Three physics students from the School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences (SPACS) at George Mason University competed in an international physics competition in the fall semester of 2014, but this was no ordinary competition. Wesley Toler, Ryan Pfeifle, and Austin Bradley had just 48 hours to conduct research, complete mathematical calculations, design software, and do anything else they could to answer one of two questions released to all participants on a Friday night in mid-November last year. The only resource off limits in their research was other people, including their Mason sponsor, Dr. Paul So. To say the team was intimidated by the idea of having to answer an unknown question and write a complete research paper in 48 hours is an understatement, but they rose to the challenge, showing universities around the world the quality of Mason’s physics program and the ingenuity of their students. The team won a Silver medal with their submission, placing them in the top rank of papers submitted to the competition committee.

The University Physics Competition committee is composed of six physics professors from around the United States. They host the online 48-hour competition once per year, ensuring that the two questions offered are accessible to undergraduate physics students with just an introductory physics education. In fact, potential participants who already have a degree are disallowed in order foster an even playing field among the teams. The committee also designs the questions in an open way so as to allow for a range of potential approaches, from those using introductory physics to those using more complex upper level concepts and mathematics. The questions usually deal with challenging real-world physics problems and they require a fair amount of research and oftentimes, quick learning about topics unfamiliar to the team.

This was true of our Mason team in the 2014 competition. They had to choose from two questions, either of which would stretch their physics education to the limit. The first question asked the team to find stable planetary orbits for a system with two stars; the second asked the team to determine the most probable location where water droplets from a water fountain would land in a pond. On the surface, neither question seemed overwhelmingly intimidating, but as the team outlined possible answers to both questions, it became clear that accurate mathematical solutions would definitely require them to go beyond what they learned in class and to approach the problems as a research scientist.

After a quick initial assessment, the team decided to work on the planetary orbits problem. Over the next 48 hours, they locked themselves in a room in the Planetary Hall with whiteboards, computers, and water—oh, and brain food made by their fellow Mason physics student, Hilary Sparrell. The team first carefully researched and identified the physical principles underlining the circumbinary planetary problem. Then, each looked for a different aspect of what they initially thought would lead to a possible solution. Within the short time constraint, concurrent with their initial research, Wesley wrote a MATLAB algorithm to find the optimal planetary orbit, Ryan filled the whiteboards with complex mathematical equations, calculations, and sketches, and Austin distilled everyone’s ideas into diagrams and words for the final paper. Their big break came when Wesley discovered previous work related to the problem, opening up a path to their own solution.

Having arriving at a credible answer to the question, the team worked frantically to put all the work into a professional scientific report. As time ticked closer to the 48 hours limit, the team went beyond what the original question asked by adding an additional analysis describing potential zones where habitable planets could be located. The team let time come down to the wire when they submitted the paper just one minute before the 48 hours deadline. Then they waited and waited. Until finally, the results were posted after the winter break: a Silver medal, an unexpected but well deserved honor for a group of young and promising physicists. It was an unbelievable achievement for a team who decided to compete simply because it would be fun.

More information about the 2014 University Physics Competition can be found at http://www.uphysicsc.com/2014contest.html.

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