Here, finally, is my full interview at the IOAA with the Indian team (Arindam Bhattacharya, 16, Ashutosh Satyajit Marwah, 18, Ayush Kumar, 16, Sandesh Kalantre, 17, and Sheshansh Agrawal, 16). This is long overdue, but the interview was so moving and the students were so articulate, I had to keep my promise to post it. I've underlined some especially memorable quotes.
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The selection process to qualify to represent India in the IOAA is quite an intense one. Could you describe it?
Ayush: There are three stages. In the first, 15,000 students take a multiple choice exam. Then it's narrowed to 300 for a second exam. In the third round, 35 students are invited to a 20-day camp.
Wow. What is that camp like? It sounds like Astrophysics boot-camp.
Ayush: To be honest, the camp is very rigorous. We get very little sleep during the camp. They teach us whatever they test us on. Based on how we preform on the test, that’s how they select the [final] team.
That's a lot of extra work and time outside of school to enter in the IOAA. What motivated you to go through with it?
Arindam: Firstly, I’d like to mention that the camp is not just an academic camp. There is a fun element to it. We have late-night sessions of sky observations where people who don’t have any first-time information about telescopes get to learn to use it. And we get to observe the actual objects that we usually see in picture-books or encyclopedias. But we also play a lot of games. It’s a chance to meet new people -- to meet like-minded people -- from around the country. We also get to learn from some of the best professors of astronomy in India.
Sandesh: The thing about camp is that we also have past national medalists that help to teach during the camp. They help to make the camp more fun. They are co-facilitators of the camp and help to design the papers and also play games with us. So the camp is not just an academic experience but also a fun one.
Ayush: Who doesn’t want a 20-day vacation? It’s just like a vacation.
Sure, but some people see vacation as sleeping in and laying on a beach. Not doing hardcore astrophysics.
Ayush: We’re not just some people, are we?
Fair enough. How long have you been interested in astronomy? What got you interested?
Ashutosh: Six months. That was when I was selected for the second round. I was more interested in physics and maths and that’s why I got selected. Physics and maths has brought me here.
Sheshansh: Astronomy comes in bits and pieces in a child’s life when parents of a child tell him the mythology of the stars. A child becomes curious when they wonder how something in the sky can be associated with myths. That’s a minor part of how I got into astronomy. But the major part was last year when I got selected for the third stage of the selection camp. When the teachers sent me the preparation CD and textbooks, I started reading them, and there was something attractive in them. It’s all about imagination. That’s the best part of it that’s in astronomy and nowhere else.
Arindam: Astronomy as a subject is not taught in Indian schools. I originally got interested in the subject when I got selected for the astronomy camp in India. The best part of astronomy that appeals to be is that the main theme is unification. Astronomy is one of those subjects that connects the celestial to the terrestrial.
Sandesh: The thing I love about astronomy is observation. When I was small, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I first saw through a telescope Saturn’s rings. That was the moment I thought that I should take astronomy because you know there are so many beautiful objects in the sky, and we miss them without a telescope. Astronomy is a medium which provides me that facility, so I love it.
Ayush: The first thing is that I’ve loved science since I was a kid -- that’s not the question. How I got into astronomy -- In physics you have an experiment. You say how can I do this, let’s see what happens, how can I 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. The most interesting thing is that all of the information you have is just a ray of light. A ray of light enables you to know the atmosphere of a planet thousands of light-years away from you as well as we know the atmosphere of our own planet. That’s what amazes me. Just a little bit of data and you can get a lot of information.
What resources are available to learn astronomy? Do you have clubs in your schools? Do any of you have access to telescopes?
Sheshansh: As far as studying astronomy goes, last year I bought a telescope -- a Newtonian reflector telescope -- and I use it to observe the sky. As far as books and knowledge is concerned, I guess the internet is huge enough.
What do you think of this years Olympiad so far? (Four of the five students had participated in previous Olympiads.)
Ayush: We’ll see what happens. There are a lot of fun people around. There are some people who study all day, but also people who like to have fun.
Ashutosh: Good things: We got to know a lot of new people. Also the beach is excellent. Volos is a great city, and the city looks great from Mount Pelion...
I would still like to hear more about your motivation. Where I come from, it takes a lot to motivate students academically, especially if extra time outside of school is needed. Where does your drive for astronomy come from?
Ayush: Sportsmanship. Why does a sportsman live? I’ve never felt that there’s any real difference between an academic Olympian and an athletic one. It’s 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 you don’t know if it will go inside or outside or if the goalkeeper will stop it, and there is this thrill. There is the same thrill here. You’ve written an exam, you’re waiting for the results. It’s exciting. And for any sport you need to prepare a lot. You sweat, the hard work is there... So what drives us? The game, the sportsmanship.
Ashutosh: What Ayush wants to say is that all of this, all of the preparation, it’s worth it. It’s completely worth it. It’s a chance to represent India. It’s a great thing. We get to represent our country. We have blazers that say “India” on them, which is pretty cool, and yes, I love solving new problems. Sometimes we get to make new problems before our tests so we can test each other. It’s just fun to solve problems. I’d say the same for [my team].
Ayush: It’s like going on an adventure. That’s what it is for me. We don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t know what obstacles we will face. We’re just out here, with all the preparation you can possibly have, and it’s pretty exciting. We're living these 7 days to the fullest.
What would you say to students your age who aren't motivated to learn?
Ashutosh: I guess everyone should learn what they like. That’s what we’re doing. We like astronomy and physics, so that’s what we’re doing. Everyone likes something at some stage in their life, that’s what they should do. Set goals, work towards them, and achieve them.
What would you say to a student who is passionate about something but feels stuck?
Ashutosh: I have no background in astronomy. I just liked it. I had this book that my father bought for me with all of the cool Hubble photos of the galaxies and nebulae. If I can do this, anyone can do this. The guy you’re talking about? That’s me. Just do it, don’t think about it. Just do it and see what the result is... I had no supportive teachers before I went to the astronomy camp. You just need to do what you love.
Arindam: Abstract concepts always begin from very simple things, simple observations. So someone who is interested in astronomy but doesn’t have the resources around could just try making simple observations such as recording the time of sunset everyday. Finding out moonrise/moon-set. Simple things like this can make way for abstract theories and concepts later on. And if you’re really motivated to do something, you will always find a resource that can help you.
Ayush: Someone famous, I can’t remember who, once said something like, ‘Nothing can help you -- genius will not, there are a lot of genius people sitting around not achieving, intellect will not, there are a lot of intelligent derelicts amongst us, talent will not, unrewarded talent is leads to self-disapproval. But determination and perseverance is omnipotent.’ So everyone has problems, and it’s unfortunate if there are people without resources. But let’s just do what we can do and what we can do best is to keep trying.
Thank you guys for sharing your insights! Any final thoughts?
Ashutosh: “I’ll just say it. This Olympiad has been LEGEND -- and I hope none of you are lactose intolerant because the second half of the word is -- DAIRY. LEGENDARY.