This is the customary and slightly frivolous account of a trip to Bucharest for the ninth edition of the Romanian Master of Mathematics, an annual competition for school students, widely recognised as the hardest of its kind.
I discuss the problems in two previous posts (here and here), and there is also a pdf with fewer pictures, which includes both the discussion and this diary, as well as some more formal comments about the competition itself, the results, and thanks.
Wednesday 22 February
Did you know that trains in Moldova use different width tracks to trains in Romania? Well, I didn’t know either, but I found out at 1am today, as my wagon lit from Chisinau was painstakingly jacked up to allow the transfer from ex-Soviet gauge to Western gauge. Outside, a man in a smart uniform and epaulettes shouted loudly and continuously at a group of men in smart uniforms without epaulattes. When their task was done, four sets of border and custom checks remained before the opportunity for another visit to the samovar, and finally a chance to sleep.
All of which is to say that I have arrived at maths competitions in better mental shape than 6am today at Gara de Nord. The UK students have a more conventional itinerary, but their flight from Luton doesn’t arrive until mid-afternoon. After my first Haifa ‘winter’, I’m craving pork and snow, and find both in the mountain town of Sinaia, an hour away by train in Transylvania. I also find a bear. The bear seems very scared.
I return in time to meet the UK students as well as James and MT. Some of our contestants are now into their fourth year of attending international competitions, and the labour of finding them fresh material resembles Hercules against the hydra, but some problems on combinatorial geometry with convexity seem to have kept everyone entertained on the flight. Dinner is at the Moxa campus of the University of Economics, and features chicken with one of two possible carbohydrates, as in fact do the next six meals. However, today is Thomas’s 18th birthday, and so his parents have arranged a delicious cake, which elicits considerably more enthusiasm. On the short walk back to our meeting, we notice it is possible both to buy fireworks and get a tattoo among other options, so Thomas is spoiled for choice about how to take advantage of his majority.
The team’s activities remain a mystery to James and me though, as we have to join the other leaders for the first meeting, to receive the proposed problems. We spend some time thinking about them separately then together, and our initial impression is that it’s a very suitable paper, that hopefully our team will enjoy.
Thursday 23 February
The leaders meet to finalise the choice and statement of the problems. With a bit more time this morning, I’ve solved Q1, Q2, Q5, and proved Q3 once I’d looked up the correct bound. James eats conics for breakfast and shows me a glorious range of interpretations of Q4. We feel happy that our students will have a chance at all of these, while Q6 may prove more restricting. Either way, it’s clearly an appropriate set for this competition, and is approved quickly. So it’s time to finalise the English version of the paper, or finalize the American version. Many alternatives to the word sieve are proposed. Andrea from Italy is clearly already craving home comforts, but his suggestion of cheese grater is not taken up. This time I’m sorting the LaTeX, so get to settle the commas, but also take the blame for inconsistently spacing the rubric between the two papers. I’m sure everyone noticed.
While all this has been happening, the students have been at a lecture by Sergiu Moroianu at the Institute of Mathematics. Joe Benton gives an account of what they learned in the longer pdf version of this report.
For all the charms of Chipping Norton, I sense MT is enjoying the grittier nature of Bucharest Sector 1, and has been shepherding the students round various sites in between attempts at practice problems. I join them for a brief visit to a geology museum. I am very cynical, but it slightly exceeds my expectations, and is infinitely better than the nearby Museum of the Romanian Peasant, which currently ties with the Hanoi Ethnology Museum as my least favourite olympiad excursion of all time.
The opening ceremony is held in the grand hall of the university, and includes several welcoming and thoughtful speeches from the Mayor of Bucharest and the headteacher of Tudor Vianu, the school which hosts this competition every year. Each team briefly presents themselves on stage. Joe and Neel have accumulated a large collection of UK flags from previous competitions, and should hereby consider themselves publicly shamed for forgetting their promise to bring them. It is over soon, and while the students enjoy a quiet evening and an early night, the leaders have to finalise markschemes for all the problems. The walk back takes us through Victory Square, and past the protesters whose fires and slogans have been on front pages around the world in the past months. It’s an interesting time, and the atmosphere of this city feels very different from my first visit, for the inaugural edition of this competition in 2008.
