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October 5, 1999
Indian students win honours at astronomy olympiad
Michael Gonsalves in Pune
Two Indian students won gold medals at the Fourth International Astronomy Olympiad 1999 held between September 27 to October 2 at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in Ukraine.
While Varun Bhalerao, a XIth class student of Fergusson College, Pune, won the gold medal in the senior category (16-18 years), Mayank Jha of Bhopal won the same in the junior category (below 16).
"Of course I was hoping for a gold medal as I had sweated it out, studying meticulously," a jubilant 16-year-old Bhalerao told rediff.com. He scored 74 per cent, the highest in the senior group while Jha, 15, got 72 per cent marks.
"This year the competition was less formal than the last year and hence we all had ball of a time," Bhalerao said, adding the six Indian team enjoyed the many excursions organised for them.
This year the Indian team won three silver medals. They went to Amar Chandra from Bangalore, Punyashloka Biswal, Class XI, from Delhi Public School, Delhi,and Yusuf Fauzan, Class XI, City Montessori College, Lucknow.
Ranchu Mathew, 17, a XII class student from Kendriya Vidyalaya, Pune, who bagged a bronze medal said, "I found the competition tougher than last year. It was also plain bad luck." Mathew won the gold medal while Bhalerao won a bronze in the Third International Astronomy Olympiad last year.
Balchandra, Varun's father, a consulting geologist, said his son was studying the skies for five-six days before he left for Moscow with the Indian team.
Ranchu's father, Subedar P M Mathew, who is attached to the army's Central Armoured Fighting Vehicle Depot, Khadki, near Pune, said he hoped Ranchu would become a "star" in astronomy and astrophysics.
"I am fascinated with the world of astronomy and I hope to make a career in this field," said Bhalerao.
"Reading about galaxies and stars transports me into a different world altogether. Studying them fills me with awe and a sense of wonder," Mathew said.
Two scientists, Professor Mayank N Vahia of the Astrophysics Group at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay and Dr Jyotsna Vijapurkar of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, accompanied the Indian students.
Professor Vahia pointed out that all six boys had won a medal each. They won two golds, three silvers and one bronze.
"These six students were selected from 250 who qualified and participated at the National Training Camp held exclusively to select students for the International Astronomy Olympiad," said scientist Dr Somak Raychaudhury of IUCAA and member of the Science Popularisation Committee of the Astronomy Society.
The 250 students had first appeared at the Indian National Astronomy Olympiad held at various Planeteria and Science Centres all over the country in May. Twenty-nine of those who qualified at the National Olympiad were invited to participate in a special astronomy camp at the Nehru Science Centre. Of these, six students were selected for the International Astronomy Olympiad.
Dr Raychaudhury said the 15-day camp involved problem-solving, tutorials, laboratory and observational exercises in various aspects of astronomy, related physics and mathematics.
He said for the last 40 years countries of the former Soviet Union have held their own national astronomy olympiad for their school students. But from 1996, this competition had been thrown open to the whole world and has been organised to the Euro-Asian Astronomical Society based in Moscow.
The advantage in this competition was that in the absence of a national team, a team representing any state, region or town could also participate in the olympiad, Dr Raychaudhury said.
That was how, in 1997, a group of students from the City Montessori School, Lucknow, who an announcement for the Second International Olympiad and, trained by Col (Retd) J E S Singh, founder and former director of the Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi, went for the competition.
In 1998,the Astronomical Society of India decided it ought to send a national team. And with backing from the late Professor Vijay Kapahi, former president of National Centre for Radio Astrophysics-TIFR, Pune and Dr K Kasturirangan, Secretary, Department of Space, a team was chosen on an experimental basis by Raychaudhury only from Pune and Lucknow.
The team, trained at IUCAA and NCRA, Pune and funded by the Indian Space Research Organisation, won one gold and three bronze medals, finishing overall second only to Bulgaria. That, Raychaudhury pointed out, was admirable, considering that the schools of the former Soviet Union have had a long tradition of teaching astronomy to school-children.
This time, about 3,000 students across the country participated at the preliminary level. Next year, this test will be held in more centres and the students can contact their local planetaria and science centres for information.
Elaborating on job opportunities in astronomy and astrophysics, Raychaudhury said the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope, spread over 30 kilometres, with 27 giant antennas, will be shortly operational near Pune.
"We want students to seriously look for careers in this exciting field," he said.
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