53rd Physics Olympiad Brings Honours to Canadian Students

September 14, 2023

Report on Canada's participation in the 53rd International Physics Olympiad in Tokyo, Japan
- By Andrzej Kotlicki, UBC

It was great to see the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) running in-person after a 3-year COVID break. The 53rd IPhO took place from July 9 to July 17, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan. 

Japanese organizers did a fantastic job creating, analyzing and marking Olympiad problems. The Academic Committee worked perfectly with two Nobel prize winners and a large number of distinguished professors from various branches of physics participating. The problems were very well designed not only to challenge the best high school physics students in the world but also to interest them in subjects of physics usually not taught in schools and to teach them some new skills. The International board discussion resulted in very few significant changes to the problems.

It was amazing to realize how much support this high school competition had from leading Japanese physicists, universities and their educational authorities, as well as leading industrial companies, which sponsored the event. Companies like Toshiba, Hitachi, Casio, Honda, Hamamatsu, Nikon and Toyota, just to name a few, are on the sponsor list. 

The first experimental problem was loosely based on the Kibbel balance. It asked students to measure the mass of a cylindrical oscillator and the mass of additional weights by measuring the static and dynamic characteristics of the oscillating system. 

The second experimental problem asked students to measure the thickness of a birefringent quartz crystal by measuring the light from the white (phosphor based) LED propagating through the crystal at certain polarizations. The light from the LED was passed through a transmission diffraction grating, which could be rotated allowing the different wavelengths of the LED to pass through the crystal placed between 2 polarizers. 

Both problems required a careful assembling of the experimental setup and making precise measurements, graphing them, calculating the results and analyzing the experimental errors. It was an excellent test of the students’ experimental skills. 

The first theoretical problem was related to analyzing the Brownian motion of colloidal particles, electrophoresis and coagulation of colloidal particles for the purification of water.

In the second theoretical problem students had to analyze the giant nucleus stability related to neutron stars and then to calculate the period of the pulsar (a neutron star in a binary system) including the relativistic effects. They also had to analyze the gravitational waves produced by a binary system of neutron stars.

The third theoretical problem was related to phenomena arising from the interaction between water and objects due to surface tension. The merging of two droplets of water on the hydrophobic surface amazingly leads to a jump of the resulting bigger droplet. Students had to calculate the height of the jump and then analyze the general case of forces acting between the floating objects.

The problems were difficult, with a best overall score of 90.4% 

Olympiad participants are identified from the highest scoring students in the Canadian Association of Physicist (CAP) High School Prize Exam competition, held annually in Spring across participating high schools. This national exam allows students to compete on physics problems reflecting the High school IB curriculum. Top scoring students who ace this exam are personally invited to train at the National Olympiad Training camp, held on UBC campus, as preparation for the selection of the Canadian team who will compete in the IPHO World Physics finals. 

This year, the CAP exam was written by 568 students from 100 schools. This number of participants was almost double the number who wrote the CAP exam last year, but we are still not up to pre-Covid numbers. 

It is through the generosity of our sponsors that allowed us to organize this 8-day National Olympiad Training camp for the 15 top student placements from the Canadian Association of Physicist (CAP) High School Exam, at UBC campus in Vancouver. Over the week, participants worked, studied and tested with graduate students and faculty trainers, meeting UBC physics scientists and touring physics facilities. 

National Olympiad Training Camp participants, UBC May, 2023