IMO 2016 Diary – Part Three

Sunday 10th July

I’m awake at 6am and there’s nothing to do, so take a short run along the edge of the bay. I meet an old lady singing along to a walkman (yes, really) while doing taichi. She encourages me to join and it seems rude to refuse. Suffice it to say I’m as grateful no video evidence exists as she should be that no audio recording was made. Six-hundred mathematicians queueing for powdered eggs seems like an unwelcome start to the day, so we are self-catering. The guides have been commanded to show every student how to find their place in the exam hall, and I approve of Allison’s contempt for the triviality of this task.

The main event of the day is the opening ceremony, held at the Queen Elizabeth stadium in the centre of Hong Kong Island. To no-one’s surprise, this involves a lot of time waiting around in the stifling UST plaza, which the students use to take a large number of photographs. The UK and Australian boys are smartly turned out as usual, but the polyester blazers are rather ill-suited to this tropical conditions, so we invoke Red Sea rig until air conditioning becomes available. The Iceland team are particularly keen to seek out the English members for reasons connected to a football match of which Neel proudly claims total ignorance. I picked up an EU flag for next-to-nothing last Friday, and now Jacob and Warren prove very popular as they circulate inviting our (for now) European colleagues to join us behind the stars.

The deputies are segregated in an upper tier and obliged to watch a rehearsal of the parade. Some of the organisers have a confused interpretation of the IMO roles. I still have some of the uniform with me, but an official says it is literally impossible for me to give it to the team. She is small and Joe Benton can catch flying ties as well as colds, so it turns out to be literally entirely possible, but for my trouble I get called ‘a very bad boy’.

Many hours after we left our rooms, the ceremony starts, and is actually very good, with a handful of well-chosen speeches, a mercifully quickfire parade of teams, and musical interludes from a full symphony orchestra, with various traditional and non-traditional percussion. The new IMO song Every day in love we are one involves a B section accompanied by a melange of watercooler bottles, but despite its catchy conclusion about maths, friendship and beyond, I suspect it may not trouble the top of the charts.

Monday 11th July

It’s the morning of the first IMO paper, and you can feel both the excitement and the humidity in the air. Some of our boys are looking a bit under the weather, but we know from past experience that the adrenaline from settling down in a room of 600 young contestants who’ve been preparing for exactly this can carry them through anything. I skip an excursion in order to receive a copy of the contest paper. Security is tight, and the deputies who have chosen this option are locked in a lecture theatre for two hours, and our bathroom visits monitored with commendable attention to detail. I guess that the combinatorial second problem is most likely to provoke immediate discussion, so I spend my time working through the details of the argument, just in time to meet our contestants when their 4.5 hours are up.

Q3 has been found hard by everyone, and Q2 has been found hard by other countries. Harvey’s kicking himself for drawing the wrong diagram for the geometry, an error that is unlikely to improve Geoff’s mood when he receives the scripts later today. Apart from that, we have a solid clutch of five solutions to each of the first two problems, and various nuggets of progress on the final problem, which is an excellent start. Several of the team are itching to keep trying to finish Q3, but the campus is likely to be annoying hotbed of spurious gossip all day, so Allison and I take them out. The very convenient MTR takes us under the harbour while the students and I debate the usefulness of the square-free case, and how well it is preserved under rescaling so that the circumcentre is a lattice point.

As we emerge above ground, Jacob is entranced by the live-action Finding Dory playground at Causeway Bay, and we toy with buying a pig’s trotter from a nearby market, but not even Lawrence is feeling adventurous enough with another exam tomorrow. We travel over to Kowloon via double-decker tram and ferry, and fortified by ice cream, take lots of photographs of the unique HK skyline, where even the giant waterfront office towers are dwarfed by Victoria Peak, which the contestants will visit while I’m marking. On our return journey, some of the team are impressed by the HK rush hour, indicating that they’ve clearly never tried to change line at Leicester Square around 6pm on a Friday…

Tuesday 12th July

Another morning, another trek uphill to a 4.5 hour exam. Time passes rapidly, especially now I’ve worked out how to order coffee without the ubiquitous condensed milk. The security arrangements concerning the deputies’ copies of the paper have been increased even further, but the IMO photographers have outdone themselves, and published on Instagram some pictures of the exam room with a level of crispness such that it’s clear the paper includes no geometry, and after finally getting hold of a proper hard copy, it looks like a paper which the UK team should really enjoy.

