A sophomore from Caltech...

Brandon Hensley

What's the coolest thing about your university?
Uh, the great thing about Caltech is, like--well, first of all, it's just crazy about math and science. Everybody there is really passionate about what they do. Also, you, y'know, you eat lunch in the cafeteria and across from you, or down the hall, is, like, a Nobel laureate. Just a common, everyday occurrence. So it's definitely an exciting place academically, and socially too.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Uh, in 10 years I'd like to have a Ph.D. in astrophysics, um hopefully a professorship somewhere at a--a good university.

What are you most excited about today?
I'm just really excited to be here to, um, be on the show--the whole Jeopardy! experience. I'm--I'm here to have a good time and I'm just fine.

Do you have a dream category?
Dream category. Well, um, being a physics major, PHYSICS would be nice. Um, let's see... I know--OLD TV SHOWS might be cool, too.

How old were you when you started watching Jeopardy!?
Oh, I don't even know if I was old enough to remember I was watching Jeopardy! I--I've been--ever since I was really little.

What's harder: preparing for Jeopardy! or cramming for a mid-term?
So, Jeopardy! is something you can't really cram for--there's just far too much stuff. So, uh, trying to study for Jeopardy! would be just impossible.

2008 College Championship quarterfinalist: $5,000.

19 and from Huntington, WV at the time of the College Championship.

Brandon's First Blog Entry
Posted May 2, 2008

I am the kind of guy that people have been telling for years that he should take his shot on Jeopardy! Even when I was little, I loved watching the show and loved learning about, well, everything. So it was only a matter of time before I'd get my big chance.

My name is Brandon Hensley and I am currently a sophomore at Caltech. I am pursuing a degree in physics and hope to study astrophysics in graduate school. I like asking all the big questions in science, and you can certainly do that as an astrophysicist when the universe is your laboratory. Being thus enthralled by physics, I left my hometown of Barboursville, WV to go study at Caltech in Pasadena, CA.

Aside from doing research in astronomy or working on the notorious Caltech problem sets, I am somewhat involved in our Quiz Bowl team, much more involved in our Christian Fellowship, and am a fanatical Scrabble player. I also am involved in many of the crazy things that go on at Caltech, such as building a two-story submarine complete with conning tower for a party or getting in on a good prank.

So it was at the end of my summer vacation in late September (Caltech started on October 1 this year) that I heard that Jeopardy! was holding an on-line test for its College Tournament. Always having had an ambition to be on the show, I decided to give it a try. Fifty questions seemed like a tall order, but they passed very quickly. Most I knew, some I didn't, but, in general, I felt that I had done well.

Apparently I was right. A short time later I was notified that I had qualified for a live audition in Los Angles. The audition itself was a lot of fun, and entirely worth the experience regardless of the outcome. We were called to the buzzers three at a time to play a mock game. I wondered to myself it would be anything like this on the real show, but had a suspicion it was but a taste. The questions were not so hard, so I had plenty of opportunity to buzz in, trying my best to enunciate clearly. Afterwards, we were "interviewed" individually, and I got to blabber on about how much I like astrophysics and things exploding in space and travel and my hometown and what I would do if I won the money, and so on. I was worried that I might have gone on a little too much about astrophysics… But there was no time to dwell on that because after all of the auditions had finished it was time for a second test. Personally, I felt it was easier than the on-line one, so that gave me a bit of confidence. And then it was over, and time to wait.

The audition was in November. Fast forward to second term (Caltech has three academic terms per year) during finals week. It was late March and I was studying like nothing else for my quantum final. No class during this week, I roll out of bed around 11:30 Monday morning and turn on my cell phone. One new message. I give voicemail a ring, and, to my astonishment (as my roommate will attest), was informed that I needed to return a call from Jeopardy! Shaking like a leaf with excitement, rationalizing all of the reasons that I could possibly be called that were not my being on the show lest that not be the case, I dialed the number. No, I don't have any friends who work for Sony. Nope, I am not running for political office. After these questions, with each one doubling my nervous anticipation, I received the news that was hoping for. I was going to be on Jeopardy!!

