Siemens High School Science Awards
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It takes a special kind of teenager to devote the senior year of high school to sick worms, blinking stars or amorous monkeys. But those were among the projects at one of the nation's top science fairs this weekend. The Siemens competition awarded its half million dollars in scholarships to the winners this morning in New York.
And NPR's Robert Smith went for a science lesson.
ROBERT SMITH: Like young people everywhere, Arjun Ramamurti spends a lot of time thinking about mating rituals. In fact, if you ask nicely, he can show off the various dances of a monkey in heat.
Mr. ARJUN RAMAMURTI: One of them is like this, for example.
SMITH: Okay. You're waving your head.
Mr. RAMAMURTI: And other ones are a little bit too profane I think to do for you.
SMITH: You would have to bend over?
Mr. RAMAMURTI: Yes. That's one of the most common ones, to see the female bend over.
SMITH: There is of course a serious reason for all the monkey pornography. Ramamurti project was to genetically trace back different species of Guenon monkeys with their complicated mating signals until he found, no kidding here, the probable location of the monkey Adam and Eve.
Mr. RAMAMURTI: Yup. I find where the Guenon monkey separated from the rest of the monkeys, all the other monkeys in the world and set up on its own merry way.
SMITH: So, this monkey Adam, do we know when or we he lived?
Mr. RAMAMURTI: This monkey Adam probably lived in Central Africa, and this is about three million years ago that all of this occurred.
SMITH: Three million years ago?
Mr. RAMAMURTI: So it's pretty recent stuff.
SMITH: Ramamurti was of 20 of the nation's brightest science and math students who traveled to New York City this weekend to show off their research. There was no way to wander around the exhibition without thinking that you probably wasted your high school years. Unless, like Dominic Ludovici, who happened to find a few new objects in space.
Mr. DOMINIC LUDOVICI: I discovered three new pulsars and redetected 11 known pulsars.
SMITH: Three new pulsars?
Mr. LUDOVICI: Yes.
SMITH: So that brings a total up to like 10, 15 pulsars.
Mr. LUDOVICI: Or, around 1,700.
SMITH: Did we really need more pulsars?
Mr. LUDOVICI: Yes. The pulsars are essential for studying many things like Einstein's general theory of relativity. The more we find, the more knowledge we can gain about our universe.
SMITH: And no, he didn't get to name the new pulsars after himself. Unless his middle name is -
Mr. LUDOVICI: J-2210+5501. Not very exciting.
SMITH: Excitement here is relative. Worm lovers, for instance, will rejoice over Elizabeth Monier has found a way to alter a worm's genes so it won't get Parkinson's disease. How do you exactly find a worm with Parkinson's?
Ms. ELIZABETH MONIER: Well, it sounds a little cruel, but I gave him Parkinson's, in essence. I exposed him to a chemical that induced Parkinson's in theory.
SMITH: And so did they act any different?
MS. MONIER: They can't exactly tremor, but they did have problems with movement.
SMITH: It's not just about worms. Monier's results could lead to a way to combat Parkinson's in humans. Other projects had similar lofty ambitions. There was a team from Hawaii that found a more accurate way to detect certain cancers, and a teenager from Upstate New York who's helping to develop more sensitive chemical detectors for Homeland Security.
But in the end, the top prize, a $100,000 scholarship, went to someone who had never even set foot in a laboratory or even got his hands dirty.
Unidentified Man: Congratulations. Dmitry Weintraub.
SMITH: Weintraub did a mathematics project that is quite literally incomprehensible to anyone without a math PhD.
Okay, here's a little hint. He found a way to link the baffling field of topology to the perplexing field of abstract algebra. Yeah. To hear him explain it is like listening to someone recite poetry in Russian.
Mr. DMITRY WEINRAUB: (Speaking foreign language)
SMITH: Which is actually one of Weintraub's hobby back in Eugene, Oregon. Weintraub's mother is a Pushkin scholar and his father is a mathematician. And the 18-year-old says there's actually a lot in common between the two fields.
Mr. WEINTRAUB: I think that really beautiful mathematics is when you're thinking about something and it fits. I think it is the same with poetry, with Russian poetry, which I love most, which always has rhythm and meter. You read a poem and you see that it fits.
SMITH: Weintraub has already applied to Harvard. It might help his application that one of the judges, a Harvard professor of mathematics, called him a brilliant young mathematician who solved an insanely difficult problem.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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