by Jenna Beck
Nerds know pranks, and none know better than scientists and engineers. The following pranks were selected for their acumen, historical significance, and relation to science and/or engineering.
If you know of a good college science prank from an institution that doesn't appear on this list, please email email@example.com and put "science prank" in the headline. The list will be updated with reader contributions for Hypercube's final December issue.
1. Limit, one per person (California Institute of Technology)
In one of the great and early computer hacks, students from the California Institute of Technology forever changed the fine print that appears on contest entry forms. The year was 1975, before the dawn of the personal computer. McDonald’s had sponsored a sweepstakes in which winners would receive “A Year of Groceries and a Datsun Z,” and plenty of McDonald’s gift certificates, to boot. Contestants could enter as often as they wished, and had but to fill out an entry form.
The “enter as often as you wish” clause proved irresistible to Caltech seniors Steve Klein, Dave Novikoff and Barry Megdal, who decided to enter the contest a million times. With the help of their friend Glenn Hightower, they wrote a program to create contest entry forms on their college’s IBM system 370 mainframe computer. The program ran for three days, and generated 1.2 million 3x5 inch coupons.
The stint cost the students $320 in printing fees, and earned them considerable vitriol from the public sector. McDonald’s spokesmen and letters to the Los Angeles Times berated the students for their lack of sportsmanship. To repair their public image, the Caltech students donated their new Datsun to the United Way. McDonald’s awarded duplicate prizes to non-Caltech contestants, and ever after limited the number of contest entries per person.
For more information, see “If at all Possible, Involve a Cow” by Neil Steinberg or visit http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/pranks/mcdonalds.html.
2. The great pumpkin (Cornell University)
When it comes to inspiring scientific investigation, the great pumpkin prank of Cornell deserves special recognition. The mysterious appearance of a pumpkin on the spire of Cornell University’s 173-foot-tall McGraw tower on October 8th, 1998 left students and faculty speculating how it got there, whether it was a real, and how it would come down.
Anticipating that the pumpkin would eventually rot and fall down, university officials decided to blockoff an area around McGraw tower rather than pay for the fruit’s removal. The manager of occupational health and safety warned that the pumpkin would fall at 72 miles per hour and could cause serious injury.
But the pumpkin stayed put. A team of students from the Cornell Physics department later reported that it had been hollowed out before it was placed on the dome, allowing for its dessication into “a leathery husk, which could cling to the spire for decades.”
The fall didn’t come until March 13th, when the administration decided it would hire a crane to remove the fruit. When a gust of wind knocked the basket of the crane against the spire, the pumpkin fell and was caught by scaffolding surrounding the tower. The provost and and McGraw tower project manager brought the pumpkin to the ground, and handed its remains to a professor of plant biology.
A necropsy led by Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences verified that the pumpkin was, indeed, a pumpkin. The results confirmed earlier findings by a group of undergraduate physics majors, who had used a remote-controlled weather balloon to collect a sample of the pumpkin during the end of its fourth month atop the tower.
Who placed the pumpkin on McGraw tower and how he or she did it remain a mystery.
For more information, see: http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/April98/PumpkinDecision.bpf.html
3. The home-made breeder reactor (University of Chicago)
The University of Chicago has an annual scavenger hunt, wherein student teams compete in a contest to collect impossible items. One of the items on the 1999 list was a “breeder reactor built in a shed.” Sure enough, physics majors Justin Kasper and Fred Niell built a plutonium-producing reactor in a single day using scrap aluminum and carbon sheets.
To get the radioactive element, the pair collected Thorium powder from the inside of vacuum tubes, which the reactor turned into trace amounts of weapons-grade uranium.
The students were very fastidious about safety, and stopped the reaction early-on. They report that the proportional detector they borrowed from their physics lab detected just several thousand atoms of uranium while the reaction occurred.
An alarmed nuclear physicist verified the device’s authenticity, and the team came in second place.
Thanks to U Chicago alum Collin Poczatec for recounting this story.
For more information, see:
4. The squad car on the dome (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
The great dome over the engineering library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an age-old target for mischief. Over the years, MIT students have decorated the high profile dome in a number of different guises, including a giant propeller beanie, R2-D2 from Star Wars and a giant breast. One group even put a working telephone booth atop the dome.
But the most famous hack appeared in May of 1994, when on the last day of classes students woke to the site of an MIT Campus Police squad car flashing down at them from the dome. During the night, anonymous pranksters had assembled a wooden frame on top of the dome to which they attached the outer parts of a Chevrolet Cavalier. A mannequin police officer sat inside the squad car, with a box of Duncan Donuts and a toy gun.
Though the MIT physical plant had removed the car by 10am, the local media had by that time gathered enough footage to spread the story nationally and abroad.
For more information, see:
5. The Percy Bysshe Shelley pranks (Oxford University)
Percy Bysshe Shelley, the 19th century Romantic poet, had a passion for the natural sciences. He matriculated into Oxford University in October of 1810, where he quickly established himself as a mischief maker.
In one prank, he galvanized the doorknob of his room to electrocute the dormitory supervisor. In another, he poured acid on a tutor’s carpet to demonstrate its corrosive properties. It is said that he even exploded one of the campus trees.
Shelley was expelled after five months, though not for his mad science mayhem. His sentence came after he published a pamphlet on “The Necessity of Atheism,” which he’d inscribed to the bishops and dons of the campus. His science career cut short, Shelley eventually made a living by the pen that got him kicked out of Oxford.
For more information, see “If at all Possible, Involve a Cow” by Neil Steinberg.