&Bullet; physics 14, 77
Hundreds of prospective physicists from 42 countries gathered in a virtual edition of PLANCKS – a student competition in which prizes are awarded that are proportional to Planck’s constant.
Can you derive a model for the expansion of the universe from Newton’s laws of gravity? Can you also estimate the maximum data transmission rate through a 300 km long fiber optic and find a way to use a soap bubble as a barometer? And could you solve these and dozens of other problems in a day and a half while attending a busy international meeting and talking to hundreds of your colleagues?
These were the brutal demands placed on Bachelor and Master degree physics students participating in the 2021 Physics League in numerous countries for Kick-Ass Students (PLANCKS). The tax effort was complemented by quantum-sized rewards, with winning teams receiving cash prizes that were multiples of Planck’s constant.
The International Association of Physics Students founded PLANCKS in 2014 with the aim of giving students from all over the world the opportunity to come into contact with one another, to use opportunities for personal development and to experience the spirit of international cooperation at the core of life at an early stage of a physicist. Participants work in teams to solve theoretical problems from all areas of physics. However, you will also take part in a range of activities, from seminars by academic personalities to social events and excursions that illustrate the research environment and culture of the host country.
Every year an institution in a different country organizes the event. The University of Porto in Portugal was this year’s host, but the ongoing pandemic forced the competition to go online. The virtual environment was a “curse and a blessing,” says Duarte Graça, one of the local organizers. He says the online format allowed the attendance of many students who could not have afforded international travel. This year’s 200 participants came from 6 continents and 42 countries – twice as many as in previous years. Some of the competitors received global grants to cover the registration fee. “When we watched the grant application videos, we saw how much [being there] was important to them, ”says Sofia Ferreira Teixeira, another member of the organization team.
For most virtual conferences during the COVID-19 era, improved accessibility comes at a cost – lack of spontaneous interactions, zoom fatigue and a lack of networking opportunities. It was hard to notice any of these shortcomings at PLANCKS as energetic students and sleep-deprived organizers kept walking in and out of breakout rooms, which were open 24/7 to accommodate everyone’s time zones. In “warm-up” sessions at the beginning of the event, the locals trained everyone in Portuguese culture and student life, demonstrated architecture and natural wealth, explained graduation ceremonies and rituals for newcomers, or simply taught the difference between a “fino” and a “fino” “caneca” (one small and one large beer).
During the “Nations Coffee Breaks” the students proudly presented treasures from their respective countries. Some of the highlights were Venezuela’s national dance, Joropo; Mexican Sancocho Soup Recipes; pristine beaches in Mozambique; lavish saunas in Finland; and the Brazilian sounds of samba, bossa nova and funk. The participants also found similarities in aspects of their lives as a physics student, from the joy of eating unhealthy “laboratory snacks” to the difficulty of explaining their own research to Grandma.
The event always features lectures from top scientists who can easily be persuaded to engage with a passionate, young audience – Stephen Hawking participated in the inaugural 2014 edition. That year, students heard about space plasma, gravitational wave astronomy, nuclear fusion, quantum information, and transparent electronics. physics The magazine offered a workshop on science writing and communication.
A favorite of the students, however, was the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsar in 1967. Bell Burnell talked about her scientific work, but also addressed the psychological challenges she faced when she moved from Scotland to Cambridge – or from a land of rude savages “to the” area of ultimate civilization, “according to the perception at the time in the south of England. “As scientists, we don’t talk about our stories very often, but life stories can be very helpful for those who may feel a little discouraged,” says Bell Burnell. She is particularly keen to encourage and support those who are in a minority – women and people with underrepresented ethnicities.
The closing ceremony crowned three teams that have earned
times 1037 each euro. A team of Oxford University students won first prize (a bounty of € 527), but all students took home precious memories. “It’s really cool to hear about the breadth of different problems in physics,” says Jose Betancourt of the University of the Andes in Colombia. “I will remember the joy of teamwork,” says Siao Xiang of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “It was amazing to make new friends and get to know their countries and cultures,” says Rasha Abukeshek from An-Najah National University in Palestine.
If you want to test your stamina in physics, you will find problems from previous PLANCKS editions here. But if you’re a career physicist – or a physics Magazine Editor – we recommend that you keep your scores to yourself.
Matteo Rini is editor of physics.