Sunday, August 4, 2013

IOAA Student Reflections on Astronomy

This is an article I wrote for the fourth newsletter of the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Volos, Greece. Once the exams finished, I wanted to focus on what motivates these students and what they find fascinating about astronomy. Some of their responses were exceptionally articulate and moving and have caused me to re-examine my own appreciation and passion for astronomy.
* * * * *

We are the Universe: Student Reflections on Astronomy

​After several days of scheduling issues and weather-related delays, the participants of the IOAA2013 finally completed all four categories of examinations: theoretical, data analysis, observational and team competition. While the tests provided some challenges and required patience and perseverance from everyone involved, the motivation to do well and the love of astronomy kept the students focused. 

​“I’ve never felt that there’s any real difference between an academic olympian and an athletic one,” says Indian team member Ayush Kumar, 16. “You get the same feeling. In football, you have struck for the goal and there’s this moment where you are waiting while the ball is in the air... and there is this thrill. There is the same thrill here. [We’ve] written an exam, and [we’re] waiting for the results.”

​Every student at the IOAA is in Volos because of this shared passion for astronomy. While everyone has a different story as to how they began learning astronomy, their love of the science is shared. Some students, like Allan dos Santos Costa, 15, from Brazil, have been interested in the subject for many years.  “Since I was a kid I enjoyed astronomy,” he says. “And when I learned physics, it was kind of a revolution [for me].

​Sandesh Kalantre, 17, from India, also found astronomy as a child. He says, “When I was small, maybe seven or eight-years-old, I first saw through a telescope Saturn’s rings. That was the moment I thought that I should learn astronomy because there are so many beautiful objects in the sky, and we miss them without a telescope.”

​Meanwhile, others such as Brian Brzycki, 17, from the United States found astronomy later in life. "I didn't care about astronomy until my [second year of high school] when I tried out for my school's Science Olympiad astronomy team,” he says. “Then that whole year, I learned more and more."

​Regardless of when each student originally became interested in astronomy, the combination of scientific problem-solving and philosophical wonder of our Universe is what inspires the participants to learn astrophysics at a high level. "The best part of astronomy [for me] is that the main theme is unification," says Arindam Bhattacharya, 16, from India. "Astronomy is one of the only subjects that connects the celestial to the terrestrial.

​For Ayush, the power of astronomy lies in the unpredictable and uncontrollable facets of the science. He says, "In physics you create an experiment. You... judge the outcomes and make predictions. But in astronomy the experiment is always going on. You cannot change anything. You just have to observe whatever it is that nature provides you with."

​Additionally, he is fascinated by problem-solving methods used by astronomers. "All of the information you have is just a ray of light,” he notes. “That ray of light enables you to know the atmosphere of a planet thousands of light-years away... That’s what amazes me: Just a little bit of data and you can get a lot of information.”

​Ionna Kalogeropoulou, 17, from Greece appreciates the more humanistic aspects of astronomy and says, “I like that as people we can understand and learn about something so big.  This makes us important. Our ability to understand something so vast, even though we're small... is amazing." 

​Adds Ionna’s Greek teammate Fotios Ionnis Giasemis, 16, “We are the Universe.”

​In the days to come, the Olympiad will wind down and the participants will have more free time to socialize and enjoy Greece. While the exams are officially over, and the astronomical aspects of the Olympiad are technically behind them, undoubtedly the participants will continue share their passion for understanding, observing and appreciating our Universe.

1 comment: