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Follow up - "Challenging, exciting, logical and humorous"

30th June, 2021

An interview with three former participants of the International Physics Olympiad

Titus Bornträger, Jonathan Gräfe and Max Schneider were members of the five-strong national team that represented Germany at the International Physics Olympiad last year in Tel Aviv, Israel. The German team won two silver and three bronze medals in 2019 and placed among the top European nations, finishing 18th among 78 participating nations. We asked the three former physics Olympians how they came to be on the national team, what impressions they gained during the competition, and about their general attitude toward science.

 

What fascinates you about science in general and physics in particular?

Titus Bornträger: What fascinates me about sciences in general is that they try to understand the world and describe it through principles. In particular, I'm fascinated by the complexity of the things that need to be understood and the structured approach. What fascinates me about physics is the diversity of the objects it deals with. For example, atomic physics deals with very small objects, but astrophysics involves very large objects.

Jonathan Gräfe: Natural sciences and physics in particular are so fascinating to me because they address the perfectly natural question of why the world is the way it is and find answers to fundamental questions that have actually been occupying people since the beginning of time. In my eyes, the most exciting aspect is describing the processes with mathematical models.

Max Schneider: What fascinates me most about the sciences is that people were already thinking about them over 2,000 years ago, but still don't know everything today and will never reach the state of knowing everything. Especially in physics, I am fascinated by the compactness with which phenomena can be described - for example, that all electromagnetic phenomena can be described using just four equations.

 

How did you find out about the Physics Olympiad and what motivated you to take part?

Max Schneider: I've always been very interested in math and physics, so I've participated more or less successfully in the Saxon Physics Olympiad since the 7th grade. In the 9th grade, I became aware of the International Physics Olympiad, and since the Saxon Physics Olympiad is only for students of lower grades of secondary school, I participated in the International Physics Olympiad from the 10th grade on.

Titus Bornträger: I first became aware of the Physics Olympiad when I qualified for the 2nd round of the Physics Olympiad by achieving a good placing in the Saxony-Anhalt Physics Olympiad. I tried to solve some of the tasks of the 2nd round, but at that time they were still too difficult for me, because I did not yet have the necessary physics knowledge. The desire to understand the tasks and to be able to solve them someday motivated me to participate again the following year.

Jonathan Gräfe: My story is a bit longer. Until the 10th grade, I found questions about what holds our world together exciting and enjoyed reading popular science books about physics, but I couldn't do much with school physics. I had good grades, but it didn't really interest me. In the 10th grade, my physics teacher persuaded me to participate in the Saxon Physics Olympiad. I did, and would have advanced one round if the physics teachers at my school had submitted the results on time. I then wrote to the organizers, who recommended that I take a look at the Physics Olympiad tasks. So I did and got ambitious, because I really wanted to crack the problems. It was this ambition that led me to study the required tasks quite intensively and to discover my love of physics.

 

Did your participation in the Physics Olympiad change your perception of physics as a science and/or your perception of scientists?

Jonathan Gräfe: I used to think that the world was more or less completely calculable, that basically all physics problems could be solved. The Physics Olympiad changed my perception of this. In the meantime, I find it quite remarkable if one can solve simple special cases of problems. The world is much more complicated than we think.

Max Schneider: What I've noticed above all is that collaboration, discussions and joint research are the most effective. For example, after the exams in the various rounds of the Physics Olympiad, I discussed the problems a lot with others and we arrived at a solution much faster than we would have done alone in the exam.

Titus Bornträger: Two things have changed for me: On the one hand, the Physics Olympiad showed me how many different topics are involved in physics. Secondly, the visits [to various facilities such as the German Electron Synchrotron, editor's note], which were carried out in the 3rd and 4th rounds, gave me an insight into how physicists and scientists in general work.

 

If you had to characterize the Physics Olympiad in a few words, how would you describe it?

Max Schneider: In a nutshell: demanding, exciting and fun.

Titus Bornträger: I would say: challenging, logical, exciting, inspiring.

Jonathan Gräfe: The Physics Olympiad is a competition that teaches you how to think. By working on the tasks, you learn to analyze and solve physical problems by setting up models. Most of these problems also have a nice solution - so there's a special "aha" effect when you reach the finish line.

