Interview with Wei Ji Ma on the 6th IYPT (1993)

Wei Ji Ma (Whee Ky Ma), participant of the 6th IYPT (1993), gives a detailed interview and scans all handouts, reports, diplomas and notes from his archives.

Download: Wei Ji Ma’s scanned materials in a pdf.

Download: additional Wei Ji Ma’s scanned materials in a pdf (1).

Download: additional Wei Ji Ma’s scanned materials in a pdf (2).

Wei Ji Ma (Whee Ky Ma) was born and grew up in Groningen (the Netherlands) but has his family origins in Shandong (China.)

He earned his PhD degree in string theory at the University of Groningen, working mostly with his advisor Erik Verlinde at the University of Utrecht and Princeton University. From 2002 to 2004, he was a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology and, after that, a postdoc in computational neuroscience at the University of Rochester.

He is currently an assistant professor in Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Wei Ji Ma is the co-founder and Chairman of the Board of the Rural China Education Foundation. He has always been a science and education activist, having founded and coordinated the Complexity in Biology Club at Caltech or the Physics Promotion Team at Groningen. He has multiple interests from chess to politics, theater and classical music.

W.J.M. I think it is great that you are trying to put together the history of the IYPT. I have very warm memories of it. Yes, we were the only “non-Soviet” team at that competition, which made it an even more interesting experience for us. I would certainly be willing to answer your questions. Since it’s long ago, I don’t remember all the details very clearly, but I may be able to find back some old notes etc.

Last week I was back in Holland for a few days, and I took the opportunity to dig up my documentation from IYPT 1993. I scanned most of it.

I.M. All your notes and memories, your report from 1993, as well as scanned diplomas, letters, schedules etc. are very valuable in terms of factual information (dates, names, teams, scores, results). However, they also help understanding the atmosphere of the event, organization procedure etc. :-)

It is fantastic that all these documents have survived and are now available.

I especially value that you have scanned all of your auxiliary notes, including even drafts from Physics Fights. They are very interesting for me and they will be very helpful in the future when it comes to checking minor details and analyzing, e.g., how teams presented themselves and provided peer review (at opposition, review stages.)

How did you become a member of the national Dutch team in 1993? Am I correct that your team leader was Hans Jordens?

W.J.M. We were all classmates (6th grade of high school). They were all aged 18 but I was 14, because I had skipped grades earlier. Our school was Willem Lodewijk Gymnasium (“gymnasium” meaning something like the British “grammar school”), located in Groningen, a city in the north part of the Netherlands. Our coach was our school’s physics teacher, Sjoerd Falkena.

You are right that we were also accompanied by the organizer of the Dutch Physics Olympiad (now president of the International Physics Olympiad), Hans Jordens. He was and is a lecturer at the University of Groningen.

I.M. If possible, can you recall the names of your team mates? Who was the team captain? (Such information is of great importance to the IYPT archives and has already proven to help people to establish contacts with friends/colleagues/affiliates).

W.J.M. The Dutch team consisted of:

  • Chris Bakker
  • David Gerds
  • Chris Jetten
  • Petra Jochemsen
  • and myself (Whee Ky Ma).

Originally, Peter Haadsma was part of our team, but because he couldn’t make it, he was replaced by Petra Jochemsen.

I.M. Was there a selection or a local Tournament?

W.J.M. We had earned our place in the IYPT by winning the national final, held at the University of Groningen on June 11-12, 1993. The other two finalists were the Bogermancollege from Sneek (a small town), and the Stedelijke Scholengemeenschap Middelburg from Middelburg, a town in the far south of the Netherlands.

These three schools had earned their places in the national final on the basis of the sum of the scores of their best five students in the first round, which was an individual competition held on January 20, 1993. Our scores: Peter Haadsma – 49; David Gerds – 45; Chris Bakker – 45; Chris Jetten – 41; Whee Ky Ma – 38; Petra Jochemsen – 37. The maximum possible score was 70. The national average score was 23.6. Because Peter Haadsma dropped out, Petra Jochemsen replaced him. Total scores of the best five students: Willem Lodewijk Gymnasium – 218; Bogermancollege – 218; Stedelijke Scholengemeenschap Middelburg – 200.

