Judgment Day

It all comes down to this.

Though they hail from countries scattered far and wide across the globe, though they come from myriad different cultures and backgrounds, ultimately every ISEF finalist's journey here has been the same. For each one, the path to this day, this moment, has been paved with sacrifice. For each one, time to be spent in sleepovers, sports, and other social activities has been instead surrendered to the pursuit of a single idea: scientific perfection. For each one, months, sometimes years, of hard work are on the line.

Even at 7:30 a.m., the numbers of people gathered in the lobby already dwarf the crowds from the Fair's prior days, and in the hour until the 8:30 a.m. opening of the exhibition floor for formal judging, the numbers only grow. As everyone waits for entry, an anxious atmosphere hangs over the lobby. For anyone who notices, a remarkable diversity of worry is on display: The crowd is a sea of tapped feet, licked lips, bitten nails, and nervous laughter. In the corners, isolated groups go over their presentations for the final time. Here and there, the occasional calm individual stands out like a sore thumb, relaxed in the realization that very little past this point can further prepare him or her for what lies imminently ahead.

Minutes before judging begins, a low horn sounds from one of the delegations. A cheer goes up from near the doors, and the sound of voices raised in song or prayer sublimely drifts over the crowd.

Finally, 8:30 arrives, and even a group this intelligent, this composed, succumbs to the madness of crowds. The living wave of people surges towards the entrances, flowing fluidly around the security guards and promotional booths. Within ten minutes, the lobby is nearly empty. Only judges and finalists are allowed on the exhibition floor. For the rest of us, the only thing to do is wait.

Judging continues until 6 p.m. today, with a lunch break squeezed in between 11:45 a.m. and 1 p.m. Besides judging, there are a few other events planned for today, like various seminars and workshops catering to teachers, fair directors, and others left out of the action on the exhibition floor. And between 7 and 10 p.m. tonight, both the finalists and the adults here each have their own mixer, where everyone can relax and blow off some high-pressure steam.