Through hardships to new heights: Muscovites about the triumph at the Olympiad in astronomy and astrophysics

December 4, 2021

The Russian national team won 10 medals at the 14th International Olympiad in Astronomy and Astrophysics and became the first in the unofficial team competition. At the same time, Moscow schoolchildren won more than half of the medals. The main team won three gold and one silver awards, and the unofficial team — two gold medals. And this is despite the online format, an unprecedented number of participants from almost 50 countries and challenging tasks prepared by the host country — Colombia. About how the training took place, what rivals and difficulties there were, as well as about unexpected moments and the desire to connect the life with science, the winners of the scientific contest told to

Craving for stars from an early age

— Tell us, when did you get interested in science?

Danila Shkinderov (graduate of school No. 57, first-year student of the Landau School of Physics and Research, gold medal):

— Like many participants of the Olympiad, I have had a love for space since childhood. At the age of five, I learned to read and almost immediately after that I became interested in books about space. Even then I was interested in thematic encyclopedias, I was fascinated by the illustrations that were there. I asked my parents to take me to the Moscow Planetarium and the Cosmonautics Museum.

Danila Shkinderov

Yelisey Zhdanov (pupil of school No. 2007 School of Mathematics and Physics, gold award):

— Astronomy began to attract me when I was about five years old. My mother remembers how I asked to show me photos of the Sun, nebulae… As time went on, the interest only grew. When I went to secondary school and got the opportunity to participate in Olympiads, I managed to show good results in mathematics and physics. In part, my parents also influenced the formation of my hobbies. My father is an engineer, he develops a satellite navigation system, and mother has always supported my endeavors.

Andrey Azhakin (graduate of the Center for Pedagogical Excellence school, first-year student of the Faculty of Physics of Lomonosov Moscow State University, silver medal):

— And it all started with my astronomy circle, which I started attending in the eighth grade. Already in the ninth grade, I turned in a good performance in the final stage of the astronomy Olympiad. This prompted me to devote more time to astronomy.

Andrey Azhakin

Twice as many rivals

— The Olympiad was held remotely. What features are related to this?

Andrey Azhakin: Participation in the Olympiad was very exciting. In one of the four rounds, I had problems with loading the task. But you can't get away from the online format, because if not it, then nothing. Besides, a lot depended on how much you were able to keep your composure and not panic if something went wrong. Even some participants from countries, that usually show good results, won bronze, and some were left without medals at all, although I would not call these guys weak.

Elisey Zhdanov: If the Olympiad had been held in person, it would have been more interesting to participate because the contest atmosphere, in this case, would be felt more strongly. I have something to compare with: in 2019, I participated in the unofficial International Astronomical Olympiad (IAO) in Romania and won silver.

Elisey Zhdanov

Almost 50 countries represented their teams at this contest. Thanks to the online format, there were twice as many participants as usual. Each country has the opportunity to provide two teams (main and guest). Previously, not all states could afford such a budget, and the online format reduced these costs to almost zero.

Danila Shkinderov: The biggest disadvantage is that it was not possible to see the host country. Before that, I participated in two international Olympiads, they were held in Sri Lanka (in 2018) and Romania (in 2019). I brought silver from each.

Limited time and maximum accuracy

— What was interesting about the tasks at this Olympiad?

Danila Shkinderov: This year, half of the observation round was devoted to the physics of the Sun. The sun is not the most violent star, but still active. The flares and matter outbursts occurring on it can affect the Earth — this is called space weather. As one of the tasks, we were asked to investigate a remarkable solar plasma outburst. If such an outburst hits the Earth, a geomagnetic storm is possible, which is fraught with communication disruptions and power system failures. We used a special program to get data on observations of the Sun and use them to track the fate of this plasmoid, to evaluate its parameters.

Ivan Uteshev (head coach of the national team): This year's tasks covered a wide range of topics. The Colombians tried to introduce a national and cultural aspect to them: they told about the hills near the capital — Bogota, about natural parks and about the national astronomical observatory. We were surprised by a long but beautiful task about cosmic strings (very ancient hypothetical objects — folds of space-time). Taking into account clock zones, the discussion of tasks and their translation into Russian were often completed in the morning. The famous Colombian coffee would be very much to the point!

The members of our national team are able to solve such tasks. The main difficulty is their number. You need to find the answer to each question, and then write a neat, reasonable and logical solution. The participant’s set in the theoretical round consisted of 151 sheets, but the guys still managed.

Ivan Uteshev

— Besides the online format, what difficulties did you face during the Olympiad?

Ivan Uteshev: It was psychologically complicated for the guys. I think it's even more complicated than if there was an opportunity to go to Colombia. Tasks are developed every year by the committee of the host country, and each of them has its own idea of what it is expected to be. There is a certain general format, but it is vague, and every time we encounter surprises concerning topics, tasks and how the Olympiad as a whole is organized.

Andrey Azhakin: It seems to me that the only problem of international Olympiads is lack of time. In addition, a strange story happened at this contest with one task. Initially, the authors from Colombia compiled it incorrectly. If you solve the way they did, something illogical came out, but it was the right answer according to them. But the really correct decision was not taken into account. In addition, this year the organizers paid special attention to the design of the work. Those guys who, for example, have bad handwriting, did not receive points.

Elisey Zhdanov: I will also add that if a teacher from another country could not understand what you wrote (even taking into account the translation), then the task was not counted. It is probably important here to be able to convey the decision as correctly as possible, taking into account the online format of the contest.

Strict selection and not any eventualities

— How was the preparation for the Olympiad?

Ivan Uteshev: The main principle of preparation is that we strive to ensure that our children can solve any tasks so that they are not intimidated by the complexity and set of topics. Some countries send participants to the Olympiad either from among those who wish, or after a small national selection. And our guys annually for a month participate in training camps at the federal level. In addition, Moscow has a multi-stage system of preparation — initially for the All-Russian Olympiad of Schoolchildren, and then for the international one. It takes a lot of effort and time, but the results are impressive.

Danila Shkinderov: The Olympiad movement is developed in Russia. And it seems to me that one of the factors why we show such high results at the world level is a serious selection to be got to the contest.

Andrey Azhakin: I think it is at our Olympiads that interesting and difficult problems in astronomy are encountered. There you are given four to five hours to solve six tasks, not 15, as at international contests.

Elisey Zhdanov: By the way, it was our schoolchildren and students who motivated me to achieve a high result, who bring prizes to the country at similar scientific Olympiads. I just wanted to be up to the mark!

Photo by Y. Samarin.

Scientific Future

— What profession do you intend to associate your life with?

Elisey Zhdanov: I'm going to enter the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) at the Faculty of General and Applied Physics. I plan to delve into physics, but also not to abandon astronomy.

Danila Shkinderov: I plan to connect the future with physics, although astronomy is one of its sections. I entered the first year of the MIPT Landau School of Physics and Research. I have decided on the type of activity, but I have not yet decided on the specialization. We will be assigned to departments in the second year.

Andrey Azhakin: I am a first-year student at the Faculty of Physics of Lomonosov Moscow State University, I will make my mind on the academic department closer to the third year. But I want to get into astronomy. In addition, I like to share my knowledge as well. Perhaps I will teach astronomy or prepare children for Olympiads in this direction.



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