Apart from the national final for school teams, individual scores were also used to select the participants of the national individual final (I believe the highest 20 scores from around the country were selected). From our school, only Peter Haadsma (49) made it to the individual national final, from June 1-8 in Utrecht, the Netherlands. That national final was used for qualification for the international individual competition, which according to my information was held in Williamsburg, Virginia, USA, from July 10-17, 1993.

I.M. When did you first learn about the IYPT? How much time did you have for preparation?

W.J.M. Our teacher Falkena received our scores in March of 1993. Then it became known that we would participate in the national final. We had from then (end of March) till June 12-13 to prepare for the national final, and only a few days between the national final and leaving for Protvino. In those days, we had to translate everything into English.

I.M. How exactly did your team organize preparation? Did you have joint meetings, collaborative experiments or, for example, everyone worked on their own problems? Did you practice evening “braining storms” to improve your reports when already at the IYPT?

W.J.M. We were all in the same school and we saw each other every day. We worked mostly in teams on problems, but I remember that I prepared “Gravitation” mostly by myself. During the tournament, we still worked on our presentations.

I.M. Did you have any support from Groningen and/or Utrecht Universities when preparing to the IYPT? (such as access to laboratories, consultations etc.)?

W.J.M. We were not helped formally by the university in our preparation, but I myself had one meeting with a physics professor at the University of Groningen to talk about a few of our solutions. Utrecht University was not involved at all. Also, the principal of our school had a PhD in physics and he helped us a bit.

I.M. How were organized the interpretation and/or translation services for your team? Did a special person assist your team at Physics Fights?

W.J.M. I believe we always had a translator working with our team. This worked very well. I don’t remember any difficulties. We were the only team that presented in English. I don’t remember if other teams also had translators, but I believe not. In our free time, we talked with other teams in English. My report from July 1993 says: “The communication language was English, which was generally spoken well. Who didn’t speak English, did speak French.”

I.M. Belarusian team leader Leonid Markovich (in a 1992 article) and Ukrainian team member Alexander Morozov (in a 2008 discussion) warmly recall that the Dutch team used a laptop and an unknown “portable plotter” that helped to quickly prepare overhead transparencies. What was that “portable plotter” in fact? An early laser printer or…?

Alexander Morozov writes: “In 1993, the team of Netherlands brought a laptop with PowerPoint presentations. I am very doubtful of how they showed it. If I am not mistaken there might have been a technique of projecting the slides with a common overhear projector. Unfortunately I don’t remember that clearly, but it is even possible that they had a laptop with a transparent LCD panel that allowed projection to the screen when placed on the overhead”.

As far as I can guess, this was the earliest ever multimedia aid for a IYPT report. :-)

However, even earlier, there were people who used computers for numerical simulations. In 1988, Yury Yufryakov used a Soviet 8-bit home computer, with a CPU running at 1.77 Mhz and 32 Kb RAM, to simulate gravitational waves on water.

W.J.M. The electronic presentation tool: yes, I vaguely remember it. It was a handheld device that could be put on an overhead projector and project directly onto the screen. Hans Jordens would know the details. Looking back, I think this may have been an unfair advantage, as the other teams were not in a situation where they had access to such technology.

I.M. How attentively did the jury focus on the novelty and originality of reports? Did the teams consider their reports as “solutions” or as “research projects”?

W.J.M. As far as I remember, the jury paid a lot of attention to this. They didn’t require complete and perfect solutions but they did value a logical thinking process and thorough background research. I remember giving a presentation about “Unification” (third round), when the opponent team (Hungary) asked why accelerators use protons and not electrons. I had absolutely no clue but the opponent team then wrote down an equation that answered the question (I believe it was about energy loss). They got high scores, while we got low scores (see page 22). This was deserved, and I felt very bad about it afterwards. My teammates cheered me up.

I.M. What problems did your team report at the event? What curious or unexpected experimental/theoretical results can you recall?

W.J.M. I still have my complete text of my “Gravitation” presentation. If you want it, I can send it to you next time I visit the Netherlands. I also have some notes from other problems, but nothing that seems particularly interesting.

