Let the games begin

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bulgaria and Iran’s teams were the first to arrive in Brazil for this year’s International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics — my kind of Olympic games. // photo by Julio Campagnolo/IOAA
I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t like the Olympics. The incessant coverage, the ridiculous posturing, the overt commercialization, the faux patriotism (oh, yeah, you really cared about the American badminton team five months ago) — pretty much everything about the mindless displays in London left me cold, however physically impressive they might have been. But, like so much else sports-related, I’ve just learned to tolerate the games every four years.

I recently found out, though, that last month also featured another international Olympiad that I would have actually cared about. The sixth International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics took place August 4–13 in the Brazilian cities of Rio de Janeiro and Vassouras, and I’m kind of sorry I missed them. All in all, 124 high school students from 28 countries competed in exams testing astronomical theory, observational prowess, and data analysis. These are no minutes- or seconds-long races, either, but hours-long challenges.

The theoretical exam lasted five hours and included topics like celestial mechanics, astrophysics, optics, and cosmology. The data analysis test required much of the same expertise and made use of real observational data — this year the students had four hours to learn the composition of specific asteroids and determine the distance to far-off galaxies. And the observational exam this year lasted two nights (because of poor weather), asking students to prove their familiarity with locating sky targets and using a telescope and imaging system. Now that’s a competition!

So with an off year for the international sporting event in 2013, maybe Olympics coverage could be more focused on mental exploits. Sure, it might be a bit much to ask a nation of sports fans to suddenly care about science, but I think it’s possible. If the United States enters a team in next year’s contest in Greece, maybe that’s all it would take for those sometime-patriots to obsess over these Olympic results, too. Hey, it’s worth a shot, right?

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