High schoolers duel at Physics Olympics

At the 16th annual Yale Physics Olympics, pure momentum carried team “Riemann” of the Taft School to a forceful victory.

On Saturday at the Sloane Physics Laboratory, 50 teams of four students from 48 different high schools participated in the Olympics. Students had 45 minutes to complete each of five events, the details of which were kept secret until the day of the competition. Yale physics lecturer Stephen Irons, who has run the event since 2004 and delivered the opening address, said the event gives students a taste of the science they can pursue in college and beyond.

Each year, staff members create new events from scratch. In honor of the 2013 Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the Higgs boson, professor of physics Sarah Demers created the event “A Nobel Pursuit,” in which students were challenged to find the Yale-themed “Yiggs boson” by analyzing graphs generated by a particle detector.

Irons’s own event, which he called “Vector Sedition,” took place outside of the Sloane laboratories. Students were asked to travel at certain speeds around a four-leg relay course without access to timing devices in order to demonstrate the principle of vector addition.

Frank Lenox, a teacher from East Greenwich High School in Rhode Island and coach of the “Schrödinger’s Cat” team, said the Olympics highlight the impromptu nature of science problem-solving.

“[The events] allow you to be creative because you’re not following procedures in a lab,” Lenox said. “You have to create your own procedures, like in real science.”

Irons said that the event is a way for Yale to connect to the local community. Like other science outreach initiatives at Yale, he said, the Olympics are meant to show students that a career in science might be fun and within reach. The event was created in 1998 by professor Con Beausang, now at the University of Richmond, with participation from approximately 15 to 20 schools. He said it has since expanded, and that many of this year’s schools are returnees.

“Seeing the excitement from schools who come back year after year really tells me the teachers see it as something positive,” Irons said.

Yale graduate students in physics were invited to volunteer and oversee students at work. Manuel Mai GRD ’17, while proctoring the event “Horseshoes, Hand Grenades and Golf Balls,” said he was pleased to see students devising solutions after struggling at the start.

After the competition, the Higgs discovery was honored again in a special lecture by professor Keith Baker called “Yale and the Higgs.”

J.T. Schemm, a teacher at Joel Barlow High School and coach of the “Feynman Falcons” team, said he tells his students the Olympics is “the geekiest day they’ll ever have.”

“Physics is everywhere,” he said. “You need to know it because you live in the world. I always ask my kids, ‘Any physics this weekend?’ After a while, they start to get it.”

At the opening ceremony, Nicholas Ogilvie-Thompson, a student at the Milbrook School, joked to his friends about there being so many “nerds.”

But, when asked if he planned on pursuing physics in the future, Ogilvie-Thompson said it was a possibility.

“Maybe aeronautical engineering, making fighter jets,” he said, after a moment. “Those things are rad as hell.”

“I-Squared Rangers,” of Masuk High School, came in second place at the Olympics.

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