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International Physics Olympiad, Zürich, 10 - 17 July 2016

Antoine Pochelon

Organized by Switzerland and Liechtenstein, the 47th International Physics Olympiad IPhO2016 was hosted by the University of Zürich, which, with the Association of Swiss Scientific Olympiads (ASSO) and the Swiss Physics Olympiad (SwissPhO) were the operational organizers. The Swiss Confederation represented by the SEFRI played the role of the main partner, as this activity is directly part of its policy of encouraging training, research and innovation (see also [1]).

These Olympiads [2] were a great event for the many participants coming from all over the world to Zürich: there were no less than 400 high school students between the age of 14 and 19 years, representing 87 nations and 50 languages. The event lasted one week from Sunday to Sunday. The participation was open to the highest ranked five winners of the national Olympiads of the participating countries. The knowledge and skills of young talents were tested during theoretical and practical tests (experiments) spread over two days.

"In the practical exam, the students had to conduct an experiment on two-dimensional electrical conductivity, and they were asked to study a model system on a theory of phase transitions. Then, in the theoretical part, there were complex questions on three topics: classical mechanics and gravitation, non-linear electrical circuits, and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN"; this is how Thomas Uehlinger, head of the academic committee, describes the test questions. As a past competitor at two IPhO, in 2002 and 2003, he is well aware of exactly how difficult this year’s exams were: "But we didn’t just want to challenge these bright young minds. We wanted to inspire and motivate them, too."

Another day was dedicated to the visit of different laboratories. Part of the group could visit the CERN and the Red-Cross Museum in Geneva, another group the PSI and Principality of Liechtenstein. Besides the science, this intercultural exchange had also the essential role of bringing the youth of the world together thanks to an attractive entertainment program. The roughly 400 young men and women from every corner of the globe had here an opportunity to expand their horizons beyond the intellectual challenges of physics. They could meet their peers from other cultures who speak other languages, and make friendships that will last a lifetime. And they were able to get acquainted with Switzerland and Liechtenstein – indeed, for many, it was the first time they ever travelled to a different country. The midterm party on Thursday was organized so that the competitors could relax after the demanding exams; rather than tackling complicated physics problems, they tested their abilities in milking cows and playing the Alphorn in a tour passing on the top of the Rigi and in Luzern.

At the festive closing ceremony in the Tonhalle Zürich, a total of 219 Olympic champions were awarded a gold, silver, or bronze medal, while another 65 received a honourable mention. Various other special awards were also conferred – for best overall performance, for instance, or for the most creative solution in the experimental exam. The Swiss Physical Society offered an award for the best performance of a student from Switzerland or Liechtenstein.

Just following the results of the national contest SwissPhO beginning of April in Aarau, the Swiss delegation to IPhO2016 was composed of Bastian Lengen (Uvrier, Lycée-Collège de la Plantaz, VS), Henning Zhang (Villigen, Kantonsschule Wettingen, AG), Quirin Reding (Honau, Kantonsschule Alpenquai, LU), Caroline Rossier (Cottens, Collège Sainte-Croix, FR) and Nicolà Gantenbein (Eschenbach, previously Kantonschule Wattwil, SG). But this was without counting on the multiple interests of Henning Zhang, who decided to step out to pursue in the national Mathematics Olympiad, where he reached the first place with a gold medal, continuing at the International Mathematics Olympiad obtaining a Bronze Medal. By doing so, he left a free place to Markus Köhler (Balgach, Kantonsschule Heerbrugg, SG), who then not only had the chance to participate to the IPhO, but also reached the best result of the Swiss delegation with a Bronze Medal (see interview in the box). Caroline Rossier, extremely close to the Bronze, reached a Honourable Mention, as did Bastian Lengen, Nicolà Gantenbein and Quirin Reding.

The ten best Olympians came from China, South Korea, Russia, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore, a fantastic East-Asiatic performance. But East-Asiatic high-school students pass one total year completely dedicated to the preparation of the contest, perhaps to the detriment of a more equilibrated formation.

The number of benevolent persons in the organization of the IPhO is very large and involves the academic organization committee: 70; the markers (examiners, correctors): 90; the guides: 100; and the accompanying persons (physicists and else): 275.