Friday 24 February
The first day of the contest starts at 9am. The British students seem fairly relaxed, and hopefully are aiming high. Contestants may ask questions of clarification during the first 30 minutes. Rosie does this, and I send my reply to her two queries back via the courier. Five minutes later it is returned to me with the explanation that the student does not understand the answer. Even under competition pressure this seems unlikely, given that my answers are, respectively ‘yes’, and putting a ring around one of three options she has listed. It turns out that actually the student courier did not understand what to do with the answer, and the situation is quickly corrected.
We approve more markschemes. The US deputy leader Po-Shen and I share our views on the challenge of correctly finding the bound in Q3, and our suggestion that this instead be worth 2 points is upheld. Various further discussions fill the morning, and we return just in time to meet the students at the end of the exam. Harvey claims all three problems with a relaxed grin, while Joe claims all three problems with the haunted look of a man whose twelfth espresso of the day has just worn off. Alexander and Thomas say that they spent most of the time making sure their solutions to Q1 were totally watertight, which, given the intricacy of the arguments, was clearly a very sensible strategy.
To provide a distraction, if not actually a break from time-pressured problem-solving, I’ve booked a pair of escape rooms for the UK students later in the afternoon. Bucharest is the home of these games, where the aim is to solve themed puzzles as part of a story in time to escape a locked room. I join one of the rooms, where there are some theatrical reveals involving wrenches, and clues hidden in combination-locked cabinets, where ability to add three-digit numbers proves useful. Someone’s carrying voice means we get to enjoy some of the drama and twists of the other room too. Anyway, this proved an ideal way to avoid useless post-mortems, and I highly recommend Vlad and his pair of rooms.
Later, James and I get to look at the students’ work from this morning. Their assessments are pretty accurate. Harvey’s solutions to everything are beautiful, while Neel’s bounding argument in Q2 is certainly the most vulgar (and, in fact, unnecessary) calculation of the year so far. Joe’s solution to Q3 bears such obvious resemblence to an official solution that his uncharacteristic abundance of small errors probably won’t matter, including the memorable set , where the two is mean different things. Some of the team might reflect that a moment of casualness in checking the n=2 case on Q2 is a frustrating way to lose a potential mark, but when I compare notes with James, it sounds like the slow and steady approach to Q1 has indeed paid off for everyone, so hopefully it will not be too painful to agree the scores tomorrow.
Saturday 25 February
It’s the second day of the competition, and the UK team look bright-eyed and positive at breakfast. They aren’t the only ones under pressure this morning, as James and I must settle the scores from yesterday’s questions with local markers, known as coordinators. It’s hard to guess in how much detail one will have to explain your contestants’ scripts, so it is safer to prepare almost line-by-line. On this occasion though, perhaps we have over-prepared, as every meeting ends quickly with offers of 7/7 exactly where we were hoping, and indeed in a couple of places where we were not hoping. The markschemes are very clear about certain omissions which carry a point deduction, so to ensure fairness and consistency, we insist that two scores are moved down. I’m confident that any British student would prefer an honourable 41/42 than an accidental 42/42.
No-one’s going to be scoring 41 nor 42 unless they solve the extremely challenging geometry Q6, and as we meet our students afterwards, it turns out they have not managed any progress there. However, they claim an almost full set of solutions to Questions 4 and 5, which, if accurate, is a very good return. Everyone is in a good mood, and after I explain a couple of approaches to Q6, no-one seems too disappointed that they didn’t spot these.
There are various schedules floating around, listing multiple locations and times for lunch, but our space-time trajectory intersects none of them, so we follow the Chinese team to a recommended cheap Szechuan restaurant round the corner. Various circle theorems are explored via the Lazy Susan, and there is a grand reveal of the marks we’ve recently confirmed. There’s time for another pair of escape rooms while the second day scripts arrive. As Rosie remarks, two in two days can lead to excessive outside-the-box thinking. Sometimes a radiator really isn’t a sinister prop, a device for encoding five-digit numbers, or a clue to a Templar tunnel; it’s just a radiator. Otherwise we’d be cold.
When the scripts arrive, as expected the cupboard is pretty bare on Q6. If there were marks for quantity, Neel might get some, and if there were marks for most uses of esoteric theory in a single page, Alexander might get one. No set of scripts for an international-level medium combinatorics problem will ever be perfect, but our Q5s come close. It’s therefore not a long evening, and we can join the students for dinner with the American team. For most of them it’s their first visit to Europe, and there’s much comparing of culture and maths training programmes. There’s also a long discussion of whether it’s sensible to teach maths in primary school. Those present who have small children or younger siblings weigh in on the mysteries of the ‘grid method’, and whether toddlers implicitly understand commutativity, even if they can’t spell it.
