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Report of the 32nd International Chemistry Olympiad

By Charles Duan
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Draft 3.0. Cleaned version. Last updated July 18, 2000


The original intent of mine, based on the directions given by the American Chemical Society, was a two-to-three-page double-spaced essay, about 300 words, on my experience at the International Chemistry Olympiad. The result is only accurate to one of the words above. The writing is about eight pages long. It totals over 5,000 words. It is single-spaced. It is not nearly in essay form. And it is not about my experience with either chemistry or an olympiad. This is the story of my experiences with people, with places, with ideas, with cultures foreign to me, the story of how these differences can be accentuatedly remarkable individually, yet fit together in harmony at the same time--this is the story of international.

There is little to discuss about the competition persay; in fact, I skip over any major description of either of the two examinations taken during the two weeks. Half of the writing is dedicated to the three days before the Olympiad even had begun; over a quarter is devoted only to the first day. Why? Because this is the story of my absorbing a new world into myself, into a mind which had never left the continent on which it was born. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the feelings--they hit like you like a brick against a brick wall, tearing down the old expectations and leaving new impressions behind. This is the story of experience.

Read it lightly. Nothing is too serious, even when I am trying to seem so. There is not much depth into which it is possible to read; I generally limit to one or two levels of understanding (although my insistence that I not end a clause with a preposition makes the grammar somewhat strenuous to read). It's long, I know; don't force yourself to get all the way through; go and make a snack right around the time I get to the experimental examination--I promise, we won't go on without you!

And this is the story.

June 29th marked the third time I had traveled without my parents on an airplane--the other two were both in transit to the study camp. By either the grace of God, a serendipitous airline screw-up, or a happy combination of both, my flight from Los Angeles to Toronto was magically upgraded to first class. June 29th marked also the first time I had traveled in an airplane seat large enough to fit two of me.

That was the good part of the day.

Living in California, I rarely get the chance to see lightning. Upon arriving at the Toronto airport, I had the opportunity to see the first real lightning bolt that I had ever witnessed. It was a beautiful sight. Then the captain announced that due to the lightning the airport crew was unable to pull the plane into the gate. I got to watch my lightning show for another two and a half hours.

I will not go into the thrilling and exciting details of our great scavenger hunt through the Toronto Airport. Let it suffice to say that by the time the plane left, we had a full two-thirds of our team on board.

Of course, Dr. Bernstein and Albert did have the last laugh. Having been left behind, they were immediately scheduled for the next flight to Copenhagen--first class all the way. But the rest of us had our fun as well.

In general I have good luck with finding my checked baggage. So does Dr. Szczepanski. David and Luke do not. Unable to unearth even the location of their bags, the two suddenly came to a horrible conclusion--they had absolutely no clean clothes to wear! The airline was gracious enough to give to each of them, in addition to several other wonderful gifts, a lint remover, some toothpaste, and an extra-extra-large T-shirt. No pants, no underwear. We figured the T-shirt size could cover everything.

Dr. Szczepanski had been told that an ATM was present somewhere in the building at which she could purchase Danish currency. During this time, the three of us students endeavored to learn as much of the Danish language as we could, our dictionary being the various directional signs and maps around the building. By the end of our lesson, we could understand words such as "udgang" (exit), "afgang" (departure), "lufthavn" (airport), "København" (Copenhagen), and "taxi" (taxi).

From the lufthavn we took a train to the central station, and from there we waited for a taxi to take us to our hotel. Prior to this trip I took the name "Mercedes" to stand for a very expensive, very luxury car manufacturer. Then I realized that one of the taxis was made by Mercedes. Then I realized that quite a few of the taxis were made my Mercedes. Then I realized that all of the taxis were made by Mercedes.

We had a comfortable ride to the hotel.