It is clear that the IPhO activities represent an outstanding opportunity to promote STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). But in this context, one can only notice that there is ample room to increase the participation of young women. The women indeed represented only 25 out of 400 participants. Yet, Physics Olympiads make physics and science in general better known to a large public. In addition, the personal commitment of some of the Olympians makes it even much better known. Caroline Rossier, the only woman of the Swiss delegation, appeared on the front page of a well-distributed commercial magazine [3], explaining why she likes physics: "With physics, you can explain phenomena that are too small or too large to perceive them with our senses". And about women participation: "Women are not worse in these subjects, it is all about, to attract women properly for it. This should begin as early as childhood". Markus Köhler appeared in local [4] and national journals after his wonderful success and tells us more about his interests and wishes in the box below.

The next IPhO in 2017 will be in Tangerang, Indonesia. The way to it is through the next SwissPhO.

[1] SEFRI NEWS 6/16 (July-August 2016), PANORAMA
[2] University of Zurich and VSWO, Press release 17 July 2016 : Medals Awarded to Physics Talent at the International Physics Olympiad.
[3] Migros Magazine, MM27, 4.7.2016.
[4], Rheintaler Medien AG,

Further information:
International Physics Olympiad 2016
Association of Swiss Scientific Olympiads
Swiss Physics Olympiad

An der Internationalen Physik-Olympiade, die Mitte Juli dieses Jahres in Zürich stattfand, hat Markus Köhler als bester Schweizer Teilnehmer eine hervorragende Bronzemedaille gewonnen. Markus, der zeitgleich zur Vorbereitung auf die Olympiade seine Maturitätsprüfungen an der Kantonsschule in Heerbrugg im St. Galler Rheintal ablegte, musste danach erst einige Tage verschnaufen, bevor wir uns zu einer Unterredung treffen konnten.
Kurz zu Markus: uns gefällt, dass ihm gefällt, dass die Physik mathematisch aufgebaut ist. Der gute Mathematik­unterricht, den er am Gymnasium erfuhr, gab ihm das nötige Selbstvertrauen, sich den harten Wettbewerbsanforderungen von Olympiaden zu stellen. Er hatte bereits in Deutschland mehrmals und 2015 auch in der Schweiz an Mathematik-Olympiaden teilgenommen, aber erst dieses Jahr auch an einer internationalen Physikveranstaltung. Das Vorbereitungstraining war zweiteilig aufgebaut: zum einen bestand es im wöchentlichen Lösen von Aufgaben aus früheren Olympiaden, zum anderen in einer Teilnahme an zwei mehrtägigen Treffen für theoretische Physik im Wallis und für experimentelle Physik in Aarau. Beide Aktionen empfand er als effizient und auch als ausreichend. Er fände allerdings gut, wenn vor der ersten Ausscheidungsrunde eine weitere Auswahlrunde bereits an den Kantonsschulen erfolgen würde, nicht wie bislang nur in mehreren Städten. Das würde die Anzahl valabler Kandidaten deutlich erhöhen, und so wird es zum Beispiel im Fach Biologie bereits erfolgreich gehandhabt.
Im Oktober wird Markus ein Informatikstudium an der Uni in Konstanz beginnen. Wir fragten ihn schliesslich noch, ob die Physikvorlesungen im ersten Semester weiterhin traditionell abgehalten werden sollten, also eine Weiterführung der bekannten Schulphysik, um den zu erwartenden Kulturschock beim Wechsel vom Gymnasium zur Uni klein zu halten, oder ob man Impuls- und Energiesatz nicht bereits an Beispielen moderner Physik, zum Beispiel der Teilchenphysik, lernen solle? Das wäre seiner Ansicht nach zwar ein Sprung ins kalte Wasser, aber durchaus aufregend und spannend.

Bernhard Braunecker
  • Opening ceremony of the International Physics Olympiad in 2016 at the University of Zürich
  • Markus Köhler receives the special prize of the SPS for the best participant from Switzerland or Liechtenstein
  • Opening ceremony of the International Physics Olympiad in 2016 at the University of ZürichImage: SEFRI1/2
  • Markus Köhler receives the special prize of the SPS for the best participant from Switzerland or LiechtensteinImage: IPhO, Roman Ernst2/2

[Released: October 2016]