Extraterrestrial Rainbows and Homopolar Generators: Andover Students to Compete at U.S.A. Young Physicists’ Tournament

C.Waggoner/The Phillipian

Jason Huang ’21 (left) and Mykhailo Bilokur ’20 (right), two of the four members competing at the Y.P.T., met at Physics Club in the fall.

Entering Andover as a new Upper from Ukraine, Mykhailo Bilokur ’20 felt as though there was a shortage of research-based science opportunities provided by the school. This thought prompted Bilokur to put together a team of four students to present at the U.S.A. Young Physicists’ Tournament (Y.P.T.) on January 26 and 27.

The Y.P.T., which will take place in Rye, N.Y., is a competition where four-person teams from across the country come to compete, according to Mika Latva-Kokko, Instructor in Physics and the team’s Faculty Advisor. The competition is styled as a ‘physics fight,’ similar to a debate, in which teams do research on four topics before the tournament.

“In Ukraine, I participated in similar competitions. I thought, why not create something similar here, and help people from here to really get involved in some basic research?… And the beauty of [the competition] is that you’re coming up with a solution, you’re coming up with a report which is very similar to what real scientists do on a bigger scale,” said Bilokur.

“So [the teams are] going to present their experimental findings, and they’re going to try and shoot down the other people’s experimental findings… Each one of them has a specific project that they will be defending, but they’re working together on all of them. In the end they only have to defend three of the four projects so they can choose which ones they want to,” said Latva-Kokko.

Since October, team members Bilokur, Harry Shin ’20, Julia Zhu ’20, and Jason Huang ’21 have conducted research on homopolar generators, extraterrestrial rainbows, pneumatic mail transportation systems, and the motion of hammers in preparation for the tournament.

Huang will present on homopolar generators, a kind of electrical generator.

“We are going to spin a copper disk in a strong magnetic field so that it will generate a difference of electric potential between the center of the disk and the edge of the disk. This is a kind of basic generator because it generates a charge, a voltage, so that if you put a wire to it, it produces a current,” said Huang.

According to Bilokur, the homopolar generator has engineering and historical significance, as it is one of the few generators that generates a stable direct current.

“So most generators work like magnets. They often create the voltage which is changing, so it’s positive-negative-positive-negative, like in the high voltage system which powers all the computers and mostly everything we have. But [the homopolar generator] generates the stable current, and this actually is sometimes useful because [you don’t always] want to just throw electrons back and forth,” said Bilokur.

Bilokur organized the team with help from Latva-Kokko, who met most of the team in his Fluid Mechanics class. Now, they meet almost weekly to check in on experiments and discuss approaches to measure difficult data.

“Often times, the problems are intentionally stated or posed in such a way that the experiment you would think about right away. The first one might be the most difficult one to do and give you the least amount of data essentially. So, you have to simplify the problem in such a way that you can get to the information that you want to do, and that’s what we have been talking about,” said Latva-Kokko.

Latva-Kokko expressed his support for the public forum format of the final tournament presentations. According to Latva-Kokko, the debate-like competition requires students to understand and feel comfortable with the physics of each experiment.

“It’s not as much of ‘Do you know how to do the math?’— even though that might be important as well — but ‘Can you understand what the physics is and can you explain it to others?’” said Latva-Kokko.

As the tournament approaches, the team’s experiments are progressing steadily, according to Huang and Bilokur.

“For my part, I’ve done all the theory. Now I’m waiting for a very strong magnet, and we are going to try to use a drill as our main power source to attain the maximum spinning speed of the disk. A stronger magnet will work because it will generate a stronger voltage,” said Huang.

“During the next week we want to pretty much finish all the experimentation so that we can work on finalizing what we have and make presentations the week after that,” said Bilokur.

Echoing Bilokur’s reasons for starting the project, Latva-Kokko sees value in the Y.P.T. for its research focus.

“This is doing physics like real physicists do. You do an experiment, you find data, based on that you compare it to the model you have and the comparison of the data and the model will tell you what assumptions have turned out to be correct, what assumptions haven’t been correct, and also where would you need to move next. It’s all driven by how they plan their experiments and what the results of the experiments are,” said Latva-Kokko.

Editor’s Note: Harry Shin is an Associate Digital Editor for The Phillipian.