When we arrived, the rooms for us were not yet ready, and we were told that we could not check in until 3:00 in the afternoon. We left our luggage at the side of the lobby (we could at once sense that the hotel was not very big; the reception desk, the lobby, and the restaurant were all in the same room) and, armed with umbrellas and emergency ponchos since it was raining, returned to the world of sightseeing around Copenhagen.

The receptionist at the Cab Inn had mentioned a restaurant by the name of Jensens, but since she had given us fairly vague directions, we found ourselves in only a short while not at Jensens but back at the central station. David, Luke and I decided that, while we were there, we should convert our money.

Since a commission is charged for each exchange, we decided that the best way to save money would be to change all of it together. We pooled our resources, added it up, walked up to the cashier, and handed her a nice, large wad of various American bills. She, in return, handed us a number of much more colorful Danish krone bills and several coins. The one, two, and five krone coins have holes through the centers of them. David was very impressed by the coins with holes. The largest coin, worth 20 kroner, is equivalent to over US$2.50. David was also very impressed by the fact that there was a coin worth almost three bucks.

All hungry for some authentic Danish food, we stopped by the local Hard Rock Café. After this we proceeded to the "Wonderful Copenhagen Tourist Bureau" to inquire about some bus tours. The price of one of the more traditional bus tours being a bit high for us, we opted for the bright yellow double-decker "open-top-bus" tour.

It was raining. The top was closed.

At about then the jet-lag began to catch up with Luke, and then David, and then me, as we all managed to fall asleep periodically during the tour. Dr. Szczepanski was quite proud of the fact that she managed to keep her eyes open throughout the whole tour.

We all must have been awake for some part of that tour, though, since none of us failed to hear of the many, many building accomplishments of everybody's favorite monarch, "King Christian...theFourth!" Spoken in that half-broken-English, half-William-Shatner-imitating tone with a three-quarter-second pause between name and suffix, it was a name not easily forgotten--at least by us.

After about a mile--no, wait, we're in Europe--after about 1.6 kilometers of walking, we arrived back at the Cab Inn and could check into our rooms. Or, rather, our room. Four guys on the team, one room. Then we saw the room.

A twin bed is about two meters long by a meter wide. Our room could fit about two and a half twin beds from left to right wall and under two beds from front wall to back. We could barely fit ourselves into the room after the luggage was thrown in--and that was before Albert showed up.

But how do four people fit into a room that small? Easy! Put a bunk bed set over on the right wall (viewing from the door), that takes care of two people. The third bed is a rollaway that fits under the lower bunk bed--that's three. Now take the last bed and perch it right above the doorway, about 3 meters above the ground--remember, an average door is two meters high--and voila! More stuffed than a VW of drunken frat brothers. Hmm, something's missing.

Aha--the bathroom! Throw that one-square-meter area to the right of the door, underneath the highest bed. That's enough area for either a shower or a sink and toilet, but don't you need both? Well, then, why don't we throw them together into the same area! Luke's travel book cited the Cab Inn's design as "highly streamlined." Four beds all at different heights. A combination shower-toilet. Streamlined.

We were somewhat perplexed by the hotel slogan--"Sleep cheap in luxury"--sleeping cheap made sense, but not that last part. The hotel name, the Cab Inn, made sense; I realized that they must have just misspelled it by throwing in an extra "n" at the end and a space in the middle.

It was a few hours later when our fourth team member, Albert, arrived that the Cab Inn. It was a little later when Dr. Bernstein and Dr. Sczcepanski realized that they were hungry and found another desire for authentic Danish food. This time the candidate was pizza. As we read through the list of toppings we attempted to decipher as many of the words as possible--most of them we had seen elsewhere--skinke (ham), ost (cheese), kylling (chicken). We were for quite a while perplexed over one word: løg. Nearly twenty hours would pass until we deciphered this mysterious comestible to be onion.

