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‘Nature Does Not Care for Your Opinion’: Spectating at the Physics Olympics

In which Steve Burgess finds himself deep into the world of vepds and Quizzics.

Steve Burgess 13 Mar

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

Quiz time! A squirrel is relaxing atop a Douglas fir in Stanley Park. It’s a very tall tree — so tall it exists only in theory. The squirrel is watching the Weather Channel. (We’re still in theoretical territory here.)

A report calls for more snow. Annoyed, the squirrel throws the (theoretical) remote and dislodges a pine cone which drops from the very tall tree. There is no wind.

Does the pine cone land: a) directly underneath the tree; b) to the south; c) to the north; d) to the west; or e) to the east?

At UBC’s Woodward Library, a packed lecture hall listens as quizmaster Robin Coope poses that question and awaits the answers from eight panels of competitors, all of them B.C. high school students.

This is the final showdown of the Quizzics competition, itself the grand finale of the Physics Olympics, an annual event drawing over 700 students from all over the province to compete in a series of events blending scientific practice and theory.

For the right crowd this tournament is more impressive than basketball, more fun than Quidditch. Any high school hotshot can make a ball go through a hoop. These young wizards can tell you why it goes through.

The 72 student teams have spent the day competing in various events. In Fluid Flow, they competed to build the best siphon, and they also faced challenges in creating innovative timepieces, building functioning Rube Goldberg machines, and answering “Fermi Questions,” named for Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi. (Example Fermi poser: How long a line can you draw with a standard pencil? Calculating the answer involves finding the molecular structure of graphite and then figuring the rate of loss when drawing your line.)

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72 teams participated in this year’s Olympics. Photo by Ali Afsah.

There are medals and trophies for each event, with one school being named overall champion.

At the timepiece competition teams gather around jerry-built contraptions of dowels, duct tape and plastic funnels, each designed to keep accurate time using fluid, sand or other substances, none of them likely to threaten the bottom lines of Swatch or Rolex.

This competition is never going to replace BattleBots on cable. But no one is here seeking stardom. One group boasts burgundy sweatshirts emblazoned with the letters “vepd.” Which school is that, I ask one student? Not a school, she explains: “It’s ‘nerd’ spelled in the Greek alphabet.”

As the shirts suggest, this is a world where the stereotypical Mean Girls high school hierarchy has been inverted. Here, brains are the ticket. To wander through the Physics Olympics is to cut through the endless, vapid griping about the youth of today. “From what I’ve seen kids today aren’t different at all,” says Coope. “They are as dedicated and diligent as ever — they aren’t ‘snowflakes’ or whiners or any of those cliches that get tossed around.”

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Kids today are as ‘dedicated and diligent as ever,’ says Physics Olympics quizmaster Robin Coope. Photo by Theresa Liao.

There is at least one difference in modern students, according to organizer Mike Hasinoff: “They all expect email answers to their questions in under an hour.”

“There have definitely been changes in the ways we get information,” says Coope, a research engineer and group leader at the BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre.

“YouTube has made a difference, and it changes the process somewhat — students can go to YouTube and find lots of instructional videos that weren’t available previously,” he says. “But really, YouTube hasn’t altered the basics of teaching. In fact it has made us double down on those basics. Teachers have to teach the hard stuff. Classrooms force students to do the difficult things, to learn the hard concepts, to work in groups and exchange ideas. Without that grounding, the YouTube videos won’t help you. So our role is as important as ever.”

The Physics Olympics clearly make a lasting impression on participants, and the proof is in the volunteer staff running this year’s event.

“About a quarter of the university student volunteers participated in the Physics Olympics when they were high school students,” says organizer Theresa Liao of UBC’s physics and astronomy department. “We’ve also heard from students about how Physics Olympics changed their attitude and understanding of physics.”

It’s hard to avoid contrasts between this fact-based arena and the fuzzy, dubious world beyond. Even some of the Quizzics tests play on this contrast — one of the multiple-choice questions asked which would roll down a snowy hill faster, a bowling ball or a snowball that is picking up snow as it goes. The final option was: e) “Whichever believes in itself more.” (The correct answer was the bowling ball. There’s a formula to it, but I can’t read my notes.)

It all serves as a reminder of why science and politics rarely mesh well. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez once said, “There is no democracy in physics. We can’t say that some second-rate guy has as much right to an opinion as Fermi.”

Or as Coope says at the Quizzics event, “Nature does not care for your opinion.”

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Scientific madness! Photo by Ali Afsah.

The language of science is somewhat like Shakespeare or the King James Bible — its superficial familiarity can lead to misunderstandings. People are easily fooled into thinking they understand more than they do. Media reports highlight spectacular but misleading study results, politicians seize on irrelevant or out-of-context facts to mock or deceive, often beginning their outraged rants with, “I’m not a scientist but...”

Well, these kids are not politicians. Gathered around tables, intent on their work, they are all about results. And snacks. Based on the bags of gummies and jujubes scattered around, few of these young people are studying the science of nutrition.

The day wraps up in lecture hall two in the Woodward Library with the Quizzics final, to be followed by the awarding of medals. The lecture hall is packed. It’s a unique crowd — they break into spontaneous applause when one prof reveals a hilarious equation one of the Fluid Flow competitors came up with. (The equation was AV=AV. “It was sarcasm,” a student helpfully explains to me.)

The squirrel-knocking-a-pinecone-from-a-tall-tree question comes up, stumping the teams. The answer: the pine cone would fall to the east of the tree, because of the turning of the Earth. (It was, as the question stated, a very tall tree.)

When it’s all over the Quizzics final is won by the SATE team, a collection of students drawn from different schools. But there’s an interesting twist — the winning team takes the gold with a final score of zero. Wrong answers resulted in negative scores, so the other seven teams all finished in the hole. A team that had thrown its buzzer away as soon as they sat down would have tied for the gold medal. There’s physics, and then there’s game theory — a different discipline altogether.

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Winners! Photo by Theresa Liao.

Once all the event winners have been revealed comes the announcement of the overall Physics Olympics champion: Semiahmoo Secondary in Surrey. As it happens, they’re great at basketball too.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Science + Tech

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