As Monica Kostreba, 18, leaned out the fourth-floor window of the University of Maryland physics building, Victoria Hartke, 18, and Claire Lanctot, 17 gasped.
Two seconds later the three Immaculata High School students were exuberant. The egg Kostreba dropped out the window had crashed to the ground in record time -- without breaking.
"The egg must hit the ground in the least amount of time in the lightest and smallest container to win the egg-drop contest," explained the judge, Charles Toth, a physics math teacher at Bladensburg Senior High who built the digital timer that recorded the speeds of the eggs.
He was explaining one of eight unusual competitions in the fourth annual regional Physics Olympics, which took place last weekend at the university.
"We had the second-fastest time overall in the egg drop," bragged Hartke. "Monica built the egg's container, which consisted of two Styrofoam cups with lead weights in the bottom and Styrofoam on top of the weights."
Hartke is from Bethesda and Lanctot lives in Kensington.
The Physics Olympics thrilled more than 200 students from 34 area high schools (26 Maryland schools and eight Virginia and D.C. schools) as teams of one to eight members competed.
"Physics is one of those subjects that people generally go 'uuumph' when they think about it, but when they see it put to use like this (the olympics) it helps stimulate interest," said Don Barron, a Wheaton High School physics teacher who has helped with the Physics Olympics since they began in 1978.
Besides the egg-drop contest (won by the team from Rockville's Wooton High School), there were competitions in bridge building, explaining several basic physics theories, building solar furnaces, answering order-of-magnitude questions (how many drops of water are in the Chesapeake Bay?) and the "coathook cannon," which involved launching a projectile to the farthest distance using minimum equipment.
A slow bicycle race and a physics band, consisting of homemade instruments, were also judged.
Teen-agers dashed from room to room shouting commands, words of encouragement or the latest contest results to teammates.
"Don't put the weight down yet!" shouted Eric Messick, 16, of Potomac, to his teammates from Wootton as they applied more weight to their home-made model suspension bridge.
"Someone's got to stop the weight from swinging before we do anything else," Messick continued in the tense moments before the dreaded loud crash when the bridge gave way under 39.44 kilograms of pressure.
The idea of a regional competition grew out of the National Physics Olympics first held in 1975 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Similar events are held in several states, including California, New Jersey and Texas.
"For the last three years the winners of the olympics have gone on to compete in the National Physics Olympics . . . but this year the nationals won't be held," said John Layman, an associate professor of physics and science education at the University of Maryland who has organized the regional event since it began in 1978.
Gary Buckwalter, chairman of the Physics Department of Indiana University said that because many regional olympics are held now, "People don't want to travel as far to go to a national competition."
The competition was designed to allow both superior and average students to see the lighter side of physics, and most of those who came to Saturday's events had a good understanding of physics and a fascination with computers.
Teresa Wong, 17, of Silver Spring, found it easy to build a solar furnace and her teammates from Immaculata Preparatory High School in D.C. found it easy to explain how the device worked.
"Our solar furnace is built with a fresnel lens and an aluminum reflector. It can ignite paper and wood in an instant and reaches 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but that's on a good day," explained Wong, who plans to enter Virginia Polytechnic Institute as an engineering major next fall.
Overcast skies hampered many of the well-made furnaces that lined a sidewalk in front of the physics building. Two teams came shining through, however, as North Hagerstown and South Hagerstown high schools tied for first place in the category.
Inside, a 14-member physics band was warmed up to perform a concert featuring three renditions of "Home on the Range." Throughout the afternoon teams performed for judges on instruments built by the students. No part of the instruments, which ranged from wooden guitars to steel chimes, could be commercially produced. The ensemble from D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson High School took first place.
In another room, young scientists pondered order-of-magnitude questions based on the writings of physicist Enrico Fermi. A similar event, explaining the way various apparatuses worked, was taking place across the hall. The Gaithersburg High School team won both contests.
Overall winners in the olympics were Seneca High School, first place, Cardinal Gibbons High School of Baltimore, second, and North Hagerstown High School, third.
One of the most memorable comments came when Steven Shaver, 16, of Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va. was asked why he participated in the olympics. He said although he hoped to study politics, he was very interested in science. But then his teacher, Bruce Thomas, gave him a puzzled look and laughed, saying:
"Tell it the way it is, Steven. You're doing this for extra credit so you'll pass the course."