The pizzas were well-made; the two mentors, David, and I enjoyed them as Albert was not hungry and Luke was asleep. David and I finished our meal and returned to our room. Even with all the sleep we had on the airplanes and the bus tour, we were all feeling the drowsing effects of the time change, the exhaustion from walking, and the change from American to European air composition. The sun was shining as brightly as it could through the clearing rain clouds. It was 9:00 in the evening. Being only eleven latitudinal degrees from the Arctic Circle, the sun went down exceptionally late, and the sky never became fully dark. Unlike the sky, the four of us went out like a light.

I do not remember the exact details of our awakening on Saturday morning. I do remember having my first breakfast at the Cab Inn, the first of what was to be many identical breakfasts. The breads and jams served first at the buffet line were nothing out of the ordinary; the sliced meats were a change but nothing too shocking. I was quite intrigued by the mechanical genius of the cheese slicer--a horizontal wire mounted to spin on a large vertical screw, so as the slicing wire rotated, the block of cheese slowly moved upward to give a perfectly sized slice every time. And then there was the apple juice. I can honestly say that I never drank a single glass of apple juice at the breakfast table. This was, of course, because I would get up to refill my glass and would finish drinking it before I sat down, but I never drank at the table.

For much of the past evening and for much of this morning David had been calling the airport trying to find information on the whereabouts of his, Luke's, and Albert's luggage. (Wow! Between the first-class upgrade and getting all my luggage, I must be pretty lucky! Or maybe all my luck's just been used up early...) As a result, the three of them were in need of clothing to wear. It was thus decided by the mentors and ourselves that we should go in quest of a place from whence we may procure some items of clothing.

A bit of walking brought us to a long pedestrian mall we had passed on the bus tour. We saw a few highly-overpriced American-import stores, including a Levi's with some awful techno music playing in the background (so that's what the Danish think we Americans like), as well as a toy store selling an interesting Lego foosball table, before finding our holy grail of Danish clothing. Hennes & Mauritz, H&M read the sign above as we rushed in, our eyes blazing with the pride of having found not only what we wanted, but what we wanted and at great prices. Good quality shirts and pants at prices around US$5-10. David, of course, recognized the immediate need to go for the necessary and headed straight for the underwear section. Europeans apparently take great pride in their underwear--rather than being shrink-wrapped as it often is in the United States, these were pressed, hung on hangers, and displayed as if they were dress shirts. David was so impressed that he had a picture taken of him displaying his treasures on hangers.

We returned triumphantly to our room only to find that the lost luggage had been returned to the hotel while we were away.

The night before, it had been implicitly decided that David would take the rollaway bed, Luke would take the lowest bunk, I would take the bed above Luke, and Albert would have the perch above the door. Albert and I soon discovered the inconvenience of being so vertically distant from the ground. However, I had brought along a meterstick, partly for luck, partly for a walking support; we used a paperclip and some tape to fashion it into a long hook with which we could acquire items from the lower levels and dispose of others into the garbage. Pretty soon we were not using it merely for practical purposes but for fun as well--we could pick up nearly anything from the ground, including coins, utilizing the holes in the middle of them. I guess that's why the Danish put holes in their change.

At Frederiksberg Gymnasium we registered our team, and then we proceeded to the famous Tivoli Gardens amusement park. Wandering around there for several minutes, we finally came upon the great tower. Reaching higher than any building in the city and covered from top to bottom with gilt paint, this monstrous free-fall machine stood king to all rides in the park. Luke promised to take on the formidable challenge. That day he did not.

Other aspects of Tivoli were not so fearsome, or at least not so tall. Our dinner at an Italian restaurant within the park went quite well; afterward Dr. Bernstein, David, and I treated ourselves each to a six-scoop ice cream cone. Then, at a quarter to midnight, against a cobalt-blue sky, the fireworks show began. Bright as day they were, and colorful as well--we students attempted to match each color to the appropriate metallic flame test, the show running the gamut of lithium, copper, and finally bright white magnesium. The sky fell dark again, and, exhausted from walking the whole day, we returned to the hotel and fell asleep.