Sunday 26 February
The UK leaders gather early in the ‘philosophical anti-cafe’ opposite Vianu school, to ponder the final scripts with a coffee and a view of an artfully-arranged folio of Spinoza. James has a loyalty card here. Unfortunately two of our students have clear algebraic errors in Q4, but apart from that everything is very straightforward. Though following last night’s conversation, we note that maybe a revision clinic on mathematical spelling might prove useful. Anonymous student X thinks there’s one L in ‘ellipse’, counterbalanced by anonymous student Y who thinks there are two in ‘column’. The word ‘parallel’ comes in many disguises.
Of course, the coordinators couldn’t care less about that, and they don’t even mind Neel’s two-cases-at-once inductive step, so again we get what we ask for on Q5 immediately, and on Q4 in the time it takes James to draw a lozenge tiling representing Thomas’s shearing argument. For Q6, it turns out there clearly is a mark for most uses of esoteric theory in a single page, so Alexander gets it. They show us a diagram with over a hundred lines which suggests that the exotic equivalence he claims is actually true. There we go. Overall, the quality of our written solutions has been extremely high. It feels like I say this every time now, but it isn’t idle propaganda. We remember the horrors that used to emerge occasionally, and the effort to make this improvement permanent feels well worth it.
Meanwhile, to fill the day, the students have gone to Sinaia. Two of their guides went with them to help with tickets at the station, apparently under the impression that never having taken a train before wouldn’t be an obstacle to this role. Either way, they made it, and following my request for material for this report, I receive a trickle of presentable photos, though there is talk afterwards of some rather more informal versions which are apparently not suitable. The Transylvanian winter is thawing, but slowly and messily, and Harvey reports that several of the group spent more time horizontal than vertical. Irrespective of their preferred axis, there’s no comment on whether they saw my bear, or any other bear. But since my bear was scared of me, one wonders what it would make of MT’s telling-off face? (Last seen by me during the notorious ‘balcony incident’ at a summer school in 2005, but hardly forgotten.)
The students return in time for confirmation of the results and their medals. As so often, there is pleasure that we have done so well collectively, mixed with mild disappointment for those who ended up just short of a boundary, and that the UK was so close to placing first. Because of the strength of the invited countries, earning a medal of any colour is a very worthwhile achievement, and so Rosie is impressively sanguine about missing out so narrowly in such an unfortunate manner. Alexander was closer than it appears, and could have two more opportunities to take part.
The closing ceremony at Vianu school proceeds rapidly. There is the usual challenge of photographing the students receiving their prizes, but this time is easy. Thomas is about a foot taller than everyone else on the stage, while Neel is flanked by almost the entire Russian team, but his chutzpah trumps their numerical advantage, with laughter all round. Joe claims this year’s gold medal is substantially weightier. He hasn’t brought his previous pair, so the chance to verify this and recreate a Mark Spitz moment goes begging.
It’s 7pm, and UK student enthusiasm for the closing disco (not my words) is about as high as MT’s enthusiasm to chaperone the closing disco. Instead we find a Middle Eastern restaurant, and it’s refreshing to eat hummus in a place which doesn’t claim to be the ‘best in Israel’ though I don’t think Abu Said in Akko will be rushing to steal the recipe. Po-Shen outlines his vision of a year-long maths camp. I think present company are tired enough after five days here. Some are interested to view, if not actually participate in, the protests in Victory Square, but it seems tonight is a quiet one and nothing is being burned, so late-night cards and a perusal of each others’ scripts will have to do.
Monday 27th February
The rest of the group have a flight back to London later today which apparently cost 99p per person before tax. I don’t know how much less the 5am option was, but I think it’s probably worth it. My own flight is truly at 5am tomorrow and I plan to stay up all night. The students return to school tomorrow, doubtless to receive a glorious mix of adulation and apathy. Harvey requests whether next year this trip can be timed differently so that he can miss the whole of his local Eisteddfod, rather than just one day. I promise to ask the organisers, say goodbye, then head for the hills on a train journey long enough to write the entirety of this report.
3am at Bucharest airport, and thoughts can now turn to the future. Many of us will meet in five weeks’ for another round of mathematics in the more tranquil setting of Cambridge. Meanwhile, I certainly enjoyed, admittedly through red eyes, the entertainment of a flight to Israel where baggage size regulations are actually enforced at the boarding gate, and apparently everyone else made it back safely too.