I.M. Can you identify what problems were discussed by Georgian, Ukrainian
and Hungarian teams in the Final Fight?

W.J.M. Georgia presented “Dominoes” in the final. I don’t recall (and didn’t write down) what other problems were presented in the final.

I.M. Were you somehow affiliated with the 7th IYPT in Groningen? (As a
guest, visitor, juror, team leader?) Did you take part at the 5th IYPT (1992)?

W.J.M. I did not participate in any form in either. However, I was a jury member for the national final in 1994, I believe.

I.M. What was the position of your team in ranking tables? It seems that your notes taken at PFs can help finding out many details on the schedule and on the results of the IYPT.

W.J.M. Round information:

  1. First round: with Lugansk and Poland (Warsaw)
  2. Second round: with Novgorod and Odessa
  3. Third round: with Poland (Quark) and Hungary
  4. Fourth round: with Belarus and Jekaterinenburg
  5. Semifinals: with Ukraine and Poland (Warsaw). The semifinals scores are listed on page 30 of the pdf: Ukraine – 262; Holland – 257.4; Poland – 260.4. So it was very close.

We did not go through to the finals. The finals were held in front of everybody in a big lecture hall. Hungary, Ukraine, and Georgia were in the finals. Eventually, Georgia won, but Ukraine was close.

I.M. Do you think that the IYPT has provided you with any useful skills (such as presentation techniques)?

W.J.M. Skills: yes, I benefited a lot from IYPT in many ways. I learned some advanced physics, I practiced my presentation skills, but most of all, I set my first steps on the road of knowing people who were different from the ones I was usually surrounded by.

I.M. In your opinion, was the 6th IYPT primarily a “competition” with teams mostly motivated to win, or a “physics discussion club”, or a “conference”, or a “science fair” where the key interest was in physics behind the problems?

W.J.M. Mostly a competition in which every team tried their best to win. However, the relations between the teams were very good and as I mentioned, I made many friends. For me it was also a community of like-minded people, who came from different parts of the world, brought together by their passion for physics.

I.M. What overall impressions did the Tournament leave on you?

W.J.M. The IYPT made a huge impact on my life. I had already decided earlier that I wanted to study physics, but I was even more convinced after the tournament. I ended up doing both my undergraduate studies and PhD in physics (string theory, with Erik Verlinde), although I am now in theoretical neuroscience. Most importantly, the IYPT brought me in contact with wonderful people from many different backgrounds – I got a glimpse of how big the world is.

You might also find it interesting to know that I wrote in my report afterwards, “My personal impression is that the mentality of Eastern Europeans is completely different from ours in the West. This mostly meant that the self-righteousness and arrogance which are so clearly present here, were much less with them.” This is an impression I have seen confirmed later in life (speaking in crude generalizations) – that Eastern Europeans tended to have deeper friendships, be more genuine, and be less jaded than Westerners.

During the tournament, sometimes I felt more connected to people from other teams than to my own teammates. (In retrospect, this may have had to do with the fact that I am ethnically Chinese though born and raised in the Netherlands, while my teammates were all Dutch.)

I.M. You mentioned that you have acquired new friends during the IYPT.

W.J.M. I remember playing chess with Denis Irinisth several times. I also believe there was a really pretty girl on either his or on the Hungarian team (or one on both?) whom I was quite smitten by, but I have no evidence to prove this. :-)

Unfortunately I have not kept in touch with Denis Irinisth. I believe he ended up studying physics at the Lomonosov State University in Moscow. If you hear about him from other participants, please let me know!

I.M. I searched for Denis in Russian language and have found some details. He graduated from the Department of Physics, Moscow State University in 1999, he still actively plays chess and recently played at Chessserver.ru, he is no. 61 among 610 participants in their ranking table, he is mentioned as marketing director at Irbis, he is also briefly mentioned as a Novgorod-born Brain-Ring player (an intellectual game, relatively popular in Russia in 1990s) in a LJ entry, there is even a photo, but he is not mentioned as a person on this photo.