It was only a few days earlier that the expansive bridge joining Denmark and Sweden was completed, and on Sunday morning we all decided to take advantage of it. The train ride took about an hour, during which all of us (at least the four students; I'm not sure about the mentors) periodically watched the struts of the bridge go by and during the rest of the time made up for having had to be awake by 7:00. When we arrived in Sweden we had to--guess what!--walk another half-hour before arriving at the castle. Today the six of us can proudly say that we have strong legs.

We arrived back in Denmark at about 5:30, and an hour later we were at the Frederiksberg Gymnasium for the welcome reception and dinner. The welcome reception turned out to be two barely audible, thickly Danish-accented speeches; the dinner was a selection of various hors d'oeuvres. Our team did take advantage of the time to exchange pins--or rather, to give our pins away. The American Chemical Society had provided 600 pins bearing the American flag as gifts for other nations' students; most other nations had brought gifts as well. Unfortunately, most had not brought theirs to the welcome reception, and, in effect, the United States team ended up with a net loss of about 30 items. However, this loss of material items does not compare with our gains in the intangible--many of the students we met through our free giveaway became our companions for the rest of the competition.

Monday marked the official start of the competition, with the opening ceremony at the University of Copenhagen. The usual quorum of speeches were given, and a very fine choral ensemble, known as the Camerata Chorus, delivered a musical performance. Yet as excellent as their voices were, this group could not hold a candle to what we were about to hear.

I own a recorder, a plastic blue toy one that I won at a carnival several years ago. Once in a while I enjoy taking it out, blowing through the mouthpiece, and playing a few simple songs: "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and the like. I did not consider the recorder a real musical instrument. Michala Petri is one of the best recorder players (recordists?) in the world. Her performance has given me infinite respect for that little blue tube with holes that I own. She began with a beautiful slow piece, and then followed it up with a theme and variations étude that would have left Paganini's lightning-speed fingers in the dust. The music was so rapid, so clean, so brilliant, so perfect--one could see what it takes to be the best in the world.

After a reception at the Town Hall, the mentors left the students for the last time for the next week, and the two hundred and eight of us remaining embarked on our bus tour of Copenhagen. Having already seen a tour of the city (or at least as much as we were awake for), the four American students already knew every building and its builder--this, of course, being no great feat as every other great building in Denmark was built by Christian IV. The buses stopped at the statue of the Little Mermaid. Students poured into the little rocky cove by the ocean in which the statue sat, occasionally jumping over the water to pose for a photo by the statue, occasionally attempting to jump over but instead falling into the water. The four of the United States delegation wisely chose to stand behind the side railings and watch the numerous jellyfish that floated in the water, each searching for their next meal of wet chemistry student.

The buses drove to the Danish Technical University for a lecture on safe laboratory techniques. Every student listened intently; no one cared about the safety instructions, but everyone was trying to glean from them a hint about the next day's lab. A large section of the lecture was devoted to how to use a syringe for filtering a solid. After the lecture mounds of students gathered around the demonstration syringes for a chance to try out the technique. Albert gained great renown around the left table by being the first to successfully perform the procedure.

Experimental Examination Day! Bright and early we all rose, twenty minutes before the time of departure, just enough to shower, get dressed, grab a glass of juice for breakfast, run to the bus. An hour's ride brought us back to the Danish Technical University, where the examination was to be held.

There is not much to say about the execution of the lab. I followed the procedure, carefully measured out my quantities, kept my instruments clean, tripped over and crashed a large box of glassware. (Luckily that didn't cost me any points--at least, I think it didn't...) Tired, hungry, and thirsty we students emerged, to large tables in the hallways filled with bottled iced teas, lemon and peach, and boxes of Mars Bars. I, always the stockpiler, took two drinks and six Mars Bars, expecting them to last me to the end of the week. They lasted to the end of the day.

