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Trinity students win international physics competition

Three Trinity students were in the winning team of the 2022 international PLANCKS competition in theoretical physics, this year organised by the German Physical Society and held at the LMU Faculty of Physics in Munich.

Ophelia Sommer, Mattia Varrone and Luca Muscarella participated from Trinity and Flavio Salvati, from Queens’ College, stepped in when Trinity student Pascal Reeck couldn’t make the final of the Physics League Across Numerous Countries for Kick-ass Students.

The Dark Fermi Gang 2.0 were among hundreds of students who competed in preliminary heats to reach the final in Munich. Teams of three to four students from one country try to solve 10 unusual physics challenges – such as fusion, Hawking Radiation and Quantum Neural Networks – within four hours.

Speaking on behalf of the Trinity team, Ophelia said:

Together with Flavio from Queen’s, we were incredibly honoured, and more than a little excited to win! We had a great time in Munich, getting to experience all the cultural and scientific wonders of the city, and this was an amazing way to end our trip.

The students paid credit to their Supervisors and Directors of Studies – among them Professors David Khmelnitskii, Zoran Hadzibabic, Malte Grosche and Claudio Castelnovo – for their success.

Nobel Laureate Reinhard Genzel awarded the prizes to the top three teams. Ophelia said:

We are all very keen on physics, and when the opportunity to meet some of the brightest students from all around the world, we simply had to take it.

 Mattia was the driving force behind putting together the team. I met him and Luca here in College, so it would also be fair to say that we owe much of our success to the spirit of community and cooperation that is ever present at Trinity.

The team also took part in PLANCKS last year, coming third.

Ophelia gave an example of the type of problem they were set in the competition.

How to measure randomness

Suppose you have a container with a bunch of gas molecules in it. You don’t know where any individual molecule is, but you can still make predictions about their collective behaviour.

Say that the gas is really hot. In practice you can make these predictions by assuming that the molecules are in the ‘most random’ position. However, it’s not super clear what that means.

In problem 6, we were tasked with looking at different ways to define ‘most random’, and deduce why exactly one definition is physically reasonable.

One of the attractions of the competition was the chance to hone the instincts and skills of a good researcher, Ophelia said.

The most challenging part of the competition is undoubtedly having a deep enough knowledge and intuition about physics to see an unfamiliar situation and very quickly get that eureka moment, where you’ve figured out the underlying principles, and everything falls into place.

Besides that, the competition is only four hours of a multi-day programme and the rest of the time you get to make friendships with the wonderful competitors from other countries. Many of whom I’m sure will become brilliant researchers in the future. It’s certainly not bad practice for Tripos exams either.

 

Photo: Members of the winning team with the Nobel Laureate Reinhard Genzel and PLANCKS 2022 organizers. © DPG / Heitz 2022

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