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Pasadena pranks

Sir

I take exception to your unflattering characterization of the California Institute of Technology on the occasion of its being ranked the top US university by US News & World Report (Opinion, Nature 400, 801; 1999). This ranking is not a fluke, even if caused by an arbitrary change in the criteria — the previous criteria were equally subjective.

The ranking signifies that Caltech, even though it is very small, has been, and will be, a power to reckon with. We have remained small by choice (only some 290 professors and 900 undergraduates) and do not aspire to the breadth of a larger university. But we do what we do extremely well, and manage to have a rich cultural life (and fun) while doing it.

That the magazine “had to delve back 15 years for an example of interesting non-curricular activity” is a failing of its research, not of the institute. A third of our students participate in intercollegiate sports, and student enterprises abound in music, theatre and the arts. Beyond such regular scientific visitors as Stephen Hawking, our campus has hosted recent visits by Tom Stoppard, Seamus Heaney, Walter Cronkite, Oliver Stone, Jonathan Miller, Beverly Sills and Warren Buffett.

The spectacular pranks that are part of our lore (such as changing the Hollywood sign to read “Caltech”, or the Rose Bowl game prank you mentioned) stem not from football envy, but from the imagination and exuberance of our students, who request the 12 a.m.–2 a.m. recitation you mention to better manage their busy lives.

We are, as you note, listed as a poor “party school” because our students find fun in their own ways. And no one danced in the streets because we were too busy doing what we do best.

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Revel, JP., Ruddock, A. Pasadena pranks. Nature 401, 842 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/44678

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