 

Why should you take part in the Physics Olympiad?

Jonathan Gräfe: You learn a hell of a lot, not only about pure physics theory, but above all about how to approach unfamiliar types of problems (something that is rather unusual in school). And last but not least, you get to know a lot of great people who have similar interests.

Max Schneider: There are no disadvantages - you always learn something new when it comes to physics, and it's all free. And anyone who thinks they won't get anywhere anyway: In the 10th grade, I never expected to make the national team.

Titus Bornträger: There are people with similar interests and hobbies all over Germany. It's fun to get to know these people and network with them. In addition, the Physics Olympiad encourages you to look at topics beyond physics lessons, which on the one hand really shows whether you are interested in physics, and on the other hand prepares you perfectly for your studies and career.

 

What advice would you give to students with a strong interest in physics or science?

Max Schneider: You should get involved with physics outside of school, for example by taking part in the Physics Olympics, attending seminars or simply reading a physics book.

Titus Bornträger: You shouldn't focus on one area in particular, but rather get a broad range of information. But the most important thing would be: Have fun!

Jonathan Gräfe: If you have a strong interest in science, you should never give up your curiosity and never stop asking why something is like this and not different; and take on the challenge of the Physics Olympiad.

 

Interview: Dr. Stefan Petersen
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Jonathan Gräfe

I come from Dresden and went to the Gymnasium Dresden-Bühlau. The International Physics Olympiad in Tel Aviv was my absolute highlight. It was incredibly nice to meet students from all over the world and, above all, to see so much of Israel. The organizers really pulled out all the stops there to make the days as pleasant and eventful as possible. I am now studying physics at the TU Dresden. The IPhO influenced me in the sense that I used to vacillate between studying mathematics, computer science or physics. The IPhO then strengthened my conviction that physics is firstly something that is incredibly fun, and secondly apparently something that I can do quite well.

 

Max Schneider

I live in Saxony near Dresden and went to school at the "Glückauf" high school in Dippoldiswalde. Participating in the 50th International Physics Olympiad in Tel Aviv was my greatest experience. In 2017 I participated in the Physics Olympiad for the first time, and in 2018 I unexpectedly made it to the 4th round, where I placed 6th. Since then, my goal was to make it to the national team next year, and this dream actually came true. In the meantime, I am studying physics at the TU Dresden. This has always been an option for me, but since I took part in the Physics Olympiad, it was clear to me that I wanted to do this.

 

Titus Bornträger

I come from Halle (Saale) and graduated from Georg-Cantor-Gymnasium in 2019. The International Physics Olympiad in Israel will remain a special memory for me. Every day you experienced something exciting, met new people and new cultures. The slogan "event of your life" hits the nail on the head. Before taking part in the Olympics, I was already very interested in physics and wanted to study something in this direction. The Physics Olympiad solidified this idea, and I started studying physics at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg.

 

The International Physics Olympiad

The International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) is held annually in a different country. In Germany, the IPN carries out the selection of the national teams in cooperation with the Ministries of Education of the Länder. The selection process, the Physics Olympiad in Germany, is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Every year, about 800 to 1000 students participate.

The documents for the 1st round are sent to high schools and comprehensive schools throughout Germany. Online registration for the competition starts simultaneously. In the first round, four problems from all areas of physics have to be solved. The answers are corrected by a teacher.

Those who have passed the 1st round are invited to the 2nd round. This is a written exam that is held at the schools in November. All qualified students and their supervising teachers will receive advance information on possible topics and training material for specific preparation. A cheat sheet may also be used in the written exam.

The best 50 or so from the 2nd round nationwide are invited to the 3rd round, the national round. This is held in late January or early February of the year in which the international competition takes place. The 3rd round is held at a research institute or university and involves theoretical and experimental problems to be solved under exam conditions. The final step into the team is the 4th round or final round in spring, to which the approximately 15 most successful students of the national round are invited. After intensive preparatory training, the five-day selection session again involves written examinations with theoretical and practical content. The problems are geared more closely to the tasks of the international competition.

The national team that will represent Germany in the current year's international competition is named at the end of the final round.

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