College of Agriculture, Engineering
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Master’s Students Tackle International Physics Challenge

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Master’s candidates in the School of Chemistry and Physics (SCP) Ms Tanita Permaul, Ms Amy Rouillard and Mr Brandon Willnecker took part in the 2021 PLANCKS online hackathon, which saw them compete against teams from 50 countries to answer challenging physics problems.

Calling themselves the Springblochs, a play on the name of South Africa’s national animal and the concept of “Bloch spheres” that graphically represent a qubit, the trio were the only participants representing South Africa.

The Physics League Across Numerous Countries for Kick-ass Students (PLANCKS) is organised by the International Association of Physics Students (IAPS) and takes place annually, hosted by a different country each time. For the first time since its institution in 2014, it was held online this year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hosted by the Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy Society of the University of Porto, Portugal, this year, 50 teams of three or four bachelor or master’s students answered 12 challenging theoretical physics questions covering a wide range of topics in the field including quantum mechanics, fluid mechanics, solid state physics and astrophysics, designed to both challenge and entertain the competitors and the more than 100 observers.

‘Despite being online, there were many opportunities to socialise with other participants during “digital coffee breaks” and informal quizzes,’ said Rouillard. ‘A wonderful concert evening also allowed the participants to enjoy the music of the talented student music groups of the University of Porto.’

The team said one of the highlights of the competition was the chance to hear from prestigious invited speakers who gave presentations on various topics, with notable presenters including Professor Elvira Fortunato speaking on flexible electronics, Professor Petra Rudolf on molecular motors, and Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell on her work on pulsars.

After completing the challenges set for them over 36 hours, the Springblochs finished in 29th place overall.

‘As first-time participants, we were very happy with this result’ they said.

‘For the South African team to finish in the midfield is quite a success for first-time participants,’ said the SCP’s Professor Thomas Konrad. ‘It shows that physics students from UKZN can compete at an international level.’

The top three teams were ‘The Fences’ from the United Kingdom, ‘Oachkatzlschwoaf’ from Germany and ‘Dark Fermi Gang’ from the United Kingdom, with prize money awarded to these teams in units of Planck’s constant, a fun twist which the Springblochs said was typical of the spirit of the event. The organisers also presented awards for amusing answers submitted for some of the problems, including one that stated, ‘The Almighty told us,’ and one simply featuring a sad face emoticon.

Permaul and Rouillard are conducting their master’s research under the supervision of Konrad in the SCP’s Quantum Information Group, and are investigating quantum teleportation and quantum control, respectively. Willnecker, supervised by Dr Mervlyn Moodley is exploring computational methods in many body physics.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied