Shared Text: College Scavenger Hunt

Last Saturday, I rose with the sun to travel to Philadelphia for the Dad Vail Crew Regatta. My daughter Sarah, a freshman at the University of Chicago, was rowing in their Novice Four boat that had qualified against all odds the day before for the Regatta semi-finals. It was a delight to see her compete, even if her boat finished fourth in the semis and didn’t qualify for the finals.

I didn’t realize until much later that, as much as she lives for Crew, Sarah’s coming to the Regatta represented a huge sacrifice for her because it meant missing all but the final hours of the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt. Her College House, Charles Hitchcock Hall, had won three years in a row, and. Sarah, as a freshman, was missing out on the four days of madness and fun and often disgusting challenges that make ‘Scav’ a highlight of the Hyde Park year. What no one missed, I’m sure, was the Harry Potter reference in the 2010 Scavenger Hunt list of items.

Scav Hunt isn’t for the weak-stomach or pious sort, so be fore-warned about the list; vulgarities and references to sexual organs abound (think “college sophomore”). For information without offense, you can read about the Road Trip, the Breeder Reactor, and a little history of the Hunt in this 1999 article and more about the 2010 hunt in this Chicago Maroon piece. A quick look through the 2010 list, though, revealed one Tolkien reference and a Hogwarts Saga throw-away line. Tolkien first:

149. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark re will not avail you, Flame of Udun!’ Go back to the Shadow!” Convince one of your professors to dress up as Gandalf and bellow, “You shall not pass!” This must be done on the Bridge of Khazad-D^um, also known as Botany Pond. Also, you are dressed as a Balrog. [12 points]

Pretty funny. I liked this one about Sound of Music better:

133. Look, Maria, this is ScavHunt. While I’d love to spend a whole day frolicking through the Alps with you and the von Trapp children, I simply don’t have the time. You’re going to have to take your Do-Re-Mi and speed it up. A lot. Start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) and perform the entire number as fast as you can, including as much of the appropriate choreography as possible {the carriage ride, skipping gaily about the fountain, step-jumping, etc. Make sure that all seven children are wearing the play-clothes you made from those tatty old curtains. All performances must be live. [1.6 points per 10 seconds under 5 minutes]

How about the challenge of finding a Stradivarius instrument? Extra points if it’s a cello or viola.

75. Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1660-1720. On campus. [90 points for a violin, 125 points for a cello, 150 points for a viola]

I’m told four of the student teams found one. I mean, after creating a Plasma bottle from a Mason Jar (item #5) and a gingerbread sawmill with working milk wheel and candy blade capable of cutting chocolate (item #3) — did I mention the human sized cat-tree? — what’s the hardship in finding a musical instrument worth a million dollars?

The Harry Potter reference comes in the many challenges given to the Road Trip teams. These hardy scavengers have to dress up in costumes and travel as far as 1000 miles away to have their pictures taken and retrieve objects from various locations. This year’s group had costumes of the Pop-Gothic variety:

91. Darkness falls across the land, though the hour of dawn is already at hand, and creatures ride in search of blood, to terrorize y’alls neighborhood. At 8:00 am on Thursday in front of the Reynolds Club, the Macabre Mob convenes to begin their journey toward the eerie East and seek out its most shuddersome sights. The mustachioed impresario Vincent Price is accompanied by his three traveling terrors: Michael “Thriller” Jackson, the zombie King of Pop; Skeletor, the warlock tyrant of Eternia; and The Accidental Mummy, a clumsy corpse straight out of his snakebit sarcophagus. No car costume will be required, but we do expect to see an appropriately hair-raising ornament hanging from the rearview mirror. [ points]

This team’s set of goals are scattered through the 300 or so item list. We find Harry mentioned obliquely but unmistakeably in item #107.

107. In 1907, a chance association with the Ashtabula Horror was enough to trans figure Case Western Reserve University into a depraved perversion of the U of C campus. From the steps of the Bizarro Reynolds Club, formerly Amasa Stone Chapel, the Phantasmal Four stare in confusion at Bizzaro Pierce and Bizarro Rockefeller. Inside, an informative pamphlet explains why they’re standing in something of a deathly hallow. [9 points]

Lemmeno your favorite or most recent evidence that Harry Potter is the Shared Text of the 21st Century!


  1. The Scav Hunt Makes the ‘Cake Wrecks’ Blog. Really. This is the big time.

  2. A contemporary account of the 1999 Scav Hunt Breeder Reactor from The Chicago Maroon:

    Indeed, a major concern among administrators and Student Government was the safety of the Scavenger Hunt, and of the road trip component in particular. With no arrests and no accidents reported, the judges said that this year’s event has been a marked success.

