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At MIT, future Nobelist not above a prank or two

George F. Smoot, a co- recipient of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics, was an avid prankster during his student days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But he was not the 5-foot-7-inch Smoot who was rolled end-over-end to measure the length of the Massachusetts Avenue bridge.

That distinction belongs to Oliver R. Smoot Jr., a 1962 MIT graduate, whom George Smoot describes as a distant relative on his website. In October 1958, the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity used Oliver Smoot, the shortest pledge that fall, to measure the distance across the bridge, the route from the fraternity house in Boston to the main campus in Cambridge. The result: 364.4 smoots -- markings that the fraternity repaints annually.

George Smoot didn't arrive at MIT until a few years later. He earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics in 1966, and a doctorate in physics in 1970. While on the campus, he participated in a number of lesser-known pranks.

``There was this guy in our hall who was pretty obnoxious," he told the Globe during a 1992 interview. ``We knew he was going away, so for two weeks everybody on the hall saved newspapers. We filled his room with newspaper -- filled it completely up. Then we took his refrigerator and laid it on its back and filled it with Jell-O, congealed it, then turned it upright.

``This wasn't science," he said, ``this was war."

For the record, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reports that George Smoot is about 6 feet tall.

Gideon Gil

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