Being in the room at the time, my roommate was first to know. I then immediately called home to tell my parents. After recovering from the initial shock and disbelief, Mom was ecstatic and Dad was no less enthusiastic. My friends immediately began hatching plans for a social event around my big TV appearance. Needless to say, not much quantum went on that day. I was much too excited.

The trip to Madison, WI for the taping was a few weeks away, including a week and a half of spring break. I went home for break, got to be something of a local celebrity for the week, and was back at Caltech before I knew it. As for preparation for the show, I knew that I was not going to do any studying beyond what I would for my homework. Seeing as inverse Laplace transforms and such don't make regular Jeopardy! appearances, I was going to go in just as prepared as I would be any other day of the week. Being a trivia buff, I was confident that what I knew I knew and what I didn't I didn't and thus any studying would likely be futile.

I hoped I was right.

- Read Brandon's next entry on May 5!

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First Impressions
Posted May 5, 2008

Having more or less missed breakfast the first morning in the hotel, I grabbed a juice and ran into a girl sporting a Yale sweatshirt. Dara was the first of fourteen amazing people I was about to meet. Walking into the lobby, I got to meet everyone for the first time.

The first day is not a competition day, so we mainly filmed promos and such. Walking on stage is what first confirmed that this was indeed reality. There, right in front of me, was the Jeopardy! board. There was the podium where Alex Trebek would stand. And, in short order, there was Alex Trebek himself! He asked me a little about Caltech, and I confirmed that it was, indeed, a hard school and that the prank culture is alive and well. Encouraging the viewers at home to watch me on the show with Alex Trebek standing by my side is still surreal to me. I might believe that it happened when I see the commercials. Maybe.

I am not sure what I was expecting when it came to the other contestants. However, it did not take us long to "click." Fourteen of the most interesting people I have met, and certainly some of the nicest and most charismatic. No one seemed inordinately nerdy (though, attending a science school, I suppose my threshold is high) and definitely no one anything but friendly. Even from day one, it seemed the consensus that no one would mind seeing anyone else bring home the grand prize. Not that we didn't all hope that it would be us.

The next day was competition day, but they would of course not let us compete without getting a chance to rehearse. This is particularly important given the unique signaling device. I had first intended to anticipate the lights, to buzz in before seeing them. This did not seem the best strategy, as I rarely got in. Then I tried good old-fashioned reflexes, which worked a bit better. There is a rhythm to it if you can find it. I felt pretty good about the buzzer post-rehearsal. I wondered how things would change in the actual game.

- Brandon plays on May 5th. Read about his game on May 6th!

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Posted May 6, 2008

I will just have to take the word of those who say that waiting in the Green Room waiting to be called on is a stressful experience. After we got back from rehearsals, I was promptly informed that I was up first. Finish your sandwich, we are on in three minutes. I was nervous, as expected, but more calm than I anticipated myself being. My cheerful disposition not giving way to anxiety, we headed backstage, had our microphones attached, and then waited. It wasn't long before we were led onstage, myself in the first position closest to Alex. Hearing Johnny Gilbert announce my name will have to wait until the air date, as the crowd of nearly 4000 people drowned him out completely to me. Could this really be happening? I was not yet convinced.

Alex walks onto stage accompanied by Bucky the Badger, the University of Wisconsin mascot. I take a deep breath as Alex introduces the show then the categories. I make the first selection. And so it begins.

The details of the game are a complete blur, especially the first half. What is given to viewers at home in a half hour feels like it takes three minutes to tape. I got a few dollars to my name before it was time for the commercial break. After break are, of course, the interviews. I had wanted to talk about astrophysics and my research at Caltech, but Alex effectively overruled me. Instead I talk about the time I had to calculate the optimum launch angle to launch a grapefruit from Caltech to the nearby Pasadena City College. Anyone with an elementary knowledge of physics knows that projectiles achieve maximum distance when launched at 45°. However, this neglects air resistance, and to account for that, as I was required, I had to solve numerically the differential equations of motion using a solver that I had programmed. Long story short, if I ever come across a grapefruit and a trebuchet, 36.88° is the way to go (testing this experimentally may not be the best idea for safety considerations).

