Although most of the world was focused on the athletic Olympics in Brazil, there was actually another and arguably much more important Olympiad held in Zurich, the 47th International Physics Olympiad.
While the sports Olympics are important to help bring the world a bit closer by allowing for peaceful competition, winning the marathon isn’t going to improve the world. A better knowledge of the hard sciences will.
The U.S. physics team placed 7th in the rankings, earning two gold and three silver medals. China, Taiwan, and Korea each had five golds, and even Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and the Romanian team matched the U.S. two golds.
Still, 7th place overall was quite high when you realize there were teams from 87 countries.
The competition was hosted at the same school where Albert Einstein was awarded a Ph.D., The University of Zurich.
The Actual Competition
The Physics Olympiad involves both hands-on and theoretical challenges.
Just as a sample, one of the theoretical problems was whether someone on a space station could tell the difference between earth gravity and the artificial gravity of a spinning space station.
If you would like to try the test yourself, the 2014 questions and answers are available online here.
U.S. medal winners, according to a July 22, 2016 APS News story by Rachel Gaal included Abijith Krishnan (gold, 16th place); Jason Lu (gold, tied for 17th); Srijon Mukherjee (silver, 50th place); Jimmy Qin (silver, tied for 53rd place); and Vincent Liu (silver, tied for 75th place).
The story also noted that there was plenty of time for student fun and games. Not all the time was spent on physics problems.
The U.S. team is organized by the American Association of Physics Teachers, with sponsorship from a number of scientific societies, including the American Physical Society.