PASADENA — The annals of science probably will not include a feat of aeronautical engineering that took place Thursday on the rooftop of Caltech's nine-story library.
However, let the record show that seven Caltech students, masquerading as French Legionnaires ( avec berets and heavy backpacks) and speaking in fractured French accents, puzzled mightily over how to make a parachute that could ensure the safe flight down of a laboratory rat.
Actually, there were three rats: Pepe No. 1, Pepe No. 2 and Pepe No. 3. The students of Ruddock House dormitory, expressing fears that animal-rights activists or the Humane Society might catch them, were charged with making sure that at least one rat survived by a midday deadline.
"Vive la France!" they shouted as the first rat, Pepe No. 1, harnessed in the makeshift chute and carried by a stiff wind, sailed over the edge of the library's monolithic stone facade.
Four diabolical seniors of Ruddock House had set this up as part of a series of scientific scavenger hunts for the underclassmen of the second floor.
Just as it has every year since the 1930s, Ditch Day returned Thursday to Caltech.
The springtime ritual of intellectual and not-so-intellectual frivolity, a Super Bowl of college pranks undertaken by some of the world's brainiest nerds, turns the hallowed halls of an institution known for its Nobel laureates into a very unhallowed place.
Each team of underclassmen try to gain access to a senior dorm room, where a bounty of food, drink and prizes awaits. The underclassmen--referred to as "frosh" or wimps--must solve puzzles and do chores assigned by the seniors, leading to a finale of cracking locks and combinations that bar entry to the senior rooms.
The puzzles are called stacks. The name comes from the 1930s, when seniors stacked furniture in front of their doors to keep out the underclassmen, who would in turn concoct pranks against the seniors.
With the understanding that students pay for any damage, school officials have long sanctioned Ditch Day. Seniors plan it for months, but announce its occurrence at the last minute. Classes then are canceled for the day.
This year one of the most challenging stacks involved a Honda Civic. Students had to use a power saw to cut apart the car and discover the correct number to punch into a computer that could help them open a dorm door.
In contrast to most stacks, one was humanitarian. It required the students to spend the day soliciting $4,000 in donations to be given to those in need in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Algeria.
For the French Legionnaires, Ditch Day began at 8 a.m., when they found in their hall a volt meter and instructions to find a buried magnet. Thus began a long day's journey. They unearthed a book-size magnet with more instructions. Then they found backpacks laden with rocks and the following instructions:
"You will each pick a thoroughly French name as your code name. . . . You must wear your beret. . . . You must defend French culture whenever the occasion presents itself. Since you are Francophiles, you will speak with bad French accents. . . ."
They also found tents, camping gear, jars of Tang they were required to drink, and couscous they had to boil and eat. And in a plastic storage box were three lab rats.
The Legionnaires were instructed to find their base camp. "East 8 meters, . . . south 20 meters, . . . down 5 meters. . . ."
Off they marched with French identities: Stephan, Charles, Jean-Paul, Casimir, Jean Claude I'm Damned, Filet Mignon and Jean-Jean. They bantered in French and English, getting lost and passing through a campus filled with bands of whooping students in all manner of costumes.
Eventually, the Legionnaires found their camp, a roof of a walkway next to their dorm, accessible by a narrow window.
To shouts of Mon Dieu! they nearly set the roof on fire as the camp stoves spilled white gas that blazed up until the flames could be extinguished.
For one of the Legionnaires, Filet Mignon-- ne Chris Nance, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering freshman from Tacoma, Wash.--Ditch Day was something he looked forward to. "All year long, seniors tell you: 'It's tomorrow. It's tomorrow.' Then finally: 'It's TODAY!' "
At one point, the Legionnaires marched by history teacher William Deverell, walking his black Labrador retriever. He was on his way to read a clue to students trying to solve a stack.
"Caltech students show wonderful and ludicrous ways to blow off steam," he said. "And Ditch Day is a perverse tribute to their imaginations."
For the Legionnaires, the day meant using their minds and their bodies. They had to walk with heavy packs up nine flights at the library.
"Caltech students are not known for their athletic prowess," Huy Le, ne Casimir, an 18-year-old computer science major from Houston, said above the labored breathing of his colleagues. "But we are French Legionnaires. So we can do it."