Girl Power at the Yale Physics Olympics

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On Saturday, October 13th, Yale University held its 21st annual Physics Olympics. This competition takes the form of a pentathlon, with five 45-minute challenges designed by the faculty of Yale’s Physics Department. Fifty teams from over forty different schools across the state of Connecticut vied for the coveted top three places. Four seniors from Sacred Heart Academy, led by Mrs. Nicole Granucci (Physics and Astronomy teacher), made up team SHA-rizons (named after a theoretical boundary around a black hole beyond which no light or other radiation can escape): Swathi Jacob, Arianna Vessicchio, Glory Villano, and Vivian Wang. SHA-rizons was the only all-girls team at the competition this year.

The first challenge of the day, The Winds of Time, required participants to calculate the velocity of a fan’s output flow using Bernoulli’s equation. The judges were blown away by how accurate some of the answers were. The second challenge, The Gravity of the Situation, entailed finding the acceleration of a pendulum. Slow Your Roll, the third challenge, allowed students more room for creativity. The goal was to build a track so that a marble starting at the top would take as long as possible to reach the bottom. Materials were limited, so students had to be resourceful. Finished products included everything from paper funnels to speed bumps. One group even took the pinball approach by building partial roadblocks along their track. The time it took for each team’s marble to reach the bottom ranged from as little as four seconds to as long as fifteen seconds. Despite the fourth challenge’s misleading title, Battle of the Bands, it did not involve Guitar Hero. This challenge required students to determine the elasticity of rubber bands. The elastic constant of a rubber band is directly related to how far it goes when you shoot it, so students had a lot of fun with this one. The laboratory quickly turned into a war zone, with rubber bands flying left and right. Last, but certainly not least, was the Fermi Quiz, which calls for speedy estimation skills. An example of the type of question that may be found on this quiz is “Archimedes of Syracuse was a philosopher, inventor, and scientist who lived and died in Sicily more than 2,000 years ago. Assuming that the earth’s atmosphere has been thoroughly mixed since then, how many molecules from his final breath are in your lungs right now?” With the usage of calculators and the Internet prohibited, students are forced to use sheer logic and approximation to determine the answers. This proved to be the most mind-boggling challenge of the entire competition. After hours of tedious measuring, calculating, and approximating, the day ended with a riveting physics demonstration. The presenters truly had everyone at the edge of their seats. It’s not every day that you see a physicist being launched across the room on a bike powered by a fire extinguisher!

The Yale Physics Olympics shows that physics can be fun and exciting for all. It stretches the imagination, forcing participants to think outside the box. Whether you are a first-year physics student or a seasoned physicist, the Yale Physics Olympics has something for everyone!


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