W.J.M. Thanks a lot for digging up so much information about Denis!

I.M. Both English and Dutch versions of the problems mention Henry Kissinger as a problem author. Do you feel that it might have been a humorous hoax to be revealed by IYPT participants, or something else?

W.J.M. The English and Dutch versions do not mention “Henry Kissinger”, only “H. Kissinger”. It could be that there is someone else with that name. However, another possibility that I am thinking of is that it is related to problem 6, “Gagarin’s record”. “Suggest the cheapest way of beating this record.” In 1961, Kissinger was Director of the Harvard Defense Studies Program and Director of the Harvard International Seminar. I can imagine that after Gagarin’s success, Kissinger said something about the US having to beat the achievement. I don’t know what and I can’t find any references, but it is possible. You would have to ask the other problem writers from that year.

I.M. It is unlikely that an IYPT activist with that name ever existed. :-) But your other explanation indeed seems to be very realistic.

W.J.M. I do have a few more pages of auxiliary notes, which I did not scan because they did not contain any scores and/or were in Dutch. Let me know if you want them.

I.M. I am not a fluent Dutch speaker, but I can always pick up all necessary details from a page in an unfamiliar language. :-) I would greatly appreciate if you can scan any additional pages and the text of your research project from 1993. It is not very urgent but it is very likely to be helpful in the future. :-)

W.J.M. I am glad that my documents are helpful to you. I would be happy to answer more questions. For me, recalling those days has been very nostalgic – I have very warm memories of the tournament. Thank you for all your research work and for reaching out to participants. If at any point there is a reunion of some sort, I would be happy to join.

I.M. Thank you once again for your great work and for so much information on the 6th IYPT.

W.J.M. It is wonderful that the IYPT has evolved so much through the 1990s and is now still a respected event. I wish you all the best in documenting its history.

W.J.M. The PDF file has the following information:

1. Page 1: the two diplomas I received. One is the first prize I received for presenting Problem 2, “Gravitation”. The second is for our team’s ranking. I believe they are signed by Yunosov but you can read that better than me.

2. Page 2-3: schedule in Russian and English (our team received both versions). You can see that the dates of June 18-25, 1993 are exactly correct.

3. Page 4: invitation letter from Hans Jordens to the team leaders of the 3 schools participating in the national final. He lists the invited countries (besides Russia): Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Great Britain, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Now this was information from May 19th, 1993. This was certainly not the list of participating countries in the actual tournament. I am 100% sure that we were the only team from a Western European country. That means that France, Great Britain, and Italy did not participate for sure. All other countries listed there did participate, some with multiple teams. In total, there were 18 teams according to a report I wrote right after the tournament (discussed below). In the last line, the letter mentions the dates of the national final: June 11-12. The abbreviation SNON means Stichting Natuurkunde Olympiade Nederland, which means Foundation Physics Olympiad Netherlands – they organized all physics olympiad-related events in the Netherlands.

4. Page 5: the certificate given to our team for winning the national final.

5. Page 6-7: problems in English; I believe this English translation was provided to Hans Jordens by the Russian organization. It mentions that the problems were designed by S. Varlamov, H. Kissinger, T. Korneeva, E. Pikersgill, E.Surkov, E. Yunusov, and A. Yarov.

6. Page 8-10: problems in Dutch. They were translated into Dutch by Hans Jordens. The translation seems to be accurate.

7. Page 11: names and addresses of some participants from other teams whom I befriended during the tournament. With Irinisth Denis from Novgorod I stayed in touch for a while afterwards – he was a chess player, like me. People listed: Denis Irinisth (Novgorod), Akmal Nartaev (Uzbekistan), Dima Cougasov (Ukraine), and Aleksey Alkhunsuev (Russia II). I remember finding it incredibly interesting to meet people from many different countries and cultures. I had never met anyone from Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union before, so it was fascinating.