    “I think it was the most successful Hunt ever. We have to recognize the fact that there were no injuries, all the road trips went well, there were no arrests to our knowledge, no malicious acts between the teams — all of this is great, and we’re very proud of that,” said judge Geoff Fischer, a third-year student in the College. “We were watched very closely this year, and there were concerns raised by the Finance Committee and the Administration. I think we proved that the event doesn’t have to be dangerous or illegal, and can appeal to the creativity and intelligence of students and be a successful event at our school.”

    Howe agreed, saying that the ingenuity of some of the entries were in keeping with the intellectual character of the University. One of the items required that students build a breeder reactor, a nuclear energy source which recycles radiation from its reaction to create more fuel. Two physics students from the Mathews team successfully built the device and completed the item, inspired by the efforts of a Michigan high school student reported in a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine.

    “I give Mathews House a tremendous amount of credit for the breeder reactor. This fell into the category of exceeding my expectations– that was definitely one of the highlights for me,” Howe said.

    Using the naturally radioactive element Thorium, fourth year students in the College Fred Neill and Justin Kasper constructed the device with scraps of discarded aluminum and carbon sheets. “We used Thorium… and turned it into weapons grade uranium and plutonium. We used the powder from vacuum tubes, and just scraped the Thorium powder off the insides. As for materials for the reactor, we used aluminum and carbon sheets which came out of the garbage. We did a little polishing and black magic, and turned it into a reactor,” Neill said.

    While the actual construction of the reactor took four hours, Neill said that the most challenging aspect of the assignment was proving that the device operated correctly.

    “If someone looks at a pile of aluminum and carbon, they’ll say you’re full of it. You have to actually prove it… So we did some fairly intensive research on the nuclear disintegration that goes on inside the reaction — it gives off a specific energy of photon that’s released which proves that we’ve created weapons grade uranium. But they’re very hard to detect, so we borrowed a proportional counter, which is like a Geiger counter, except much more sensitive, from the Physics department,” Neill said.

    To verify the authenticity of the breeder reactor, Scavenger Hunt judges brought in a nuclear physicist to examine the device and determine whether the students had accurately constructed the reactor.

    “When the judges found out that there was a group that actually built one, they really flipped out… So we’re sitting there making the reactor by my bed and a judge calls and says they’re going to check this out and bring a nuclear physicist to verify it. I don’t think he [the nuclear physicist] understood that we were serious until we started walking him through it and talking about decay change — his eyes just bugged out. He was really speechless,” Kasper said. “He endorsed it for the judges. It was funny because the judges were there taking notes just in case they needed to be able to judge another reactor.”

    Although some judges and fellow Mathews teammates were concerned over the safety of the reactor, Kasper said that he and Neill took serious precautions during its construction.

    “It was all very well-controlled. We packed the materials…, built a shed, and assembled it there… We’ve stopped the reaction. We only detected about several thousand atoms of Uranium, so it’s not like the source is radioactive by any means anymore. We might keep the reactor as a souvenir — as long as the components are far apart, it should be okay,” he said.

    Although the equipment that the pair borrowed to detect the Uranium was worth thousands of dollars, the materials used to make the reactor cost the team nothing, making the device an ideal Scavenger Hunt item because it relied on ingenuity rather than money, according to Kasper.

    “I think it was a really great item because it didn’t cost anything, which is important. I mean, the Manhattan project cost one billion WWII dollars, and we were able to do this successfully without spending too much,” Kasper said.

    [Does anyone else out there think it funny that students were concerned about ‘safety’ in that year’s hunt but placed a breeder reactor creating weapons grade uranium and plutonium on the list? Just checking.]

  3. My eyes bugged out at the phrase, “weapons grade!”

  4. Arabella Figg says

    Terrorists are taking note–yikes!

    I’m reading a 2004 novel in which the term ‘muggle’ is used without explanation or HP context. I looked it up at


    1. n.
    someone ignorant about computers, programming, or hacking. (From the name for nonsorcerers in the Harry Potter series of books.) Example: This software is great for muggles. It’s also drool-proof.
    Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears. Fourth Edition.
    Copyright 2007. Published by McGraw Hill.

  5. This reference will be obscure to all but horse-racing fans. I was re-watching the 2009 Breeders’ Cup over the weekend, and ESPN had a research guy twittering throughout the day. Well, last year’s #1-ranked thoroughbred did not compete, despite the Breeders’ Cup being billed as “racing’s championship day.” I’ll spare the politics behind that decision and just relate that in one of the guy’s twitter postings, he referred to this filly as “she-who-must-not-be-named”, because he was annoyed at the decision for her not to compete.

    The on-air guys found it amusing, and it was especially interesting that no one felt the need to explain the reference – it was just taken for granted that we all knew what he was talking about. Even the degenerate gamblers know all about Harry.

  6. Perfect.

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