Aspiring physicists from 14 countries get ‘a rare opportunity to generate goodwill directly between the intelligent young people of the nations.’
By Rivka Borochov
It was not easy for teenagers to defy their government and travel to Israel for an international physics meet, but that’s what Indonesian high-school students did at the beginning of May. With their teachers, students from across the Asian continent and beyond traveled to Tel Aviv to participate in the 12th annual Asian Physics Olympiad (http://apho2011.tau.ac.il/) – the most challenging regional physics competition around.
This was the first time the contest was ever hosted in Israel. And Israeli contestant Gal Dor, from the Ahad Ha’am High School in Petah Tikvah, won the gold medal – Israel’s first since Yakov Neiman won it in 2003. Neiman, now continuing his studies at Tel Aviv University (http://www.tau.ac.il/index-eng.html), lauds his young Indonesian peers for coming to Tel Aviv, despite political tensions between the two countries’ governments.
“We appreciated it a lot that they came,” says Neiman, who helped prepare this year’s questions for the contestants.
Teams from other countries with which Israel does have warm relationships made up the majority, however, and included teens from China, Australia, Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand and Vietnam – a total of 120 students from the Asian and Oceanic regions.
Neiman, who is studying fluid equations and particle physics toward a doctorate, says that the event is important for global democracy: “I think the science Olympiads are a rare opportunity to generate goodwill directly between the intelligent young people of the nations, who are usually much more open than their governments,” he says.
Smart, but not superhuman
This year, the Israeli teammates garnered four medals and two honorable mentions, having been selected to represent their country after rigorous 18-month preparation including a couple of summer camps and intense training.
Despite the extensive process that whittles the group of hopefuls down to no more than eight participants each year, Israel doesn’t produce “superhuman” teams like those they compete against from China or Taiwan, says Neiman, who grew up pretty much as the smartest person he knows — until he met his fellow Israeli Olympiad teammates.
The experience not only changed his direction of study in university from computer science to physics, it also helped prepare him for the army and knocked his ego down to size: “It’s a very important experience if you are used to being the smartest person around. Landing in an environment where you need to fight for air is a very useful blow to the head,” Neiman says.
The event’s co-hosts were Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Education Ministry. As part of the challenge, the students were offered both practical and theoretical physics problems involving basic knowledge in electricity, mechanics and thermodynamics, for instance. In all, 65 medals were awarded during the competition.
Brushing shoulders with startups
“Science is exciting and physics is always at the forefront of the scientific endeavor,” said Prof. Yaron Oz, a physicist from Tel Aviv University who helped organize this year’s meet in Israel. “The scientific thought does not recognize borders or limits. Science belongs to all people irrespective of their nationality, religion or political opinion,” he wrote in his opening address.
“As scientists we have the privilege and the duty to create bridges among different nations, different religions and different societies. The Physics Olympiad is one such beautiful bridge,” he added.
For Neiman, now 25, his experience put him on a track that now keeps him brushing shoulders with the international physics community and with the successful high-tech community in Israel.
“There is revolving-door phenomenon between all the young Olympiads,” he explains. “They are the top kids in universities, and are usually in special tech units in the army, and are in the startup community – to a large degree, these are the same people. Being introduced into this culture as early as possible is an advantage in an unpredictable way.”
Among the Israelis, another feature sticks out, at least in an international setting. “We are the noisiest,” Neiman remarks, summing up the atmosphere in general. “Maybe there is a profound difference between physics geeks and ‘normal’ guys and girls, and I am not aware of it. Physics geeks tend to be nicer than most, so that generally means you are surrounded for a week and a half by a selection of the nicest and most interesting kids from all over the world – it’s a fantastic experience.”