The National Science Bowl is a science and math trivia competition run by the U.S. Department of Energy. More than 9,000 high school students and thousands of teams from all over the nation compete first in a regional competition to clinch an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. for the national finals.
The competition format is very similar to University Challenge, a British trivia show in which many universities and colleges in England compete. Teams are comprised of four players, one of whom serves as the captain. Starter or “toss-up” questions are asked by moderators in subject areas including mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, earth science, astronomy, and energy. Questions can be either multiple choice or short answer. Buzzing in and getting a starter right earns you 4 points. You can interrupt the moderator as he asks the question to give an answer quicker, but if you’re incorrect, the other team gets 4 points and gets a chance to answer the starter for themselves for another 4 points. If you get the starter question correct, you get an additional bonus question in the same category as the starter for 10 points. Unlike the starter, you can confer with your teammates, but only the captain is allowed to deliver the final answer.
Personally, I think this scoring system is slightly absurd. The value of a bonus is 2.5 times greater than a starter, which means that even if a team is thirty points ahead, the other team only has to string together two lucky starters and bonus questions to put themselves back in the game. (A team can potentially earn 18 points from a single question!) Some very interesting comebacks happened today because of this exact scoring system. The truth is that the name of the game is to secure starter questions for your team, as starter questions are a gateway to the high-scoring bonus questions. For exceptionally competitive teams, most of the meta revolves around interrupting the toss-ups in an optimal way so that you buzz before the other team and have a high probability of getting the toss-up correct. Here’s an example: in the final, an energy multiple-choice question was read. (There are four possible choices; w, x, y, or z.) The Farmingdale captain buzzed as soon as the second choice was beginning to be read, knowing well that the reader would finish reading the second choice due to suboptimal reflexes. Knowing that the first two choices were incorrect, the captain guessed choice z correctly without even hearing choice y. For him, the 50/50 chance was well worth the chance to answer the bonus.
But enough of the minute details in strategy. I want to talk about how the actual event played out for my team, Walt Whitman High School, as well as the other teams from Long Island.
This year’s regional competition was held in Brookhaven National Labs in Upton, New York. It’s quite an impressive campus. Thousands of employees work there annually, while thousands more scientists come here as guests for their research. The most well-known building is probably the National Synchotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), a $912 million project that allows scientists to image fundamental particles and materials with extreme intensity, among other things. Our competition was held in Berkner Hall, a more modest convention center.
My team’s day started around 8 AM in the auditorium where we were welcomed to the NSB and briefed on the competition rules.
After that, everyone split for their first round-robin match. There were twenty high school teams that were divided into groups of five: Group A, B, C, and D. We found ourselves in Group B with Farmingdale, Stony Brook, Jericho, and Huntington. It turns out our first match of the day was in the auditorium itself against Stony Brook.
Here’s a perspective with me at the table. “Seat three” was a position I would assume for the rest of the competition. I like edge seats.
Round 1: (0-1) Stony Brook 28 – 66 Whitman (1-0)
Another note on how matches are scored: matches are broken up into eight-minute halves with a two-minute break in between. During this break, coaches are allowed to talk with their team and substitute players are allowed to replace teammates. We had a relatively small lead at the half due to some first-time nerves and interrupting too many starters. We calmed down in the second half and extended our lead enough to finish with a comfortable win.
“The separation of fingers and toes in a human embryo is due to what highly controlled-interrupt-B three.”
“That is correct.”
Our second match was held in a less dramatic venue called “Room D.” It was quite small and required no microphones. This was Huntington’s first match, which was unfortunate since they forfeited their first match to Farmingdale since they came late.
Round 2: (0-2) Huntington 28 – 54 Whitman (2-0)
To be honest, this match was pretty much a repeat of the first round, except we were able to keep our composure a bit more and gave away fewer free points due to interrupts.
“The citric acid cycle is a series of chemical reactions that takes place in which biological process? w. aerobic respiration, y. lactic acid fermentation-interrupt-B captain.”
“That is correct.”
