'Ditch Day'

Caltech's spring tradition of practical jokes can be a great way to encourage creative, independent scientific thinking.

I found out recently that scientists are notorious for being difficult to manage. One of the managers I work with informed me that they'd even taken a special course on how to handle us. The term "herding cats" came up a lot. One thing I've noticed, that must exasperate managers to no end, is that the first thing a scientist will do when presented with a task is ask a lot of annoying questions. "Why are we doing this?" "Why are we doing it this way?" Scientists are also a famously contentious lot. Get any number of scientists in a room together and you've got at least that many plans, opinions about who is right, ideas about how best to progress, and people fighting over any audio-visual equipment that's present.

Amazingly, this all serves a purpose. When you hire a person with a Ph.D., you're supposed to be getting someone who can think for themselves and come up with new ideas. There's a reason scientists are so argumentative: The real way to make a name for yourself in science is to prove everyone else wrong. Take Newton's theory of gravity. Newton's description of everything - from how apples fell from trees to how planets orbit the sun - was so good that no one could poke any serious holes in it for over two hundred years.

As time went by, better measurements allowed scientists to notice that Newton's predictions didn't work quite right in some cases, usually in the presence of very strong gravity. But hey, the irregularities were tiny. Nothing to worry about, right?

Along comes Einstein, and everything we knew about gravity had to be thrown out. Newton's theory of gravity worked pretty well, but as it turned out, a fundamental change in our view of the universe was needed to make a theory of gravity really work. Where Newton had postulated an unseen attractive force, Einstein gave us a multi-dimensional universe where space and time are really the same things, and an elegant underlying geography of curving spacetime is what really casts the planets into their paths. As emotionally invested as we might be in any specific view of the universe, you've got to be prepared for it all to change at the drop of a hat (or apple).

That skill, the ability to keep your mind on its toes and open to new possibilities, is one of the most important and subtle parts of being a scientist. So, how do you train a person to be open-minded? How can you encourage a student to think creatively and come up with original solutions to unfamiliar problems? As a veteran of science education, I'm afraid I have to say that it rarely happens in the classroom. So what works?

For one thing, you've got to get people's primal instincts involved. Something real has to be risked, and at the California Institute of Technology, the stakes are high. Each spring, the underclassmen attempt to break into the rooms of graduating seniors and vent their wrath. The seniors are, of course, very well prepared and the ensuing chaos known as "Ditch Day" has now become a century-old tradition.

At this point I should probably make a statement to the effect that I do not condone any sort of property damage or injury caused by Ditch Day pranks. To me, a key factor of a great practical joke is that nobody or nothing is harmed. Causing damage usually means that the instigators weren't being clever enough. This should all be about finesse.

The idea really is as simple as that: break into the senior's dorm rooms. But like most traditions, there are unspoken rules. In some cases, the process is almost gentle. Seniors will simply leave their rooms unlocked, but post some kind of a puzzle or challenge on their doors. Honor holds that the room will not be tampered with until the puzzle is solved or the task fulfilled, and many rooms do, in fact, go unmolested all through Ditch Day, even with an open door.

Another strategy is to send the would-be marauders on a quest, usually taking the form of a scavenger hunt, to find the door key. A first set of instructions are posted on the locked door: Go to this location, perform a task, and find the next clue. This particular strategy is a lot of fun for bystanders. Not only are there bands of costumed students roaming the campus in search of their next clue, but there are all kinds of special "installations" that have been set up by the seniors. This year alone I happened to walk by a herd of inflatable sheep, a giant pirate flag unfurled from the top of Milliken Library, a giant hamster wheel, and a team of students dressed like superheroes trying to assemble a rocket. And that was just on the way to the post office.

The last strategy is for a senior to simply barricade their door. Some examples include using layers of plywood and concrete blocks, plastering over the door of the room, and re-painting the hallway (what door?), or even installing a solid steel bank vault that underclassmen had to "crack."

Once in, the invaders have their own end to hold up: How creatively can they "trash" the room? One senior returned to find his room completely filled by an inflated weather balloon. Another's door had been sealed with a 2-foot thick wall of ice. My favorite story (actually documented) is of the senior that found his room empty, save for a lush new lawn, complete with working sprinklers.

Technical universities such as MIT and Caltech have a long history of practical jokes, both against each other as well as other traditional rivals. Coming from Harvard, I remember being very disappointed if something Tech-related didn't happen during the Harvard/Yale football game each year. One year the goalpost started to shoot up fireworks while unraveling a large MIT banner. Just last month a 1.7-ton cannon disappeared from the main campus of Caltech and reappeared at MIT, painted blue, no less. Of course, the cannon had originally been "liberated" by Caltech pranksters in 1972 from the Southwestern Academy, refurbished, and aimed at Fleming House by members of a rival dormitory.

So, yes, I assert there is indeed method to this madness. Students at Caltech and MIT work incredibly hard, and sometimes they may need to blow off some major steam. But there's more to it than that. Training a budding scientist takes more than endless calculus and physics courses. There has to be some dose of irreverence and creativity. How else can you create the next generation of scientists destined to explore the universe with an open mind and be the bane of their managers' existence?

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