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A Shared Love of Physics Breaks Down Barriers

International Conference of Physics Students

August 4, 2012 to August 10, 2012

Utrecht and Enschede, the Netherlands


Christopher Frye

SPS Chapter:

Upon arriving overseas for the 2012 International Conference of Physics Students (ICPS) in the Netherlands, I immediately encountered a language barrier. It would be a constant reminder during my stay that I was a visitor in a foreign country and culture. I developed an envy of European students proficient in two, three, or even four languages, having spent their lives in multicultural environments.

The event fell at the end of my summer studentship at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, so I had already enjoyed nine weeks immersed in a European environment. But at ICPS I met students coming from an especially diverse collection of countries. Some had just entered university. Others were nearly finished with doctorates. The friendliness with which all attendees treated one another took me by surprise. Each encounter with a new group of students gave me the impression that they had all come from the same university, even though they had often just met the previous day on the bus. A shared love of physics quickly broke down the barriers between students of different cultures.

Learning about other countries' approaches to studying physics forced me to analyze my own opinions about the US education system. Many of the students I met last summer specialized in physics immediately upon entering their universities, which made me slightly jealous; their demanding high school curricula made further general education in college unnecessary. Such a system lets students progress quickly to explore quite advanced material by the third year. However, I do prefer the American system's approach of absorbing the master's degree into the PhD program. This allows students to build strong relationships with professors at their universities and provides undergraduate research opportunities quite uncommon throughout Europe.

The opening night of the conference began with a welcome lecture by the Dutch physicist-turned-politician Jan Terlouw. Speaking in a cathedral built shortly after the turn of the first millennium, he described his love for the beauty of physics and the search for truth, and stressed the responsibility all physicists hold as citizens. He emphasized that those who quantitatively understand the laws of nature must admonish their leaders and their peers when policies seem doomed for failure. Terlouw warned the audience that current economic models, upon which governments base decisions, assume infinite growth can be achieved; however, we live on Earth, which is essentially a closed system once one includes the Sun. Because infinite growth cannot occur in a finite system, he fears society may soon collapse and calls on scientists to spread the word.

In a fascinating two-hour lecture, Hitoshi Murayama of the University of California, Berkeley, spoke about neutrinos and why they might be the reason that stars, planets, and humans are all made of matter. He discussed theories that combine ideas about antineutrinos, extra dimensions, and asymmetries between matter and antimatter. These theories attempt to explain why shortly after the big bang, the universe consisted mostly of matter instead of antimatter. Bill Unruh of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, spent the majority of his lecture explaining an illuminating analogy between photons traveling near a black hole and water waves traveling on the surface of a stream with varying current speeds. It surprised me to discover that experiments done with water waves have provided insights into black hole thermodynamics.

During the conference, I also enjoyed hearing about the research projects of the new friends I made during the student lecture sessions. I especially enjoyed talks about knot theory and the foundations of quantum mechanics. During the poster session, I had an illuminating discussion with a student studying tachyons, hypothetical particles that travel faster than light.

I also had the privilege of giving a talk about my latest research at the European laboratory CERN—a new method for beam splitting in a machine called the Proton Synchrotron. With 20 minutes allotted for my presentation, I went into detail, describing the theory and the calculations behind my work. I enjoyed the challenge of making the talk understandable to those in the room with a knowledge of only elementary physics.

All together, ICPS was a wonderful learning opportunity. Not only did I gain experience in presenting a lecture on my own research and finding out about neutrinos in the early universe, but I also came to appreciate the rich diversity of cultures and perspectives exemplified by the new friends I made from around the world. //

Next up

The next ICPS will take place August 15–21, 2013 

Edinburgh, Scotland


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