Accomplishments and Records

Never Underestimate College Science Students


photo: University of Chicago Admissions

The University of Chicago takes great pains to make sure their world-class education comes with a note of levity from time to time. One of these opportunities for frivolity is the annual University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

Students take a break from studies for a long weekend where teams are given identical lists of difficult-to-find items, each item worth varying points, depending on the difficulty associated with acquiring it. The team that obtains the most items on the list by Sunday afternoon wins the grand prize of $500, along with bragging rights.

One of the items on the list in 1999 included “buiding a breeder reactor.” A breeder reactor is a nuclear reactor that is capable of building more fissionable material than it consumes. The cost alone would seem to prohibit this possibility — not to mention the time for acquiring the material and constructing the device. The United States spent $15 billion in 2007 on the technology and has largely abandoned breeder reactor programs since.

Not to be hindered by such trivialities, two students, Justin Kasper and Fred Niell, collected thorium powder from the inside of vacuum tubes for the radioactive substance, scrap aluminum for the housing, and carbon sheets and other assorted items to fill in the gaps of what was needed. Armed with this mish-mash of odd objects, they constructed an operational breeder reactor in their room in the Burton-Judson dormitory. The students said they exercised great concern for safety, and they stopped the reaction after producing just a few thousand atoms of weapons-grade plutonium. 

A nuclear physicist attested to the machine’s efficacy, thus earning the points for the team. Alas, this was not enough, however, and they won only second place for their efforts.

“It’s kind of scary how easy it was to do,” said Niell, assuring onlookers that there was only a trace of plutonium — nothing harmful. “It only took us about a day to build it. We’ve been thinking about it for a few days and we gathered the parts, and last night we assembled it. In Justin’s room — he lost the coin toss.”

Other items on the scavenger list have included the interesting — if not quite as catastrophically-destructive in potential:

  • A computer suffering a year 2000 problem.
  • A 15-foot-tall monument to Grimace, the McDonald’s Happy Meal character
  • A tenured professor willing to recite profane lyrics from a gangsta rap song
  • A team member photographed with an Ontario police officer
  • An edible iMac computer
  • Christmas lights
  • A wooden zoetrope
  • A part of a snorkel
  • A fake-alligator bag
  • A primitive computer monitor

Despite the fun, the event does not appeal to everyone. Only about 10 percent of the students participate in the event. One student, Tomi Obaro, summed up her feelings about it, saying that she finds the event “just really white and socially awkward. There’s nothing wrong with being white and socially awkward, but, as someone who is not white or socially awkward, it’s not exactly appealing to me.”


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