Blair Students Compete at the International Physics Olympiad

by Harini Salgado '15

Mike Winer and Alex Bourzutschky with Principal Renay Johnson (AAPT Flickr)
Alex Bourzutschky '14 and Mike Winer '15 were two of the five members of the team that represented the United States at the 2014 International Physics Olympiad (IPhO), which was held this year in Astana, Kazakhstan from July 13 -21. It is rare achievement for one high school to have two students on the traveling team in the same year, and the Gazette interviewed Bourzutschky and Winer in July. Around 4,277 people took the F = ma, the qualifying exam, in January this year. The top 400 scorers are named semi-finalists and then take the USA Physics Olympiad Exam. In addition to Bourzutschky and Winer, eleven other Blair students were also named semi-finalists: Daniel Amir '14, Adam Busis '15, Matthew Das Sarma '15, Alan Du '14, William Leete '14, Alex Miao '17, Bendeguz Offertaler '15, Andrew Simler '14, Victor Xu '15, Matthew Yu '16 and Richard Zhu '14. Bourzutschky and Winer were among the 19 students chosen to go to the US Physics team training camp at the University of Maryland in College Park. For Winer, it was the second year he went to the training camp.

At the camp, the 19 team members attended physics lectures, did practice labs, tests and mystery labs. Outside of actual training, Bourzutschky and Winer played several games with the other finalists like Risk, Settlers of Catan, Tichu, Contact, and some card games. Bourzutschky's favorite part of attending the camp was meeting all the new people: "I think what I enjoyed most was being able to meet so many intelligent yet sane people from across the country who loved physics," he said.

The two of them were excited to find out they made it to the five person team that traveled to Astana. Winer said he was very happy, but he added: "Interestingly enough, my parents were way more happy than me. I think literally every person who talked to my mom in the last month has found out about this."  Bourzutschky said, "It was a pleasant surprise." He wasn't confident that he would make the team: "I only got the impression that I was around the middle at theory and just a bit above that at experiment. There were 2-3 people I felt would be above me in the rankings."   When he was selected, he said that it "made me feel grateful of all support I'd been given through the years by my parents and the Magnet (especially Mr. Schafer)."

Bourzutschky and Winer have both been passionate about the subject of physics for several years. Winer first discovered his interest in the science in middle school: "6th grade, we had a physics unit in class. I was playing this jumping game, like Doodle Jump, and I was very bad it so I wanted to figure out how long it would take my rabbit to reach the ground so I did these incredibly complicated calculations which I am sure were wrong," Winer remembered.  Bourzutschky found his love for Physics at Blair: "Coming into Blair, I definitely had more interest in math than physics. First semester freshman year, however, I picked up freshman physics extraordinarily well (I missed 3 points out of roughly 800, apart from the final). Even I found it a bit unexpected, but I realized that physics is definitely a stronger point for me than math. It's difficult to say whether Mr. Schafer was the sole catalyst, but the way he taught freshman physics definitely played a big part in getting me interested," he said. Both of them spent hours outside of school reading more and more about physics and joined Blair's physics team, which they were co-captains of last year.

The 2014 Physics Olympiad in Astana, Kazakhstan (AAPT Flickr)
The IPhO competition in Astana was divided into two parts, a theory exam worth 30 points and an experiment worth 20 points. The theory exam was 5 hours and covered mechanics, electrodynamics, basic quantum theory, fluids, and waves and optics. After a day of rest, there the 5-hour experiment involved "measuring an optical property of specific materials by shining a laser pointer through polarizers and the material and measuring the output of a photodiode with a multimeter," according to Bourzutschky. Both Bourzutschky and Winer found both parts the contest very challenging. Winer felt that the theory exam was his "strong suit," but according to other competitors, this year's theory exam was as tough as it's ever been. Bourzutschky felt that the experiment "was clumsy at times, as one often had to switch the inputs to the multimeter and switch the reading to resistance instead of voltage, then switch them both back to read voltage, etc.,"  but he said "it was well-written and fair."
The US Physics Team wins three gold and two silver medals (AAPT via Flickr)
On the days that weren't filled with the competition, the participants got to travel around Astana. "It was actually a really nice city I have to say," Winer said. They went on 5 outings to places in the city: to the National Museum of the Republic, the Schoolchildren's Palace, the Astana-Bayterek, which Winer enjoyed visiting, and up the diagonal elevator in the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. They also travelled an hour North to the Hotel Rixos. There they got to see the traditional dress, music and dance as well as several other parts of Kazakhstan's culture. Bourzutschky really liked visiting the Khan Shatyr shopping and entertainment center: "[It's] basically a four-story mall with an arcade/amusement park on the top floor. On the inside you could see the four levels as well as palm trees throughout and on the outside there was a view through the gate of the Bayterek monument."

Winer and Bourzutschky also were thrilled to meet so many new people. "Everyone there spoke English, which was amazing," Winer said. They talked to students from Lithuania, Estonia, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Switzerland, South Africa and Iceland. They also played in a soccer competition, where they teamed up with a Nigerian student but lost in the first round to a team made up of members from Israel and Estonia. There was also a talent show, where the South Koreans danced Gangnam Style.

The US team brought back three gold medals and two silvers and tied for fifth place behind China, Taiwan and Korea who tied for first with five gold medals and Thailand who came second with four gold medals and one silver. Neither will be able to compete again since Bourzutschky is heading off to college in the fall and Winer has already made training camp twice. "I've done what I wanted to do though," Winer said.

Bourzutschky summed up his experience very fondly: "I liked that although the reason I got to go was for academic strength, that it really ended up being more of a tourist trip."  When he first heard that the IPhO would be in Kazakhstan, he thought, "Kazakhstan? What is there to do in Kazakhstan?" But after coming back, he was very happy that "I got to see a very cool corner of the world that I highly doubt I'd have gotten to see."