Back to the game, the first round finished up quickly, at least by my estimation, with myself in a close third place. After the commercial break, which consists of getting your make-up touched up, Alex answering questions from the audience, and mentally preparing yourself for the next round, Double Jeopardy! commenced. I selected first, again. I ended up rather liking the wordplay category but most of the rest were pretty tough. Gabrielle and Meredith, my competition for the round, agreed with me afterwards. The Movie Directors category was particularly brutal, with no correct responses among the three of us. Quite frankly, I am surprised at just how many pairs of movie directing brothers there are. I mean, the Cohen brothers seemed quite a valid guess until I realized that there is a whole passel who talented siblings. Between that question and the Daily Double, I found myself in third place going into Final Jeopardy! I have no regrets about wagering, even on the Daily Double in Annual Events that more or less sealed my fate. Confident that I would not get any of the movie answers, I wagered enough to place me in a comfortable first. If not, then I could still fight for my life, which would have been the result regardless of what I had wagered. For better or for worse, I was not playing for a Wild Card spot, as that was just far too uncertain. I was playing this match to win. However, the clue just didn't go my way, and with that I had a sinking feeling that this would be my first and last Jeopardy! appearance.

Final Jeopardy! was fun. I had no hesitation regarding my wager, seeing as I was in a "do or die" situation. I immediately, almost without thinking, write down all of the money I had won thus far. American Thinkers was the category and I felt pretty good about it. Maybe, just maybe, I could be the lone correct response, which would guarantee victory. The clue comes onto the screen and Alex reads it. Of course Alex is a great reader, but as I was thinking about it, I needed to hear parts again, so I muttered the clue back to myself slowly. I wonder if this will show up on camera. My gut reaction for this clue about solitude was Melville, having read Moby Dick and the subject matter and publication date sounding somewhat familiar. However, I then remembered Thoreau, who lived by himself for some time at Walden Pond. Needing little time to decide between the two, I hastily scrawled down Thoreau.

Alex approaches my podium, reveals my correct answer, and announces that I have taken first place. Unfortunately for me, that was short-lived. Meredith and Gabrielle both provided correct responses, leaving me in third place. Since there was only $800 between first and third place, I though that I perhaps had a shot at the Wild Card slot, if the other games went like this one. But with Meredith a single dollar ahead of me, it was a long shot. You never know how these things will work out, though.

- Will Brandon make it to the Semi-Finals? Tune in May 9th to find out! And check back here for his next entry!

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After Thoughts
Posted May 9, 2008

The Wild Card slots, I'm afraid, did not have my name on them. Knowing that I had come to the end of my line, I was a little disappointed. How could one not be? At the same time, however, I was immensely proud. I was proud of myself for having beaten the odds to make it on the show, for answering questions correctly, for getting to talk about awesome Caltech stuff like launching grapefruit in front of millions of viewers, for getting the Final Jeopardy! question correct, and for having given it my best shot. Maybe my wagering was a little too risky, maybe if I had just… No, I don't think about those kinds of things. I did what I had to do and regret none of my decisions.

As for the experience itself, it was certainly a weekend of a lifetime. I got to meet amazing people, from the other contestants to the Jeopardy! staff to Alex Trebek himself. I got to eat good food in Madison, WI, to answer trivia questions for money in front of millions, and to have a great time away from the stresses of college. It will certainly go down as one of the best experiences I have had to date, and one that I am certain to still be talking about for years and years.

I am headed back to Caltech to immerse myself back into physics. I will be doing research in astronomy over the summer, working on ways to identify variable stars and transient objects given few observations. As for my winnings, I am not really sure. I am reasonably confident that it will not go toward books or tuition or such things- no, I'd really like to do something nice for myself and my family. I'll just have to see what form that will take.

Brandon appeared in the following archived game:
#5456, aired 2008-05-05 Brandon Hensley vs. Meredith Johnson vs. Gabrielle McMahan 2008 College Championship quarterfinal game 1. From the Kohl Center...

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