8. Page 12-16: letter from SNON (Hans Jordens) to all teachers of schools participating in the first round. On page 13, you see the ranking of the schools based on the summed scores of their best 5 students. Page 14 shows the individual results of the students from my school, the Willem Lodewijk Gymnasium. (Note that Peter’s last name is misspelled, it should be Haadsma.) Page 15 is the histogram of scores for the first round, across the country. Page 16 shows the histogram of the sums of the scores of the best 5 students of each shool (mean: 109). Note that the maximum possible individual score was 70, so the maximum possible score for a school was 350.

9. Page 17-20: Report I wrote after coming back from the tournament (in July 1993) for our school and for anyone interested (I forgot if it was sent to anyone outside of our school). It is in Dutch but I can translate it if it is important to you. The report discusses our preparation, the trip, how we experienced our stay, how the tournament went for us, etc. Some key points:

  1. On page 17, it is confirmed that we were the only Western team. Literally, I wrote at the time “France, Great Britain, and Italy didn’t show up”. A few lines below it says “In total, there were 18 teams, sometimes multiple from one country. The day after our arrival, the tournament was opened by Yunosov, the great organizer of the entire event.”
  2. On page 19, there are two tables. The upper table shows which problems were presented in each round (in our poule, of course). Rows are the rounds (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, semifinal), columns are the 3 different roles (presenter, opponent, reviewer), and entries are the name of the problem and in parentheses the initial of our team’s representative (you can match these initials with the names mentioned above). In the lower table, you can see again (and more neatly) which teams we met in each round.
  3. On page 19, right above the first table, I wrote that the jury in the final seemed to be somewhat biased towards Georgia, as they rated their presentation about the “Dominoes” problem very highly, which I apparently thought they didn’t deserve. I felt quite strongly about this, since I wrote a full paragraph about it in the report; however, it could well be that my judgment at the time was completely mistaken.
  4. Right below the second table (continued on page 20), I describe the closing of the tournament. “The closing of the tournament was very cozy and amusing. Jordens announced that next year, the tournament would be held in the Netherlands, and Chris Bakker demonstrated the entertaining Mechanics Experiment that we had not been able to present (an “accelerator” using small magnets). Subsequently, the prizegiving took place, in which we received a third prize; some of us also got a personal diploma and a book about Polenovo, a town nearby, where an excursion of the parallel program for the non-semifinalsists had been to. Also, some individual prizes were awarded, among which I received one for the presentation about gravitation.” The Mechanics Experiment refers to what we had prepared for “Think up a problem yourself” (problem 1). I remember being very surprised to be called forward for the individual prize for my presentation of “Gravitation”. The book about Polenovo I still have in my home in Holland.
  5. On page 18, last paragraph, and page 19, first paragraph, I describe our excursions to Moscow, where the metro made a deep impression on me, and the accelerator: “In between [between rounds 3 and 4], on Monday, we had held an excursion to Moscow. After arrival we got a not particularly interesting tour over the Kremlin terrain and several cathedrals there. After that, we had lunch and went into the city by metro. The metro was going very fast. Although something underground always seems to be going faster that it does in realitym because there is no good point of reference, still the speed was very high. Allegedly, 100 to 120 km/hr. The metro is an important prestige object of the Russian state. The metro stations were indeed very beautiful. A ticket for the metro cost 4 rubles (June 1993: 1 guilder is approximately 0.53 dollar is approximately 630 rubles, therefore 1 ruble is approximately 0.16 cent). We visited by ourselves a department store, ZUM, where they sold little else but clothes. After that we traveled back to our hotel.
    The next day there was an excursion to the accelerator. A newer, bigger one was under construction. We got an extremely detailed and drawn-out tour. The afternoon after that, the fourth round took place.”
    Let me add to this that in Moscow I bought a matrushka (the wooden doll which contains a sequence of smaller dolls) for my mom, who still has it. The schedule (p.3) also lists excursions to Polenovo and to Serpukhov, but as you can see i marked them with a “-”, and according to the mini-legend I added on top, that means “not done”.

10. Page 21-30: notes from the tournament. They are very messy and partially in Dutch, but I decided to include them anyway, because they mention which teams we met in each round, and almost all complete scores (in case you are really interested in the details…). Pr or P stands for Presenter, O or Opp for Opponent, and B or Beoor voor Reviewer (in Dutch: Beoordelaar).

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