OSU Physics Team Wins 6th at International Tournament

Friday May 3, 2024

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A team of five students from Oklahoma State University’s physics department traveled to Zurich in March to compete in the International Physicists’ Tournament, representing the United States as it ranked sixth in the world.

The 2024 OSU Physics Team included students Brenden Martin, Nathan May, Nathan Rago, Nathan Ross and Jennie Russell, as well as Matthew Maxim from the University of Arizona.

The students were presented with 17 physics problems, chosen by the IPT executive committee, which revolved around mechanics, fluid dynamics, electricity and magnetism problems.

“As team members, we choose a problem that interests us from the list. We then discuss our progress itself, discussing ideas and experiments from the literature and mental or physical roadblocks,” Rago said. “The keys to successful teamwork are open-mindedness, patience and rationality. In solving these complex problems, more often than not we become very passionate about our interpretation or research, even if it is misleading or wrong.”

The format of the tournament involves three positions in what is called a “battle”: reporter, opponent and moderator. The opponent challenges the reporter with a physics problem, to which the reporter responds, and then the opponent criticizes their solution. After the critique, the moderator facilitates a discussion between the two and helps improve the solution. After the argument ends, the teams are scored by the judges and the format is repeated with the team’s alternating positions.

The team collectively said that, besides the complex questions, managing stress was the most difficult aspect.

“It is essential to be open to each other’s ideas, be patient for criticism and be rational when talking to another team member about their problem,” Rago said.

One of the team’s questions was called the ‘Bright Spot’, where they had to investigate how a bright spot can be created in the center of the shadow of a spherical object when light shines on it.

“Our team developed a solution using the mathematical principle of evolution, where we plot each point on the curve of the resulting shadow,” Ross said. “We then tested this by replicating Arago-Poisson’s Dot experiment with different shapes and seeing if the evolutionary principle holds. The solution used a lot of wave optics and mathematical principles.”

Between the fierce competition and the drive to win, the team said the environment of the tournament was like no other.

“You could see in the run-up to the semi-finals how much everyone wanted to win, which made it even more intense,” said Ross. “We could see early on how tough the battle against the top universities would be, but we enjoyed the challenge and did quite well against the rest of the world.”

May explained that the time and effort it took to prepare for both the US Physicists’ Tournament and the International Physicists’ Tournament was comparable to enrolling in an additional college course.

“But there is no guarantee that the problem you prepared for will be chosen (during the competition),” May said.

To ensure members had a chance to showcase the work they had done over the past two semesters, the OSU Physics Team organized a mock battle for their colleagues in a shortened format after returning from Zurich.

“Additionally, one of the most frequently asked questions we get when advertising for entry into the competition is, ‘What is a physics battle?’” May said. “So we saw this as a great opportunity to host an event that would allow our members to showcase their hard work and give both the Department of Physics and the OSU science community a chance to see a glimpse of where IPT is exactly what it’s all about.”

The team said the reason for its sixth place in the world rankings at ITP came from their unique blend of specialties. The team consisted of students majoring in physics, engineering and chemistry.

“I really think we were one of the most talented teams. Everyone contributed strength to the team in some way,” said Ross. “These kinds of performances have made us contenders. This was not a team of one or two people; all our members were crucial to our success, along with our team leaders and other employees.

For more information about the International Physicists Tournament, click here. For more information about physics at OSU, visit the Department of Physics website.

Story by: Jade Dudley, CAS Assistant | [email protected]