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The Physics Olympiad, and finding community

July 16, 2019

When I was in high school I spent about 2 hours after school every day running track. This was, on the face of it, an unpleasant thing to do. Running is literally painful, and I devoted something like 10% of my waking life to it.

So why did I do so much running? It turns out that there were more or less three reasons. First, I was an ambitious kid, and competitive running provided an outlet for that ambition. Second, I got to experience the joy of acquiring a new skill, and seeing myself improve at something that had previously been difficult. Third, and perhaps most importantly, joining the track team gave me access to a social community. I made friends (including across the normal lines of class and race that tend to divide students), I had adventures, and I matured as a social being.

These are all normal and healthy reasons for doing something that might otherwise seem unpleasant.


I bring this up because last month I spent two weeks at the training camp for the US team of the International Physics Olympiad. The twenty kids at this camp are among the smartest high school physics students in the country, and to arrive at this level they had to devote about 2 hours every day after school to studying physics.

This is, on the face of it, an unpleasant thing to do.

I think that their reasons for studying physics so intensely are similar to my reasons for running track.  These are mostly ambitious kids, who enjoy doing something competitive and acquiring a new skill.  But what a surprise and a joy it has been for me to discover that physics can also bring high school kids community.  These kids (seem to have) made deep and lasting friendships at camp, and I am learning that there is a whole world of physics clubs and camps and internet forums that I was previously blind to. Physics seems to be central to their social life in a way that sports was to me, and is to so many other kids.

And the truth is that studying physics has rewards that are probably more real and long-lasting than the ones that come from sports. Even if these kids don’t become physicists by profession, they will have had the experience of learning difficult but exciting things and solving difficult but exciting problems. And that’s the sort of thing that shapes your opinion about the world and about yourself in a very positive way.


It’s hard for me to discuss the physics olympiad without gushing about the staggering intelligence and technical competence of these kids. They are literally, without exception, 4-5 years ahead of where I was when I graduated from high school.  I saw them quickly solve physics problems that I would have struggled with as a grad student, and which even today took me a while to figure out.  While preparing the first practice exam in camp, I wrote a problem that I thought was clever and tricky, using some logic I had learned in grad school.  And then when I graded the practice exam I found that their median score on the problem was 19/20.

You know, I grew up to be a physics professor.  So I can’t even predict what their opportunities will be.


If anything, I worry that these kids are so clever that they will have a hard time emotionally when they first encounter an interesting physics problem that can’t be solved at all.  They have become so used to being able to solve tricky and clever problems, that perhaps when they get their first taste of physics research — of encountering a problem that might not even be well-posed, and might not have a solution — it will be difficult for them emotionally.  Or, even worse to imagine, they could take it as a sign that they’re not really smart enough to do physics, when in fact the issue is with the problem and not the problem-solver.

A friend of mine (a physics professor, whom I’ll call Val) once told me the story of some of his high school classmates.  Val had gone to some kind of magnet school in Croatia, and he had several brilliant classmates. These classmates always seemed to solve physics problems effortlessly, while Val himself struggled continuously.  He felt, in the end, that he got through high school physics only by leaning on his friendships like a crutch.  Eventually they all went to college together, and the brilliant friends remained brilliant and breezed through everything, while Val continued to struggle with each concept and always felt like he was just barely eking by.

After college they all went to grad school in physics, and suddenly the problems they were working on got truly hard. These problems required months, semesters, or even years of slow and painful thinking, trying many wrong approaches before eventually stumbling on something that worked (or, perhaps, eventually giving up and trying something else instead).  For Val, this was natural — this was how physics had always been for him.  But for the brilliant friends this kind of frustration and lack of progress was oppressive.  They got discouraged, and eventually lost enthusiasm and left physics altogether.

All this is to say, I hope that physics isn’t too easy for these kids. I hope that they love it even when it feels unclear, frustrating, and slow. This way, when it really those qualities in earnest, they can still love it.

Of course, if they leave physics to do something else, that’s fine too.


Crowding around the blackboard to learn some thermodynamics from head coach JJ Dong


Powering through one of the many practice exams

I probably need to address the elephant in the room here: demographics.  Of the 20 students who qualified for the physics olympiad camp (on the bases of two rounds of exams), 16 were Chinese-American, 3 were Indian-American, and one was Caucasian.  There were 19 boys and 1 girl.

But racial and gender biases weren’t the only demographic trends on display.  There was also an overwhelming representation of private schools and magnet schools, even though the vast majority of high schoolers in the USA attend non-specialized public schools. Certain “powerhouse” schools, in particular, seem to have multiple students qualify for camp every year.

As far as I can tell, these biases in representation come down to who is being encouraged to study physics, and who is being invited into the corresponding communities of physics. When I was in high school, for example, I had no idea that competitive physics was a thing, much less that there was a world of clubs, camps, and internet forums devoted to it.  Maybe if I had known I would have chosen my hobbies differently.

At the moment this information seems to pass through certain communities of parents by word of mouth, and then the parents in turn motivate their children.  Part of the problem, then, is on us, the coaches and organizers of the physics olympiad.  We need to do a better job of getting the word out, and making people aware of the fact that there is a whole world of recreational physics (and recreational math and science, more broadly) available to kids.  It can be as rewarding and engaging as any other hobby, and any other community.

