Physics with a side of summer friendships
by Stephanie Keating
High-schoolers from across the globe dive deeply into science together at Perimeter’s International Summer School for Young Physicists.
When you’re a teenager with an interest in quantum physics or general relativity, finding other teens who share your passions can be a tall order.
That is, unless you’re lucky enough to be accepted to the International Summer School for Young Physicists (ISSYP), an intensive physics bootcamp that each year brings together 40 teens and immerses them in Perimeter Institute’s unique environment for two weeks.
For many, ISSYP marks the first time they can dive deeply into conversations about physics and science with like-minded peers.
“What surprised me was the amount of time that people can spend talking about physics,” remarked Zhanna Klimanova, an 18-year-old CEGEP (Quebec’s pre-university college program) student from Montreal. “I can do it for hours, but most people don’t have that capacity. I’m usually cut off by, you know, the 10-minute mark. Here, it’s the complete opposite.”
Physics may be an easy conversation starter, but the diversity of the group ensured there was much, much more to talk about. Selected from a pool of more than 400 applicants, half of the 40 chosen students are Canadian. The others hailed from 13 other countries, including China, Greece, Germany, India, Slovakia, South Africa, and the US. The group is split evenly between female and male students.
“Not every country does things the same way, from the way we go to school, to the way we learn physics,” said AJ Loy, a 16-year-old from Singapore. “It’s been interesting being able to talk and share experiences with everybody.”
Fostering that kind of connection is one of the goals of ISSYP, where social activities and field trips are interspersed with lectures and talks from eminent physicists. Keynote sessions included an address on the state of physics from Perimeter Director Neil Turok, a talk on causality from quantum physicist Robert Spekkens, and a question-and-answer session with Perimeter researchers about life as a physicist.
A perennial ISSYP favourite is the trip to SNOLAB, a physics laboratory located two kilometres underground within an active mine in Sudbury, Ontario. The lab is home to the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded jointly to Arthur B. McDonald for the discovery that neutrinos have mass.
Before touring the facilities, which are now used for dark matter detection experiments, visitors must shower and don special suits to protect the sensitive equipment. “That was like, from a different world,” said 17-year-old Sophia Chavele-Dastamani from Athens, Greece, as she described the trip to SNOLAB. “It was like I landed in a sci-fi movie.”
Chavele-Dastamani found out about ISSYP through a student advisor, and was drawn by the chance to learn more about topics her school didn’t cover. While the physics lessons were rewarding, the depth of the connections she made surprised her.
“Everyone is so helpful,” she said. “It might be midnight in the residence, and they might be explaining calculus to me it’s things I haven’t done in school. But at the same time, they’re not snobby with me for not knowing it. They’re actually helping me.”
The first half of the program focuses on getting the students up to speed with core topics in theoretical physics: a banquet of ideas that the teens eagerly devoured. “I was ecstatic because all the topics were the ones that I wanted to know. There’s quantum mechanics, special relativity, general relativity, and black holes,” said Anwyn Woodyatt from Qualicum Beach, BC, who graduated from Grade 12 before coming to ISSYP.
Her favourite was the hands-on lesson that explored concepts of curved spacetime and general relativity using simple materials like beach balls and masking tape. “You take a piece of tape, and you’re not expecting it to explain the universe to you. That one really opened my mind. I think we all walked out of there really, really excited to learn more the next day.”
George Mo, who is 16 and going into Grade 12 at Bayview Secondary School in Richmond Hill, Ontario, echoed Woodyatt’s sentiments. “That was one of my favourite things using general relativity to explore more amazing things, like black holes. It’s not such complex mathematics, but still gives really amazing results.”
In the second week, students got a taste of what research is like as they worked in small groups with mentors to explore current problems in theoretical physics. On the final day of the program, they presented their work on topics ranging from quantum gravity and quantum computing to holography and cosmology at a poster session (similar to those seen at scientific conferences) in Perimeter’s atrium.
Chavele-Dastamani plans to share her newfound knowledge with the nuclear physics club that she runs at her high school in Athens. “I want to help them understand this,” she says. “Even if they don’t understand the math, it’s very easy to understand on a theoretical level.”
In addition to binders full of notes, an international network of friends, and selfies with the Nobel Prize medal at SNOLAB, alumni take home a renewed sense of confidence and possibility.
“The world is so complex. Just by using these math principles, we can discover so many things,” said Mo. “It makes me wonder if there’s so much more that can be done so many more things to be developed and it’s just really cool.”
As she prepares to start undergraduate studies at Yale, Isabel Sands said ISSYP encouraged her to pursue theoretical physics. “It made me more confident that I could do it. I mean, they just threw stuff at us this week, and I figured if I could keep up with that, nothing I do in school is going to go faster. And meeting the postdocs and graduate students and faculty here it just opens my mind to what sort of research is possible at some point in my future .”