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Bruce BettsMay 24, 2012

Hijinks and Shenanigans at Caltech Ditch Day

When I heard today was the annual Caltech ditch day, I had to venture across Pasadena to the Caltech campus to check it out. I did my graduate work at Caltech, and it was always an entertaining thing to wander the campus on ditch day. I dragged Planetary Society COO Jennifer Vaughn with me since she had never observed this strange and amusing ritual before.  We saw undergrads paddling make shift rafts in the library reflecting pool while tennis balls were hurled at them, and a team of students staring at tens of keys hanging from a hallway ceiling pondering which was the right one, and a variety of other wackiness.

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Ditch Day, as described on the Caltech web site: One day each spring, kept secret until the last minute, seniors ditch their classes and vanish from campus, leaving behind complex, imaginative scavenger hunts, mazes, puzzles, and other challenges that are carefully planned out to occupy the underclassmen—preventing them from wreaking havoc in the seniors' rooms. 

One group of students we walked by was looking inside a large wooden box like structure, staring, joking, and thinking.  When we reached the open side of the box and peaked in, what was inside but...numbers, lots and lots of numbers.  Elsewhere, a giant canvas chessboard with huge cardboard pieces sat empty, a reminder of earlier tomfoolery.  We saw one person who clearly went with this set wearing a chess pieces sweatshirt...a sweatshirt with lots of chess pieces--actual chess pieces-- on it.

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The challenges represent either physical, intellectual, or other kinds of figurative "locks" to the seniors rooms.  At Caltech, the challenges are known as stacks.

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This is geekiness/nerdliness as an art form. I in no way mean that critically.  These students with their deranged, finely-honed puzzle solving skills will make some of the technological and scientific breakthroughs of the future.  I like that.  I like that very much.

You can check out more pictures of Ditch Day on this Caltech images page.

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Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
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