Milk trucks, hurricanes, hidden planets, brain seizures and microscopically thin fiber-optic strands put five Montgomery County high school students into the finals of a prestigious competition on display yesterday at the National Academy of Sciences.
Abigail A. Fraeman, 17, of Olney grew interested in astronomy when she got a telescope in third grade.
"It's basically about guaranteed efficiency," Michael A. Forbes, 16, of Silver Spring explained.
In his project in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search, Forbes investigated the subtleties of a computer science problem. The idea was to find the most efficient delivery route for a single vehicle -- in this case a milk truck -- when the levels of supply and demand are different.
To figure this out, he developed algorithms, a series of repeated directions in a computer program -- "It's sort of like 'lather, rinse, repeat,' " he said -- and mapped the transportation routes.
The results, titled "Capacitated Vehicle Routing and the k-Delivery, n-Traveling Salesperson Problem," suggested ways in which the cold logic of mathematics could address the age-old problem of sour milk.
Some other math of interest: Forbes and four other seniors from Montgomery Blair High School accounted for 12.5 percent of the 40 finalists chosen from about 1,600 entries in a national competition. Ten winners will be announced tomorrow.
The other area finalists are Abigail A. Fraeman, 17, of Olney; Sherri Y. Geng, 18, of Rockville; Justin A. Kovac, 17, who graduated from Montgomery Blair in January and lives in Miami; and Albert Tsao, 17, of Potomac.
The finalists' exhibits sometimes featured high-tech displays with video monitors, but most were crammed onto cardboard or foam-board triptychs like projects at any science fair.
But their arcane topics often sounded like the stuff of comic books: "Autonomous Gyropscopic Ocean-Wave-Powered Generator," "Self-Assembling Nanocircuitry Using Liquid Crystal Solvents," "On Super Calabi-Yau Manifolds."
"If anyone wants a roller coaster ride, perhaps?" said David L.V. Bauer, 17, of New York, as he handed a set of 3-D-computer goggles to passersby. His video-enhanced exhibit suggested a new way to detect neurotoxins such as nerve gas. Inspired by two emergency medical technicians who worked at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he explored the interaction between a glowing nanocrystal and a key enzyme in neurotransmitters.
"It's the Achilles' heel of our nervous system," he said.
Nearby, Tsao, who left Montgomery Blair for a Massachusetts school to work over the summer at Harvard University's lab, showed off microfibers he had developed. They are created by starting with silicon optical fibers 125 microns thick -- about the size of a human hair -- and creating new ones so small -- 100 nanometers -- that light cannot fit inside them. Mostly, they look like scratches on a compact disc. Only a handful of people are currently making them.
"It's almost like a black art," Tsao said.
Across the hall was Fraeman, who examined a cluster of comets around a distant star and concluded that their presence suggested a hidden, Jupiter-sized planet. Fraeman, who also fences and is performing in a school musical, said she fell in love with astronomy in third grade when her father brought home a telescope and showed her Saturn's rings.
Beside her was Geng, whose experience with a benign tumor increased her interest in medicine. She had created a way of crunching electroencephalogram data to analyze the severity of brain seizures. She is seeking a patent.
Kovac studied warm pools of water in the Gulf of Mexico and their connection to hurricanes.
Like other finalists, Forbes spent a lot of time yesterday fielding questions about his milk trucks from professional researchers twice his age. As his throat grew scratchy, his mother, Lorraine Daly, 49, of Olney went off to find a throat lozenge for him.
"It's kind of amazing to see this side of him," Daly said. "At home, I just see the messy clothes lying round. And then I come here and see this."