But part of the problem is more intractable then a simple increase in advertising. If, as a teenager, you want to become a great runner, you probably need access to a good team and a good coach. So it is with physics, too: you will be hard-pressed to become a great practitioner of competitive physics unless there is a community in your school that is ready to give you training, friendship, and opportunity.

So perhaps this blog post can serve as an exhortation both to students and to teachers/administrators. Be aware that there is a whole world of recreational/competitive physics out there, and this is a world that is challenging, exciting, and comes with long-lasting benefits. Think about finding a way to engage with this world, or helping to open a path that enables others to do so.


For more information about the USA Physics Olympiad program, read this page:

You can read about the 2019 USA Physics Olympiad team here:

The 2019 Physics Olympiad (in Tel Aviv, Israel) is currently wrapping up.  The results should be announced very shortly. But for the moment I can say that all five members of the traveling team performed brilliantly!


UPDATE: The results are released:

Congratulations to gold medalists Vincent Bian and Sean Chen, and to silver medalists Edward Lu, Albert Qin, Sanjay Raman!

Physics goes to Washington

The camp ended with everyone treating their physics textbooks like yearbooks


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Ori permalink
    July 16, 2019 9:37 am

    I hope the kids get to read what you wrote. Especially the part about what it takes to do actual research and what might await them.

  2. Sonia Elkes permalink
    July 16, 2019 9:43 am

    Interesting and useful observations, thanks for the post!

  3. July 16, 2019 1:16 pm

    What a thoughtful observation of Physics and individual learning experience, Physics seemingly being science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe, etc. Although learning by thinking through things might be considered tribulation, certainly such experience doesn’t produce the same hope as does patience.

    It’s a shame Physics can’t begin with creation itself, in discovering how and why everything was created, and for whom: that such things remain outside the realm of science from the beginning. And I might add, running is very enjoyable, it’s been my experience doing so is no less competitive, if running alone on a concrete walk verses on a track with other people; it’s like most everything else, it’s simply a matter of who you’re competing with and why.

    Reading your paper tells me that the study of Physics has not yet revealed that children are not kids. Just as mankind are not humans. Nor does it infer anything concerning creation, or its Creator. Though I’m sure Physics keeps many people very busy thinking on other things, wherein they can spend they’re entire lifetime learning a few comprehensive principles that have no bearing in what is truly important, truth, and the assurance of redemption; the adoption of their own bodies. Such worldly endeavors could easily consume a lifetime and achieve very little, except make truth unattainable, especially if one’s mind had been corrupted from an early age.

    How amusing can the concept of Physics and the minds of its beholder be; when we have people of all races and colors in the world, yet no one knows who, or what color those identified as “white” are. Which by simple observation they are translucent people, or better stated of a fair countenance … Why is that?

    And perhaps it’s not a bad thing to encourage children of all ages to hang in there while continuing to learn things concerning heaven an earth; but first I would suggest they learn who they are, and their purpose of being here.

  4. July 16, 2019 1:38 pm

    Hi Brian, Kevin here! It was great to coach alongside you at camp!

    Regarding motivation for competing, I totally agree. Actually, while my school didn’t have any coaching apparatus (besides what I started and ran myself), my motivation was still social: my arch rival had qualified for camp the year before, and I’d be damned if he qualified twice without me qualifying once! My two hours per day came from studying surreptitiously during chemistry class, and during the nearly daily detentions I would get for doing that.

    Demographics is always a tough issue. I think physics is special among school subjects because a lot has to go right before a student can approach a competition. For the USAPhO, they should already have calculus learned, and a full year of calculus-based physics (e.g. AP Physics C) on top of that, before the year even begins. Many schools don’t offer both, and for those that do, they’re usually capstone, senior year courses.

    No matter what we do, our pool of students has to be drawn from those who understand calculus-based physics, which at the minimum means students passing AP Physics C with a 5. This group is a fraction of a percent of all high school students, and it already has overrepresentation/underrepresentation factors like 5:1 (gender), 10:1, or even more. Changing this situation requires nothing short of a complete revolution in high school education.

    I’ve thought about sending selections of F=ma contest problems to high school teachers, since it nominally doesn’t require calculus. But most algebra-based physics courses, even at the best schools, stick to routine problems that boil down to mining numbers from the question text and plugging them into a pre-supplied formula. Meanwhile, many F=ma questions test deeper conceptual knowledge, often involving subtle cases where standard formulas don’t work. That’s presumably why most physics teachers we advertise to don’t allow more than a few percent of their students to even take the test — it would likely lead to more confusion than learning.

    The situation just seems very difficult to change. I certainly hope it will, and I hope to have enough impact someday to play a part, but changing competition physics in a vacuum is just trickle down economics. In the end I think change will be driven bottom up by science popularizers, popular culture at large, and of course teachers themselves.

    • Brian permalink*
      July 16, 2019 2:16 pm

      Thanks Kevin, your perspective is generally more valuable than mine. Everyone, please direct your hard questions to Kevin, who has both much more experience with the physics olympiad and is better at physics in general. 🙂

  5. July 16, 2019 2:54 pm

    having gone to a high school that was poor (except for the friggin’ sports teams) and that also existed in an Appalachian e.g. white, evangelical Christian community, where smart people were pariahs, I always get sad reading about kids who do have a chance and knowing so many kids who don’t. If we just all had the same chances.

  6. August 29, 2020 11:08 am

    Really enjoying these “uncategorized posts”. Deeply influential and important to read for any aspiring student in pretty much any scientific fields.

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