After lunch, reads our "ConciseProgramme," we were to have "Evening in Town with the guides." To most students this meant rest at the hotel and dinner at Burger King. To our guide, this meant freezing her team in ocean water.

Why? First you must understand our guide.

Julie Ussing-Olsen, pronounce the "J" as a "Y," was a 20-year-old student of short stature, medium build, with wavy blond hair and a facial expression that looked as if she had been thwacked in the back of her head with a baseball bat an hour ago and was just beginning to recover from the dizziness. She was perpetually in a mood to party; and never was she one to turn down a sociable drink. Julie made sure she provided for the social aspect of the American delegation's stay, whether we liked it or not.

We arrived at her house, located in a small town outside of Copenhagen, while dinner was being made. After listening to a CD of "Smurf-ized" American music parodies, we were treated to a dinner of a light salad followed by pasta and ketchup. For dessert a large brick of Neapolitan ice cream was cut up and served with some crunchy sugar-puff confections on the side. Following dinner a round of half-court basketball began, during which it was discovered that Luke could beat everyone else, Julie and her brother included, quite possibly with his eyes closed. After an hour of this, Julie decided it was time to go over to the ocean and find the freezing point of the United States team.

Searching through her son's old clothes, Julie's mother conjured up three pairs of swimming trunks; Albert had brought his own. I, being the smallest person, ended up with the trunks that nicely left about nine inches of my upper leg above the knee exposed to that delightfully frigid ocean wind. Julie, Luke, and David ran forward while Albert and I lagged behind, skipping stones across the ocean as we walked. Luke and David initially claimed that there might be jellyfish; Julie claimed that the jellyfish didn't sting. We were willing to agree with her and get in the water on the condition that she find a jellyfish and pick it up. She declined. The four of us were thrown into the water anyway.

I caught a cold that night, and I conveniently recovered the day after the theoretical examination.

Wednesday we visited the Stone Age. At least this is what we were told by our guides, who claimed that we would see men and women dressed in nothing but roughly torn fur pelts, running around in search of food. We did see a woman living in a small farm house, but no savage demi-humans were found. Near the end of our excursion there we came upon a lake with canoes. Several students jumped into the canoes and started paddling around the lake. Julie, Luke, and David got into one such hollowed-out log; I, seeing that the boat was no more than two centimeters above the water level, decided to remain on the side. They never sank. They were lucky. The Thai team was not so lucky. Obviously these accidents were expected to be often, as the lake is only half a meter deep.

Wednesday night a disco dance was held in the Frederiksburg Gymnasium cafeteria. Our team, realizing that the theoretical examination would be the next morning, decided to return to the hotel and study. Many other teams followed suit. The discotheque, I presume, was quite empty.

Theoretical Examination Day! Again, I will not go into the details of taking the exam. They would be even more boring than the lab. I didn't break any glassware.

That evening dinner consisted of sandwiches at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium. I have not made mention yet of the sandwiches, so let me do so here. Apparently, the organizers of the Olympiad organizing committee managed to pull together about a thousand 7-Eleven sandwiches for the sightseeing tours, including such classic titles as Kylling and Bacon, Skinke and Ost, and the Club. (The unfamiliar words are defined above.) During all my walking through Copenhagen I saw on the order of two 7-Eleven stores; I would be surprised if even twenty existed in the entire city. The Olympiad organizers must have been miracle workers to have pulled that many sandwiches out of so few stores.

The show at the planetarium was a montage of numerous aerial shots of mountain climbers, skiers, surfers, and other extreme sports enthusiasts. Feeling already somewhat sick from the sandwich and still recovering from my cold, the film managed to induce motion sickness in me to the point where I could no longer look at the screen. My head still spinning when we arrived at the hotel, I fell asleep quickly that night.

I hear that Luke was out partying until 3:00 in the morning. Unlike me, he must have gotten over his jet lag by Thursday night.

