Not only judo – Israel’s team prepares for the International Physics Olympiad

Some of our brightest minds hope to bring honor to the country in the International Physics Olympics.

The top 14 ranked physics pupils in the country getting ready for the upcoming contest in Yakutsk, Russia (photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
The top 14 ranked physics pupils in the country getting ready for the upcoming contest in Yakutsk, Russia
(photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
When it comes to bringing the nations of the world together for a common goal in the spirit of respect and friendly competition, it seems that athletes get all the glory. The Olympics and World Cup tournament are models of sportsmanship and international camaraderie as the world proudly watches its gifted athletes represent their countries in a show of physical prowess and strength.
Yet science, and in this case, physics, is also playing an important role in breaking down international barriers and creating meaningful connections in the spirit of intellectual competition.
For nearly 50 years, the International Physics Olympiad has been the ultimate goal for some of the world’s most promising high-school physics students in 83 countries, including Israel. Taking place in July, the process to get to this point is quite arduous, especially considering that the average age for these competitors is 17.
While most Israeli pupils were enjoying their spring break, 14 of the country’s top pupils were spending the week before Passover at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot at its spring physics camp in preparation for the 17th annual Asian Physics Olympiad in the Siberian Russian city of Yakutsk the first week of May. There, Team Israel will face off with 20 other countries in this competition.
The process that these 14 students underwent to get to this camp began a year and a half ago when they, along with 3,500 students enrolled in physics courses from nearly 150 high schools throughout Israel, were given a standardized evaluation exam. Those who earned the top 400 scores were invited to Phase 2, which is an entrance exam to attend the Technion’s two-week summer physics camp, which has only 35 places. There, the students partake in experiments and learn high-level theoretical physics principles.
Afterward, they return to their respective high schools until their winter break, where they can attend a winter physics camp at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. This is a full week of pretty much the same.
Usually about 20 students make it to this stage of the process. Between Hanukka and the Passover vacation, the students are given 12 to 15 hours of weekly homework assignments to prepare for the spring training camp at the Weizmann Institute. At this point, the ever-shrinking group of young physicists is down to about 14 participants.
The weeklong physics camp can be summed up as “intense.” For five long days, the young team members forgo their free time with friends, family, sunlight and typical teenage activities to spend a week at the Weizmann Institute to prepare for the event. Even then, their placement isn’t a guarantee, as there is room for only eight to compete in Yakutsk. Every day, they complete intricate experiments within the span of five hours, followed by studying theoretical principles in preparation for the two full days of competition that await them at the Olympiad.
Head coach Dr. Eli Raz, head of the Israeli Physics Olympiad Department of Physics and Optical Engineering at ORT Braude College, explains that although this is a very intensive process, he believes that the secret to the team’s success is that they learn how to master critical thinking skills independently and creatively to think outside the box instead of just absorbing information.
The students are never given their actual scores after their experiments or exams are submitted to the team of staff members, who were past Olympic participants as well. He believes that this increases motivation and decreases feelings of over- or under-confidence.
Therefore, they end up helping and supporting each other instead of creating a competitive environment.
THE GROUP this year is predominantly male, Jewish and secular, with one male wearing a kippa and one female. According to Raz, “The majority of these students do not come from heavily concentrated populated areas like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa but in fact from smaller towns and villages.”
Of this group a sizable number are from Modi’in and one from Shimshit (a small village in the Galilee).
“We don’t ask about the students’ family background or socioeconomic status, but sometimes their parents will come from a scientific background, so that plays a part in how some of the participants get here. Sometimes siblings of those who competed in past Olympiads also participate.”
With regard to minorities, he recounts that when he first started coaching the team in 1994, the majority of the participants hailed from the former Soviet Union, bringing their work ethic to Israel. Over time, the Russian population here, as Dr. Raz puts it, “eventually adapted to the Israeli mentality and by the turn of the millennium their presence decreased noticeably.”
It was also around this time that the team saw its first and last Arab participant, also in 1994.
“I made many efforts to increase the chances for them to succeed in physics.”
These attempts yielded disappointing results, according to Raz, “partly because of the education system, but also because most of the top Arab students prefer to study biology and eventually go on to study medicine.”
Being a team from such an internationally controversial country can’t be ignored, Raz insists. “No politics is involved. This is one of the thing I tell the students – do not get involved in politics.” However, there can be challenges representing the tiny Jewish state in the Middle East.
During a quick lunch break from one of their grueling experiments, Nitzan Shapira and Dana Zeidman, who participated in last years competition in Hong Kong, recalled getting the cold shoulder from the Saudi team. But for the most part, the rest of the teams they encountered were quite friendly and respectful and Shapira enjoyed playing cards with the Qatari team.
Israel tends to crack the top 10 in the Asian Olympics, which the head coach believes is more difficult than the international one because they are pitted against strong teams like China (which consistently comes in first place in both the Asian and International Physics Olympics), Russia and Taiwan.
Also competing are teams from Central Asian countries and a handful from Middle Eastern countries, which tend to score “very low” according to Raz.
North Korea also competes, although that country’s team was disqualified last year for cheating.
For the international competition, Israel consistently ranks in the top 20.
In terms of how the team is looking this year, he is hopeful. However, he said that this year’s international competition will be held in Indonesia, so even if Israel does advance, the team will be unable to attend due to a lack of diplomatic ties and the security risk.
In 2019, Israel will host the 50th International Physics Olympiad, and Raz estimates that only 75 of the 83 countries will attend.
Raz’s pride in his team is genuine, even though only half of these diligent students will get to compete. He admits that it will be disappointing for those who weren’t selected, but he believes that they have earned a lot. Loosely quoting John Steinbeck’s Leader of the People, he says, “It’s not the destination that’s the prize, it’s the journey.”
He notes that every student who goes to these physics camps has many doors already open to them in terms of college placements and generous scholarship opportunities. They also automatically get a score of 100% in their physics matriculation exams.
He concludes, “The impression the public has of the Physics Olympics participant is your typical geek buried in books and not interested in other things, but the reality is that they are brilliant in sports, music and dance, and they excel in many other fields.
They represent the ‘good Israeli’ that Israel should be proud of.”