered stunts as wild as any dreamed up by their students. Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, is also a bongo drum player and master safecracker. While working on the Manhattan Project developing the A-bomb, Feynman practiced on safes, leaving “Guess who?” notes among the top-secret papers.
Another faculty member, Harry “The Horse” Gray, is a brilliant chemist and bon vivant who frequently enlivens his complex lectures by delivering them in, would you believe, a horse suit.
How does all this eccentricity sit with Caltech President Marvin L. Goldberger? A respected physicist, he possesses a dignified carriage, a proud profile, and a mane of white hair that would be the envy of any senior statesman. However, the good doctor is well suited for the job of tracking the strange orbits of Caltech’s students; he, too, has that Wizard of Oz sparkle in his eye. The students recognized it immediately after his arrival last year from Princeton, and they saluted him by tossing him into the Pacific Ocean. Not to be outdone by the informal welcome, Dr Goldberger later made his own entry into Caltech legend.
To celebrate Einstein’s hundredth birthday, President Goldberger donned a riding habit and polo helmet and triumphantly piloted a rented elephant along the same campus walks where the gentle Einstein had wandered on his visits. Later, wielding a saber and with a samurai yell, Goldberger expertly slashed into a three-layer birthday cake.
All are agreed that the master faculty prankster is the puckish Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann, the theoretical physicist who bestowed the unlikely name quark on nature’s fundamental unit of matter. From now into infinity, whenever sober physicists gather to discuss the serious business of the nature of the universe, they will be required to make a sound not unlike a lovesick stork.
By 4:00 P.M., most of the stacks have been either broken into or broken down. Isolated knots of frenzied underclassmen are working to beat the clock on the remaining puzzles. Outside Page House, the crisp pop of a .22 rifle is heard as wimps, poised on an adjacent roof, fire into an open window, striving to hit the more diverting parts of another Penthouse centerfold, breaking circuits that will spring the lock.
In an older dorm three wimps are locked in mortal combat with a computer console, battling an intricate program that requires them to enter a series of mythical caves where they face an electronic monster named Ork. Two wimps can only watch, having already been “devoured” by Ork.
As each stack is liberated, the group in front of Barbara Hsu’s room grows. Above her door a transom has been converted into a three-dimensional maze with 60 interconnecting coded compartments. With only three obscure modern poems providing clues and with a little white mouse occasionally appearing at the openings, the wimps deduce they have to force the mouse into one compartment, which will close an electrical circuit and open the door. But which compartment? If the mouse knows, he’s not talking. Nor is he cooperating, having eagerly accepted the numerous bread bribes the wimps have offered, only to retreat into a back corner of the maze and promptly fall asleep.
An impenetrable web of thousands of feet of string will greet another returning senior, while Cohn, senior class president, will discover his new roommate – a 1,000-pound rock sculpture carted gleefully from a formal garden.
Pyka’s room is resealed with enough steel to build an aircraft carrier and decorated with the immortal words Caltech students share with every other college student: “Eat it, Werner.” Once inside, Pyka will also discover 400 cases of bottles filled with water, But he’ll have to drill through the wall and climb through a dresser drawer to get in.
No one is quite sure why Caltech developed into such a den of tricksters. Some say it’s a fusion of the students’ natural brilliance and California’s nutball tradition. Others claim that confronting challenges like Ditch Day is a worthy part of the students’ training, like a lion cub engaging in mock combat. When they graduate to become full-fledged toilers in the halls of science, they may be inspired by remembering, “Once there was this door.”
Ditch Day is over, and the young prodigies are weary from their mental workout, but you’ll hear from them again; if not directly, then indirectly through the machines they’ll build to keep out technological society afloat. After all, anyone who can break into a complex finesse stack can surely solve small problems like the energy crisis, Three Mile Island, or a falling Skylab.
However, they were stopped short by a mouse.