We have a fairly well-rounded team. Mark specializes in biology, Zenab is an all-rounder, Alex is very talented in math, physics, and some esoteric general science, Shelbi does chemistry, and I specialize in math, physics, and some biology.
Mark Theodore Meneses, a junior, in the flesh.
Our coach Scardapane gives me a thumbs up.
Round 3 was a bye for us, which meant we got to sit out and watch the other four teams in our group duke it out. Farmingdale, the favorite to win the whole thing, was sitting rather comfortably at two wins and no losses, and they would improve it to three this round. We decided to watch Jericho (left) vs. Huntington (right) in the auditorium. Surprisingly, Huntington destroyed Jericho by about 50 points, something I surely didn’t expect as Jericho is a pretty well-respected high school.
The back of the Jericho squad’s matching Science Bowl shirts say, “National Science Bowl: when your personal best isn’t good enough.”
Back to Room D for the fourth round.
Round 4: (1-2) Jericho 72 – 76 Whitman (3-0)
This was the closest match we had by far. We were trailing 22-44 at the half. Scardapane told us to calm down and play smart. And play smart we did: we gave away no free points in the second half and strung three bonuses together in a row to surge to an 18 point lead. With thirty seconds remaining, Jericho got a starter and took the remaining time to answer the bonus correctly. Thankfully, the time ran out before the moderator could start another question; if Jericho had secured one more starter they could have triumphed in a buzzer beater. Lots of handshakes and “good games” were exchanged afterwards.
“In a three-dimensional coordinate axis system, the z axis is oriented with respect to the x and y axis by-interrupt-A three.”
“The right hand rule.”
But now we faced the real challenge. Only the top team in the group from the round robin would advance to the double elimination playoff stage. Both Whitman and Farmingdale were undefeated. Whoever won the next round would move on. Could we prevail?
Round 5: (3-1) Whitman 18 – 122 Farmingdale (4-0)
I managed to squeak out 18 points for the team by answering a physics starter and a math toss-up/bonus. Otherwise, all we could really do was throw our hands up and watch in awe as the Farmingdale Harvard-bound captain made us bend over backwards ass up as he destroyed our rectums singlehandedly. That dude was on another level. The physics starter I did answer, however, I’m pretty proud of. It went something like this:
“Consider an infinite parallel circuit in which the first branch has one resistor, the second branch has two resistors, the third has three, and so on to infinity. Given that the resistors all have a resistance of 1 ohm, find the total resistance of the circuit… B three?”
In case you needed an explanation: given branches. The sum turns out to be the harmonic series to infinity, which by definition approaches infinity. The reciprocal of infinity is (informally) zero.
And so ended our National Science Bowl run. We consoled ourselves with some prepackaged lunch and cookies.
Mark and I decided to stay and watch the rest of the Bowl. Mt. Sinai, the winner of Group D, gave a surprising decisive 84-38 victory over Farmingdale in the first double elimination round. Sinai’s captain, Alex, was an absolute beast at chemistry. It was almost unnerving how good he was. He’d answer chemistry multiple choice questions as if they were short answer. In fact, he answered 100 percent of every. single. chemistry question leading up to the finals. That’s insane. It felt like he was some shady hidden-OP anime character.
Farmingdale’s loss meant they had to win three matches in a row to win the whole thing, therefore sweeping the losers’ bracket. In the meantime Mt. Sinai edged out the regional winners two years ago, Great Neck, in the semifinals.
Great Neck lost to Farmingdale 20-126 in the loser’s finals, so it was time for a rematch: Farmingdale v. Sinai on the main stage.
This time, the questions just didn’t fall in Alex’s favor. The few chemistry questions that got asked were gamed perfectly by Farmingdale’s captain Suraj. Farmingdale took the whole thing with subsequent 118-30 and 102-50 wins.
GGWP to Farmingdale! We lost to the eventual winners, which makes me feel a little better. This was my first and last time participating in NSB, and I had a lot of fun. Hopefully Whitman can go all the way next year. If you’re in high school and not a senior, I highly recommend making a team and participating!
From left to right: Shelbi, Mark, Zenab, me, Alex