Daniel Zhu’s Success at the International Physics Olympiad

by Clark Zhang '21 for Silver Quest

While most students were sleeping past noon this summer, readying themselves for a trip to the fridge, senior Daniel Zhu was preparing to represent the United States at the International Physics Olympiad in Lisbon, Portugal.

Daniel Zhu and Dilhan Salgado, Class of '18
Having qualified for the USA Physics Olympiad (USAPhO) team in 2016, Daniel aimed to qualify again in 2018. He surpassed the cutoff scores in both the preliminary F=ma test and the 2018 USAPhO, and was invited to the training camp composed of the top twenty prodigious high school physicists in the nation (including Dilhan Salgado, Class of '18). Waking at daybreak, the team, driven by the prospect of representing the U.S. internationally, attended hour-long lectures, executed labs, and took practice tests under the supervision of acclaimed physicists from around the country. Lab leaders, such as UMD physics professor Jordan Goodman, scored each student, evaluating them as prospective International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) team members. Daniel, guilelessly unaware of IPhO’s existence, was particularly surprised at his selection to be one of five US students to compete on the world stage.

In mid-July, the USA IPhO team traveled to Lisbon, leaving all electronics with their designated ambassador and hyping themselves up for nine days of theory-crafting and experimentation. Each participant applied their knowledge from all areas of physics, ranging from electromagnetism to quantum mechanics.

The first day of testing was dedicated to the theoretical exam. Out of the three 10-point questions, Daniel achieved perfect marks for one and missed only 0.1 points on the other two questions. His 29.8 marks the second highest score on the theory exam.

US Physics Team en route to Lisbon
Experimentation came the next day. Constrained by a time limit of 5 hours, each participant had to complete two 10-point labs. Daniel notes that the labs this year were particularly tedious and time-consuming, so much so that no one completed the second lab and the highest total score achieved was a 16—a record-breaking low. Nonetheless, Daniel made the most of his time, hand drawing circuit diagrams, plotting graphs, and plowing through calculations.

The team's trip to Lisbon was not solely consumed by physics, however. In the remaining seven days, Lisbon’s US ambassador took the team on excursions through the city, meeting representatives from 85 other countries and exploring Lisbon’s culture. After one particular excursion, Daniel received news of his performance: “I had placed fifth in the world...and earned myself and the US team a gold medal,” Daniel said contently.

Daniel’s motivations for physics and STEM as a whole are twofold. On one hand, he believes that physics is philosophically significant in that “the universe as a system can be predicted and understood.” On the other, physics is directly applicable to real life; Daniel brings up the examples of calculating the force it takes to pump blood through the body and applying infrared light in experimental cancer treatment.

Unfortunately, Daniel cannot attend USAPhO again, having maxed out his two years of possible attendance. His legacy will live on in his quotes like, “consider an infinite sequence of springs…” and his outstanding performance at IPhO, but the Zhu-era of Physics Olympiad has ended.