Friday was the visit to the Experimentarium, a large, magnificent science museum with hands-on experiments from wall to wall. Chemistry students rapidly diffused throughout the entire building; Albert and I went from the sound exhibits to the bubble-making department and finally to the water-motion area which, with all the different methods of pumping water exhibited, we found to be the most interesting of all. It was there that we met one of the Mexican students, exchanged gifts with him, and struck up a half-English, half-Spanish conversation with him.

On the beaches of northern Sealand the orienteering race was held. I am incapable of running long distances; apparently my teammates were not; I ended up quite tired after the race. I spent the rest of the evening skipping discus-sized rocks off the ocean waves; the wind was high enough to pick up half-kilogram rocks and to send them jumping up to three feet off the water. Albert searched for rocks to collect off the beach. A few students from other teams decided to go swimming and had their chance to experience the refreshing frigidity of the North Sea.

As the competition came to a close, more and more sightseeing activities were arranged, in order to keep our minds off of the results. On Saturday we took a tour on a canal boat, and then visited Tivoli again. This time Luke fulfilled his promise, and Julie and David went along with him. I, not wishing to view the products of digestion of my dinner, declined a ride on the tower; Albert came to similar reasoning. On Sunday a visit to the castles in northern Sealand was planned; while the rain made the trip fairly uncomfortable, the castles were remarkable works of architecture and history. If only there were such architects in Sweden.

Monday started off with a bang, quite literally. Professor Hans Peter Jensen of the Danish Technical University gave a demonstration lecture of "reactions that are exothermic, occur quickly, and produce gas." By the end of the third demonstration, we had learned to cover our ears before each reaction. By the end of the fifth, we in the first rows had begun to regret sitting so close to the sulfur-dioxide-forming reactions.

And now the end is at hand.

If there is one reason that I like the Danish, it is that they arranged the closing ceremony so that the awards are given out at the beginning, rather than at the end, of the ceremony. Still, though, it is nerve-racking enough to have to sit calmly through nearly a hundred fifty names, just waiting for your own to be called. It is impossible to describe the sheer agony in which I was during the reading of those hundred eleven names before mine, just knowing that each name read means one less medal to go around for everyone else. At about ten seconds to read each name, one quickly realizes that twenty minutes is a long time to hold one's breath.

By the time I could finally breathe normally again, I was outside, our team taking photographs with just about everyone else. David, the top gold medallist, had become an instant celebrity--everybody from team mentors to Thai TV wanted a piece of the best chemist in the world. At least it was bright out, so none of us were blinded by camera flashes.

For a week and a half we had eaten sandwiches and cafeteria food. Not bad, but nothing compared to what we were about to digest at this banquet; this was not merely good food--this was a real gourmet meal. David was so impressed, he photographed the meal. Between his underwear and his dinner, Dave will have an interesting set of photographs.

It was about midnight when we returned to the hotel to pack. I finished packing around 3:00. Realizing that the bus for the airport was to leave at 7:15, I resolved to stay up for the rest of the night. About four minutes later I was asleep.

We flew uneventfully from Copenhagen to Toronto, once the city of our assembly, now the point of our parting. When we reached that final airport, David and I got into a discussion in which he contended that his results at the competition were based on skill; I claimed that they were due to luck. We managed to continue this debate all the way up to my departure.

But in the end, does it really matter whether it was luck or skill? Is the purpose of the International Chemistry Olympiad nothing more than chemistry tests? No! It is the guides, the mentors, the teachers, and most importantly the students who make the event what it really is meant to be: a meeting of representatives of the world, to join in common bonds of friendship, to share not knowledge of science but knowledge of each other. When it all boils down, it is not the competition, it is not the medals, it is not the science, but it is the experience, that is worth it.

The official 32nd International Chemistry Olympiad web site
The US National Chemistry Olympiad website

HCOOH + SOCl2 --> HCOCl + NaI(acetone) --> ICHO!

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