As so often after IMO papers, there is a range of reactions. Lawrence is unsure whether he presented his exemplar polynomial in a form that actually works. Joe knows and I know that he could easily have got at least 35 on these papers, but after over-meta-thinking himself on Q5, this isn’t his year. Like Aeneas gazing on the ruins of Troy, sunt lacrimae rerum, but also plans for new foundations. By contrast, Harvey has atoned for yesterday’s geometric lapse with what sounds like a perfect score today. Warren and Neel seem to be flying overall, and are doing a good job of keeping their excitement under control while the others muse. There’s plenty to think about, and Geoff has now arrived bearing yesterday’s scripts and several novels’ worth of anecdotes from the leaders’ site.

Before getting down to business, it feels sensible to walk off the Weltschmerz, and provide an outlet for joy in the nearby Clearwater Bay country park. There’s a long trail all over the New Territories, and we join it for a brief but purposeful stroll up through the light jungle and along the ridge. We’re confident we didn’t find the global maximum, but we find a couple of local maxima with great views out around the coastline, which seems to have Hausdorff dimension slightly greater than 1. We see some enormous spiders (though the Australians are substantially less impressed) before ending up an uncontroversial minimum where Jill has bedded in with merciful bottles of water on the beach. To say we are sticky doesn’t even begin to cover it but, crucially, we are no longer consumed by the morning’s events.

The UK boys are now masters of the complicated UST food court ordering process, and Warren endears himself to Geoff by producing a steaming bowl of spicy ramen as if by magic. The contestants have a ‘cultural night’, which apparently includes a greater number of hedge fund representatives than one might have expected. For me, it’s a night in with Geoff, green tea and the scripts for Q2. Joe and Neel have filled fourteen pages between them checking a construction in glorious detail, a step which Harvey has described in its entirety with the words ‘glue them together’. Overall, they are complicated but precise, and I have few concerns, so it’s only necessary to burn the candle at one end.

Wednesday 13th July

It’s time for coordination, where Geoff and I agree the UK marks with a team of local and international experts. The scheduling has assigned us the Q1 geometry early in the morning, which is a clear case of five perfect solutions, so we move to Q2. Coordinator Stephan seems very well-prepared for the UK scripts, so again we are finished in a matter of minutes. This allows us to bring forward our discussion of Q4. Jacob has made several small errors, all of which could be fixed by attacking his script with a pair of scissors and some glue. I believe the mark scheme should award this 4+2, and coordinator Juan thinks it should be 5+1. We are both open to each other’s interpretations, and have at least basic proficiency in addition, so again there is little need for debate.

The early evening brings the main challenge of the day, Q6, at which the UK has excelled. Our frogmaster Geoff has listed marks for five of our attempts, but the final script belonging to Joe has generated only the comment ‘magical mystery tour’. His solution to part a) diverges substantially from the most natural argument, and indeed involves wandering round the configuration, iteratively redirecting lines [1]. I am eventually convinced by the skeleton of the argument, though unconvinced I could complete the details in the finite time available.

We discuss the script with Lisa Sauermann, who explains some of the main challenges [2]. After a short pause for thought, we’re convinced by Lisa’s suggestion of equivalence with a point on the conventional markscheme. It would have been nice to have had more time to think about the subtleties myself, but this was some really interesting maths and we pack up for the day feeling very impressed with the quality of coordination here so far.

We and the coordinators are also very impressed with the quality of Harvey’s art. As a result, we now have an answer to the question ‘What should you do if you finish the IMO two hours early?’ Harvey’s answer at least is to draw a diagram of the Q6 configuration in the case n=3, where at each of the intersection points with the outer boundary stands a member of the current UK team. Precisely UNKs 1, 3 and 5 are wearing a frog. The real life sextet have been taken by Allison to Disneyland today, so some are potentially now wearing a princess. But while the contestants can let it go now, it’s off to work I go, as there’s still two sets of scripts left to ponder.

Harvey Q6[1] The mechanism for this redirection is neither canonical nor explained, and even in the best setup I can come up with in an hour or so of trying a huge class of diagrams, exactly half of the indices in the resulting calculation are off by \pm 1. The pressure of IMO Day Two can indeed derail even the most well-prepared contestants.

[2] There is a non-trivial difficulty when the area enclosed by our path is concave, as then some intersection points on the path arise from lines which are also part of the path. Handling the parity of such points looks easy once you’ve been shown it, but is definitely not obvious.

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