47th International Physics Olympiad (IPhO)

Published in the Research School of Physics Event Horizon
Vol42 Issue31 8–12 August 2016

The 47th International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) was recently hosted by Switzerland and Liechtenstein. The competition took place in Zurich from the 11th until the 18th of July and involved more than six hundred students and leaders from over ninety countries. Australia was represented by five Year 12 students: Colin Huang and Jamie Abel from Sydney, William Song and Zoe Schwerkolt from Melbourne, and Thomas Waring from Perth. I participated as a leader for Australia alongside Dr Alix Verdon. 

The selection process for the team began in last year with the 2015 Australian Science Olympiad Exam in Physics, which was sat by thousands of high school pupils from around Australia. The top performing students then spent most of their summer holidays at ANU learning the equivalent of first-year physics (and then some). After more exams at the summer school, the best eight students came back to ANU for more physics training in late April before jetting off to Hong Kong for the Asian Physics Olympiad in May. Five of these students won Honourable Mentions at this competition. Subsequently in June they were announced as the Australian team for IPhO at a ceremony at Parliament House. This intense program clearly produces the results as the students diligently completed theory papers on the flights to Europe while the leaders watched movies. 

Upon arriving in sunny Switzerland we spent a few days working on more physics. A typical day of training entailed two four-hour long exams (both exams at IPhO are five hours in duration) and acclimatisation activities: walks in the woods and eating cheese. Once IPhO began we bade farewell to the students as there are different programs for students and leaders to reduce the likelihood of cheating; furthermore, the students have all their electronic devices confiscated until the exams are done! We attended quite a few meetings and talks to contend the merits of the exam problems, resolve marking issues, and discuss physics education more broadly. The students meanwhile had the joy of encountering topics such as rotating space stations, particle identification at CERN, and thyristors in the theory exam. The excellent experimental exam had them exploring sheet resistivity of graphite paper and a silicon wafer, and then modelling second order phase transitions with a loudspeaker and poppy seeds. 

Excursions for the students and the leaders included Liechtenstein, Lake Lucerne and Mount Rigi. For the students the biggest highlights were the tour of CERN and the post-exams party featuring plenty of fondue. Colin, Zoe and Thomas won bronze medals (top 50% of participants), and Will and Jamie won silver medals (top 25% of participants). The overall winner (Chenkai Mao from China) won nine kilograms of chocolate in addition to a gold medal! 

All of our students are planning to pursue science and engineering at university - perhaps we'll see some of them at ANU. Shout out to Laura Walmsley, Andrew Papworth, John Debs, Kaitlin Cook, Jodie Bradby and Tim Senden for welcoming ASO physics program staff and students to RSPE in January and April.

- Siobhan Tobin

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