BC high schoolers compete in Physics Olympics, nerd madness ensues

Did you see the leagues of excited teenagers on campus last weekend? High school students from as far as Penticton flocked to UBC for the 39th annual UBC Physics Olympics. As you can probably imagine, it was a nerd fest.

Almost 70 teams of five students competed in a variety of events designed to test their knowledge of all things physics. From designing an elastic-powered aircraft in the “elastomer-powered aircraft,” to emulating the great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi’s talent for estimating things within a magnitude of 10, competitors had to think on their feet and work as a team to win the coveted trophy.

Of the six events, the most entertaining to watch were the coin separator event, aircraft event and the famous “Quizzics!” Both the coin separator and aircraft events required teams to build and bring their contraptions. For the coin separation, the task was simple — make a device that, using only gravitational and potential energy, can sort Canadian coins, US coins and wooden disks.

This challenge led to many large and precarious-looking gizmos. Students could be seen lifting and carefully carrying them around Hennings, making last-minute adjustments with glue guns and screwdrivers. Most teams opted to use a lever at first to distinguish wooden disks from actual coins, and then use different sized hole openings to separate Canadian from American currency.

Machines were tested based on their ability to separate 25 different tokens. Points were awarded for each token that ended up in the correct bin based off of value and nationality.

Over in the Hebb Building, some students’ dreams of throwing paper planes in a lecture hall were become reality. There was a lot of diversity in how students decided to face the challenge of designing an elastic-powered aircraft that stayed at least 10 centimetres above the launchpad for at least two seconds. Most teams opted for the classic rubber band propeller and many teens were running around with electric screwdrivers to wind up their aircraft. More audacious designs included a type of elastic-powered catapult to throw a paper airplane into flight and an elastic slingshot that propelled a tiny paper airplane bravely across the benches of Hebb.

But the most entertaining event of them all was by far “Quizzics!” It was hosted by Dr. Jaymie Mathews — astronomy professor and self-described “astro-paparazzo.” He was dressed in a billowing sorcerer's robe fit for Dumbledore, as well as what can only be assumed were bighorn sheep antlers and his trademark banana necklace. The teams whispered excitedly their thoughts while working together on a series of Jeopardy-style physics problems and then clicking in their answers via the iClicker system. There was a lot of laughing between questions, with Mathews joking several times that “science is not a democracy” when the most popular answer was not the correct one.

If you miss your high school days, you may want to consider going to next year's UBC Physics Olympics — where physics is both competitive and fun at the same time.