Physicists behind two “brutal” global exams

Preparing exams may not be everyone’s first choice of summer activities, but
a couple of UBC physicists were happy to spend a portion of their summers slaving
away to create questions in theoretical and practical physics.

Andrzej Kotlicki and Chris Waltham authored the two “brutal” five-hour exams
given to students competing in the 28th International Physics Olympiad held
in July in Sudbury, Ont.

“I’ve prepared a lot of exams, including some for the local Olympiad program,”
said Waltham. “But this may be the only time in my life that I get a crack at
the international Olympiad.”

Before the 266 students from around the world could sit down to their exams
— five hours for each on two separate days — the professors’ exams had to
receive a passing grade from the international board of 110 national team leaders,
who also had to translate the exams into a variety of languages.

“The exams received the team leaders’ approval very quickly,” said Waltham.

But the biggest test lay ahead: Could any student score 100 per cent?

“I aimed at one student aceing the theoretical exam. That would give me confidence
that the whole thing was solvable by somebody at that level,” Waltham said.
“In fact, three students aced it. Nobody aced the practical exam, but people
seldom ace practical exams.”

An Iranian student achieved the top combined score, while students from Germany,
Romania and Singapore scored 100 per cent in the theoretical exam. An Australian
scored 95 per cent on the practical exam. The top Canadian ranked 47th. To be
eligible, students must not have attended a post-secondary institution and must
be less than 20 years old. The next Olympiad will take place in Iceland.

Since its inception in 1967, Olympiad exams have been prepared by scientists
from the host country.