A team of Andover students advanced to the finals round of the U.S. Invitational Young Physicists Tournament (USIYPT), held at Phillips Exeter Academy last weekend on February 8 and 9. Eleven of the 14 original teams participated in the competition, as three Chinese teams had to cancel their trips due to the recent outbreak of COVID-19.
Last year, Misha Bilokur ’20, Jason Huang ’21, Harry Shin ’20, and Julia Zhu ’20 competed and placed second at the tournament. This year, they did not place but still qualified for the finals. Jessica He ’22, Michael Lu ’21, and Peter Wu ’22 joined as “scouts” against other teams. Mika Latva-Kokko, Instructor in Physics, is one of the three faculty advisors for the Young Physicists Club and also attended the event.
Four problems were released about a year in advance for participants to theoretically and experimentally analyze. The event is organized in six rounds of so-called “physics fights,” where one team will present their findings and the other team will oppose, according to Zhu.
“USIYPT has the format of the physics fights, which means that one team will present their solution to a problem while the other team will oppose. Each team will send a representative for opposing or presenting. Before the competition, [USIYPT] released four problems, and you basically have to present theoretical and experimental results for at least three of the problems, because every team gets one rejection, but you may have to oppose a problem that you rejected,” said Zhu.
The team decided to divide the three problems among themselves. Huang studied a problem determining the stable configurations of a set of 216 spherical magnets. He enjoyed the process of experimentation and self-motivated study.
“I studied spherical magnets. They’re called Buckyballs, and they’re sold in batches of 216. Because they are magnetic balls they can make very intriguing configurations, and I studied their configurations and the circumstances under which they are able to maintain stability, and it was a fun experience. I built some physics apparatuses out of scratch, and it was fun,” said Huang.
Bilokur and Shin worked together on a problem regarding the Archimedes Death Ray. The name of the problem comes from an ancient Greek myth. In the myth, Sicilian engineer Archimedes fights off the Roman invasion of Syracuse by instructing his soldiers to polish their shields and reflect the sun’s rays to burn the incoming ships. According to Shin, they investigated the thermodynamic theory and tested models to come to their conclusion.
“We found that using thermodynamics theory and creating a model, and comparing how that theoretical model compares to our experiment data, we did experiments and we concluded that it is physically feasible, but historically there are some flaws in the story. For example, the three earliest accounts of the Battle of Syracuse don’t mention the Archimedes Death Ray, but other weapons like catapults or fire arrows. So, physically feasible but historically implausible,” said Shin.
Zhu worked on a problem that involved calculating the astronomical unit, the average distance from the Earth to the Sun. She used a technique that analyzed data collected from the transit of Venus by two different observatories on Earth.
“My favorite problem was…calculating the astronomical unit using the Venus transit. In astronomy research, I don’t tend to focus as much on these more common, or less niche, instances of something simple like a planet passing in front of the sun and observing it. We do a lot more targeted research. So it was just cool to see what I could do outside of that,” said Zhu.
Latva-Kokko found the astronomical unit problem to be particularly appealing. He noted the variety of different approaches presented at the conference and how no team used the simplest approach of using the moon.
“My favorite problem this year was definitely the astronomical unit problem. I remember there to be at least three or four different approaches for how you measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun. I really liked many of them, and I was surprised that nobody went with the most simple method which is using the moon,” said Latva-Kokko.
According to Bilokur, the experimentation and self-directed study of interesting problems complement the advanced classroom-style physics curriculum at Andover.
“Our physics curriculum tends to be really good at instructing students with advanced theoretical material. However, in higher level courses, there is a certain lack of experimentation, which this tournament basically provided us, so we’re able to apply our best knowledge of theory that we learned in 600-level electives and do some real life problems, and do the experimenting to fully understand the physics behind it,” said Bilokur.
Zhu enjoyed the atmosphere of the competition and the ability to talk to other enthusiastic high-school physicists. She enjoyed the experience of self-guided theoretical and experimental exploration and hopes the club will continue in the future.
“I’m really hoping that students will continue the club and the competition just because it’s a unique way of learning about physics, not just in a classroom or Olympiad setting. So, there’s a lot more independence and self-thought, a lot of reflection and self-learning and education,” said Zhu.