“How far were the ancient Greeks able to look back into the past as they were gazing in wonder at the stars?” It is trying to come up with the solution to such unusual and challenging questions that helps young astronomers capture gold medals at the most prestigious international competitions.

Boris Eskin is an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Astronomy at St Petersburg University and also the man in charge of the training camp for the Russian astronomy team, and he has no doubt about this. Several weeks ago, the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA) for high school students came to a close in Beijing, and the Russian team returned home with ten medals — five gold, four silver and one bronze. Eskin spoke with us about the secret behind such success and why the group of astronomers from St Petersburg are called a “sanctuary”.

Dr Eskin, could you please tell us why Astronomy returned to the school curriculum only recently, while for a long time Russian high school students have been taking top prizes in international Olympiads in the field?

That Astronomy has been brought back into the school curriculum is directly connected with the Astronomy Olympiads — in our country, there is a very rich tradition of holding such competitions. For example, the Moscow Astronomy Olympiad has been held yearly since 1947; the All-Russian Astronomy Olympiad, since 1994; and the International Astronomy Olympiad, which originated in Russia, since 1996. And in 2007, the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA) was first held. The Russian national team makes a point of participating in this competition. It is the most popular one in the world, and teams from more than 40 countries come together to compete every year.

Besides all of these, for a quarter of a century now we have been holding the St Petersburg Astronomy Olympiad. At first, it was part of the All-Russian Astronomy Olympiad, and then it became a separate competition. Today, around 4,000 people take part in it, and they come from 50 regions in Russia and from foreign countries, including Canada, Belorussia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. It is held in February or March, and the tasks for it are thought up not only by teachers, but also by first-year students who are prizewinners from prior years.

You have listed off so many astronomy competitions. In what ways does the St Petersburg Olympiad stand out from the rest?

In our Olympiad, you are not allowed to use a calculator, so you have to do everything either on paper or in your head. We look not only at how a person does their calculations but also at how they understand a task. As an example, it is very easy to compute a sine by using a calculator — all you have to do is press a button. But just try to invent your own computing technique, as the great scientists did at one time. Sometimes the guys end up with different answers, because they have introduced additional conditions into their tasks, but the main thing is that they understand what they are doing. We try to find a balance between creativity and formalization.

What kind of tasks can a child introduce additional conditions into?

Here’s one, for example: “Calculate the speed at which the Moon revolves around the Earth.” And that’s it. There’s nothing more, no additional conditions. A child who studies astronomy knows the distance from the Earth to the Moon. What is more, we all know that it takes the Moon about a month to orbit the Earth, or, to be more precise, 27.3 days. This information will help them determine the period and the radius of the orbit, so they will know the circumference of the orbit too. As a result, they can calculate the speed.

Here is another interesting example: “How far were the ancient Greeks able to look back into the past as they were gazing in wonder at the stars?” Once again, there’s nothing more. Here the child understands that it takes the light from the stars a certain amount of time to reach the Earth. It turns out that they need to find the object in the sky that is the farthest away and can still be seen by the naked eye — after all, the ancient Greeks didn’t have any sort of special devices they could use to observe the skies. That object is the Andromeda Nebula, which is about 2.5 million light years away,

In addition to the theoretical round, we have a practical one, in which, for example, we give out a photograph of the starry sky and a ruler. The object here is to determine the shutter speed of the camera when the picture was taken. But the contestants need to do more than simply come up with an answer; they need to describe the method they used to solve this problem.

How do you prepare the kids for such Olympiads?

We have some really hard-core astronomy study groups based at Lyceum #533, the Presidential Physics and Mathematics Lyceum #239, the Physico-Technical School (also a lyceum), and the St Petersburg Gubernatorial Physico-Mathematical Lyceum #30. At all of these places, the teachers are the same people who organize the Olympiad, but their goal is not to “drill” the children in the solving of Olympiad-type problems. On the contrary, they want to find and prepare those who are really interested in Astronomy and will go on to study it here at the university. Today, at St Petersburg University, there is a five-year program in Astronomy, and the backbone of the students is composed of those who are winners of different competitions: Ilya Chugunov, a silver-medal winner in an international Olympiad; Vitaliy Zozulya, a bronze-medal winner; Mikhail Pirogov, also a bronze-medal winner; Ivan Markozov and many others. Another winner, Maria Volobuyeva, graduated from the university long ago and is now teaching in Lyceums #533 and #239.

Where in Russia can you find today’s smartest astronomy students at the high-school level?

The basic rivalries at the All-Russian Astronomy Olympiad are between students from four regions: Moscow, the Moscow Region, St Petersburg and Mordovia. What is more, the demand for participating in such competitions is extremely high, and, unfortunately, far from all of our guys make it into those at the nationwide level. Especially for their sake, every summer we run an Astronomy School simultaneously with training sessions on the eve of the All-Russian Olympiad.

We don’t simply teach the children Astronomy — we foster the definite subculture that forms among them, and it will always unite them, even if they decide to study Physics, Programming, Mathematics or something else. Actually, astronomers are a highly educated community, especially here in St Petersburg. During a conference in Moscow, one of my colleagues said, “What you have at the university is an astronomers’ sanctuary.” We have such good relations that outsiders say we are harmonious and, in the best sense of the term, a “rare species” — after all, there are far fewer astronomers than, let’s say, mathematicians or physicists, and for that reason we need to stick together.

Why do schoolchildren take part in the Astronomy Olympiads? What is the main incentive? Perhaps because their achievements will allow them to enter the university of their choice without having to take any exams?

The children take part in Olympiads because it piques their interest. And as for the Astronomy competitions, that’s definitely the case. And yes, if, during the ninth grade, a student receives a certificate from an All-Russian Olympiad, then they have already earned the right to enter a university in the field connected with that Olympiad without having to take any exams. In other words, they can relax, since the certificate is valid for several years. But those who follow this course are the exception — most of them keep plugging away and go on to international Olympiads, which are already like world-class sport, as they require special training, which includes psychological preparation.

Over the course of three years — from 2008 through 2010 — the Vladimir Potanin Charity Foundation even sent their own psychologists to offer their support during our training camp. It was interesting that, after spending time with the kids, three of them, who were speaking on their own, said that such a unique microclimate of sharing and caring had been formed on our team, the likes of which they had not seen on any other team. This is because our main concern is not winning medals but making what we do interesting for the kids.