By Katherine McAlpine
Decorated US Physics Team. From left, Kenan Diab (silver), Haofei Wei (gold), Jenny Kwan (silver), Jason LaRue (gold), Rui Hu (silver).
The five-member US traveling team competed against 322 of the brightest physics students from 72 other countries at the 38th International Physics Olympiad (IPhO). Each member of the team was decorated as they brought two gold and three silver medals back home to the US (see accompanying photo).
They were welcomed to Iran Friday, July 13th, attending opening ceremonies Saturday morning. The Olympiad closed with a banquet on Saturday, July 21st. In between, aside from the competition, their time was filled with touring historic sites in Isfahan and the surrounding area, introduction to new cuisines, swimming in salty waters, and camaraderie among students of many countries and customs.
“The IPhO exam itself only took up 10 hours over two days,” said student Kenan Diab, recent graduate of Hawken School in Ohio. “The most interesting stuff that happened at IPhO wasn’t directly exam-related.”
Diab counts the six-story Ali Qapu palace of Imam Square among his favorite sites, particularly the music room at the top which “had hundreds of holes carved into the walls in the shape of musical instruments. The room was not large, but the collective effect of all these orifices gave the room some pretty stunning acoustics.”
“The highlight of the whole competition would be meeting representatives of all of the different countries and cultures around the world. I had a great time talking and having fun with everyone there,” said Rui Hu, a senior from Charter School of Wilmington in Delaware. “Everyone there spoke a little bit of English, so communication wasn’t difficult. I can also speak fluent Chinese, so I was able to communicate very well with the Malaysian and the Chinese [teams].”
The international aspect was a favorite of coaches Bob Shurtz and Paul Stanley as well. Shurtz, of Hawken School, noted, “We definitely have ongoing friendships with a number of coaches that we have seen now for several years.”
All of the students enjoyed the camping excursion in the silk gardens. “It was much more relaxing,” said Jenny Kwan, a graduate from San Marcos High School in California. “Lots of booths were set up so that we could see Iranian music, pottery, and calligraphy in action and gain our own hands-on experience.”
The team was aware that Islamic law was in force in Iran, but felt it was not overwhelming. “In Iran, all the women wore scarves and there was no pork,” recounted Haofei Wei, a recent graduate from Oklahoma School of Science and Math. “Also, there was a strict separation between the living quarters of the male and female contestants, although the rules about male-female contact were not extended to between team members and contestants in general.”
Kwan, the only woman in the group, was untroubled by the headscarf, or hajib, and by the rules of conduct. “Although I had extra clothing restrictions and I could not shake hands with Iranian men, I felt that people treated me in the same manner, if not with more politeness than usual.”
Since the students took both the theory and experimental tests in the privacy of tall cubicles set up in a large gymnasium, she was allowed to remove the scarf during the competition. While the theory test was easy compared to years past, Kwan and Wei found that the question about a model of a car’s airbag system, involving springs and capacitors, was tough.
The experiment required the students to find the band gap in a thin film of semi-conducting material. “We were given the necessary theoretical information, and the task mainly consisted of data collection and analysis. All of us were provided with our own equipment, and it was more than enough to complete the task with the necessary precision,” said Wei.
However, data collection required the use of a photo-resistor that took three or four minutes to stabilize. Only being able to record one data point every five minutes meant that assembling the necessary set of forty to fifty data points was incredibly time-consuming.
According to Diab, speed during the experiment marked the difference between earning a silver and gold medal among US team members. But they all found the experiment interesting.
Beyond the physics competition, each student reported coming away from the experience with an appreciation for the beauty and history of Iran as well as the hospitality of its people. As Diab describes it, “Deserts don’t usually have a reputation for being pretty, but there were breathtaking ranges of stone hills, and the endless dunes of sand in the more rural parts of the country were starkly beautiful.”
Said Wei, “I was surprised at how friendly everyone was to Americans, given the impression created by our media that Iranians in general were hostile to America.”