The physics teachers bearing clipboards--the all-powerful
judges--are almost an hour late and the waiting is making Dmytro Taranovsky's puffy 15-year-old fingers shake as he tinkers with his calculator.
Steven Hassani, an 18-year-old from Springfield, is nervous, too. He pops open a can of iced tea and gulps it down with a candy bar. Near him, a mellow Peter Onyisi, 17, of Arlington, tosses around a small ball.
"Where are they?" Dmytro, a sophomore at Long Reach High School in Columbia, mumbles as he sits Saturday afternoon with 23 other members of the United States Physics Team inside the American Institute of Physics in College Park.
The teenagers have just finished a week-long "physics boot camp," complete with long lectures on detecting subatomic particles and learning oscillations and waves. There are also "mystery labs" where the students are asked on demand to, say, study the decay of radioactive sources.
It's the type of place where, in the last few minutes of class on Friday, a teacher said he wanted to "briefly explain atmospheric neutrinos," the most elusive particles in the universe. It's a place where a note about a missing calculator gets this response from a student: "They put that up without saying what model calculator?"
The students, who are judged on lab and test scores, are waiting to find out which of them will be selected for the International Physics Olympiad next month in Italy. It's like an Olympics for baby geniuses.
Finally, over the buzz of students playing cards and scarfing down handfuls of M&M's and Nerds, the judges arrive and announce that it's time.
Dmytro, Peter and Steven--the only three local students in the competition--shuffle in. The odds of them all being selected are weak. Only five students will make the team.
For the young and gifted in athletics, arts and academics, moments like these are common. They have big brains but young hearts.
Some will leave the room teary-eyed, unable to enjoy the camp's make-your-own sundae party and "Star Trek" movie night. Others will find that winning can bring its own challenges, with telephone book-size physics manuals to carry home and four more weeks of studying. Either way, handling the news can be harder than some of the camp's toughest lab problems.
"They [prodigies] need to learn that they can be loved for what they are, not what they do," says Ronald Costell of the local branch of the Metropolitan Society for Adolescent Psychiatry. "It's not an easy thing for adults or teenagers."
During the selection ceremony, sponsors from the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Institute of Physics try to keep the atmosphere light. They constantly stress that simply having made the national team--the students were selected by a series of tests--is a great honor.
Inside the announcement room, the judges are holding calculators and scraps of paper with hand-written notes.
Steven, Dmytro and Peter take their seats. Each bows his head and waits.
When the names are called, only Peter is chosen.
After the first wave of shock, Dmytro, Peter and Steven admit that learning to solve the mysteries of light, sound and heat is usually worth the stress.
A shy boy with thin blond hair and red cheeks, Dmytro became interested in physics after he was warned by doctors not to play outside. He was living in Ukraine; his lungs were weak from the area's nuclear spills.
"He couldn't walk for a long time," says his mother, Nadiya Taranovska. "So he looked at books."
When his family settled in Columbia in 1996, Dmytro was so serious about his studies that he once wrote a letter to the author of his physics textbook. (The answer to a problem was wrong.)
For Peter, a track team member from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite private school in New Hampshire, this is a second chance. Last year the slender young man with the trimmed Afro went on to the International Olympiad and picked up a bronze medal. This year, he could go for the gold.
Born to a Nigerian college professor and an American mother in the foreign service, Peter has been a citizen of the world. He is charming and says things like, "Last night I stayed up trying to figure out the shape for tides caused by the moon. Just for a lark."
Being one of the few minorities in physics has never meant much to him. "In Nigeria, I was different for being half white," Peter says. "Worrying about it is not something that's in my worldview."
Born in Iran and raised in Fairfax County, Steven, a husky teen with jet black hair, can hardly believe that he made the national team.
"I've finally found something which I don't stink at," he wrote on the camp's Web site.
When he was younger, teachers suggested private school for the gifted youth, but the cost was too high. His father, an auto mechanic, wished he could afford it, but he was busy trying to pay basic bills. Since then Steven has found ways to earn money. He was 15 when he became a Microsoft certified systems engineer, a credential that requires passing a series of six tests that even college graduates struggle with. Going to the International Olympiad would have been another achievement.
But this is Peter's time, and he gently smiles and goes off to call his parents. He will start looking over the practice problems that night.
Dmytro stares at the floor and stands alone. But through moist eyes he says he will try again next year.
And Steven is talking about working on his certification to make networking hardware.
"Life is about the perfection of character," he says, looking around the room at his peers. "That's the awesome stuff."
CAPTION: Peter Onyisi of Arlington, a member of the U.S. Physics Team, measures nuclear reactions.