Hippo-Dome Defense Takes the Initiative at Caltech

Times Staff Writer

Calling President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative an “impractical joke,” Caltech students this week awarded prizes for the most destabilizing, unworkable and obsolete space weapons systems.

Instead of building bombs, Greg Ojakangas said, peace could be achieved under a genetically engineered shield of helium-inflated pygmy hippos.

Or if that seemed a bit wishful, David Palmer suggested, the Earth’s hemispheres could simply be split like a Lazy Susan--allowing continents to rotate effortlessly away from a nuclear attack.

Such scenarios may not get too far at the Pentagon, but for the world-famous pranksters from Pasadena they were good for first and second prizes in the contest aimed at satirizing the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” defense plan.


A Difference in Cost

“Our proposals are no more ridiculous than the schemes actually being taken seriously by the government,” said Allan van Asselt, a graduate student and spokesman for the Space Weapons Study Group, which organized the event. “The difference is that our contest didn’t cost a trillion dollars and we’ll be around to laugh about it after the ideas don’t work.”

The contest began on April Fool’s Day, with students instructed to present a technically and fiscally infeasible weapons system in the form of a Defense Department spending proposal. The winning entry, for example, which envisions a lightweight strain of pygmy hippopotamus, proposes that a herd of LAUGHS (Lighter-than-Air Upside-down Grazing HippoS) be bred to form a ROOPH (Readily Operative Overhead Protection by Hippos), which would form an invulnerable defense shield.

Van Asselt predicted that the “Off-White Paper Contest” might ruffle some feathers, but said that “if you’re just being funny and someone gets annoyed, it makes them look pretty bad.”


Caltech, which has close ties with Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a major researcher for military space programs, has taken a neutral stance on the Strategic Defense Initiative, said spokesman Dennis Meredith.

“We prefer to remain a debating ground for all positions,” Meredith said, noting that he was unaware of any objections to the contest.

Not Familiar With Parody

At the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in Washington, a spokesman said that he was not familiar with the parody proposals, but added that he also supported a free exchange of opinion on the subject.


Last year, students from the Space Weapons Study Group gathered more than 500 signatures at Caltech, including those of six Nobel laureates, on a petition criticizing the Star Wars program as unworkable and wasteful of scientific resources. Twenty-eight of 46 members of the Caltech physics faculty also signed a pledge this year to refuse funding for Star Wars research.

“It’s much too serious to be a laughing matter,” said physics Prof. David Hitlin, circulator of the non-participation pledge. “But sometimes humor can make a point.”

Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, said he had not reviewed any of the mock schemes, but added that the Strategic Defense Initiative “is like the National Enquirer; it’s its own caricature.”

Besides hovering hippopotamuses, other notable entries included a cardboard defense shield (“a strong and patriotic product”); a fleet of 100 million orbiting Chryslers (“Car Wars”); dispersal of the nation’s population among 22 million blimps (“no fixed targets”); and synthetic noses, patterned after Pinnochio’s, attached to the faces of all Strategic Defense Initiative directors (“a honker the size of a Dodger Dog will provide our legislators and the public with a not easily overlooked warning”).


More than 50 entries were received, some, in response to a national wire service story, coming from as far away as Florida and Vermont, and were judged by the Space Weapons Study Group and members of the Southern California Federation of Scientists.

Flanked by American flags and a plastic foam globe, graduate student David Wark awarded the slightly eccentric prizes, which included a box of Tinker Toys, a Statue of Liberty anniversary medal (the Lee A. Iacocca Award), Frisbee lessons from the 1984 world senior champion and a personal computer donated by Zenith.

“Sometimes it’s tough to get people to listen to a complicated technical discussion,” Wark said. “Our message is that Star Wars is not only infeasible, it’s ridiculous.”