PASADENA, CALIF. -- A triumph of technology and strategy, Mark Lyttle's free-swinging amalgam of kitchen-drawer junk and glue won the string-climbing contest at Caltech the other day, an event that inspires campus fervor here that most colleges reserve for football weekends.
While other devices tugged their way up 11-foot pieces of string, Lyttle's creation instead knocked each opponent askew. In the end, through stealth and aggressiveness, it defeated Chris Ho's device, which bore a festive "HO, HO, HO" banner, and won the annual Mechanical Engineering 72 contest.
That is the way they like to work and play at California Institute of Technology, using ideas that confound convention and assumptions about natural law in order to make things work the way they want them to work. "There's just a lot of freedom," said Lyttle, 21, a senior from Decatur, Ga.
As this little school prepares for the start next month of its centennial year, that atmosphere of disorderly unpredictability and street-corner conviviality has taken on new meaning in an era of gargantuan task forces and relentless specialization. Other campuses can match Caltech's academic reputation, but Caltech is so much smaller than its leading rivals that it can easily claim, test tube for test tube, an unparalleled influence on modern science.
The school's performance and mystique are such that, even when its enormous space-exploring subsidiary, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in nearby La Canada Flintridge, tried to curtail growth, JPL's customers -- particularly the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- would not permit it. JPL has 6,400 employees pursuing astronomical and environmental research, but it still answers to little Caltech, which has no more than 1,450 employees as well as 1,050 graduate students and 825 undergraduates.
In November 1891, when Pasadena businessman Amos G. Throop founded an arts and crafts school here and grandly called it Throop University, there was little to recommend the institution. Pasadena was a foothill resort known for little more than orange groves and genteel living. The quirky New Year's Day celebration of flower-bedecked floats had begun just a year earlier.
At the turn of the century, astronomer George Ellery Hale, a Throop trustee, redirected the curriculum toward science and engineering. Caltech acquired its present name in 1920 and, a year later, Robert A. Millikan, a physicist and soon-to-be Nobel laureate, became its first administrative head.
Millikan greatly expanded the emphasis on research, and some of the nation's best minds began to move their projects to Pasadena. Nobel laureate William A. Fowler, who won his Caltech PhD in 1936, said that, on the first day he arrived on campus, "I saw Albert Einstein and Robert Millikan heatedly debating on the steps of Throop Hall. I said to myself, 'This is where I belong.' "
At such close quarters, physicists could chat with biologists and chemists with electrical engineers. The intellectual cross-pollination and investment in research produced a cascade of patents and awards, including 21 Nobel Prizes, and a reputation for crazy excellence that attracted more young scientific and engineering guerrillas like Lyttle.
Thomas E. Everhart, who became Caltech president in 1987 after a distinguished career as an electrical engineer and administrator at Berkeley, Cornell and Illinois, said he wants to maintain the campus's insistence on interdisciplinary research and its intimate size. It is one-fifth as large as its principal rival, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"The idea is to get scientists from different fields and disciplines working together in a university, as opposed to having each one working individually in their narrow specialty," Everhart said.
Scientific research funds have grown in recent years through increased government grants and new matching-grant requirements placed on universities. But the number of research projects seeking funds has accelerated even more, and Caltech has found itself wrestling with the ABC (Anywhere But California) Syndrome -- congressional resistance to more research grants for a state already blessed.
Caltech's reputation and high-quality faculty still attract massive gifts, such as the Keck Foundation's $70 million grant for the world's largest optical telescope atop the extinct Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. The wealth and influence of many of its graduates also help.
Arnold Beckman, inventor of the pH meter and a 1928 Caltech PhD, funded the school's new Beckman Institute, where teams of scientists from several disciplines develop new drugs and other biotechnological wonders through molecular and genetic engineering. "We are working on projects that are a little closer to the real world," said Harry Gray, the institute's director.
Gray is an often playful chemist who has done award-winning work on photosynthesis as well as organize campus soft-drink tests. He said he came to Caltech "because I could work with biologists and physicists much more easily" than elsewhere.
The cross-fertilization feeds off institutional informality that includes a tradition of mayhem that most Caltech graduates hold dear. The institute's promotional material on its centennial celebration, which is to include a float in the Rose Bowl parade Jan. 1 and a series of lectures by Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, rarely fails to include tributes to the late physics professor Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner whose best-selling book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman," helped to define the Caltech standard for mischief.
Undergraduates here are famous for elaborate, dorm-threatening experiments and complex pranks, such as the complete and surreptitious rewrite of a Rose Bowl card show. Hall Daily, Caltech public affairs director, said the planned Rose parade float was seen as a way to divert such energies, but he expressed concern that he has not heard much recently about student plans for the nationally televised event.
"The students have gone quiet," he said. "I thought they wouldn't dream of pranking the float . . . but now my life is floating before my eyes."