My Adventures at the International Conference of Physics Students

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Meeting Notes - SPS Reporters at Science Conferences

My Adventures at the International Conference of Physics Students


Nick DePorzio, Former Associate Zone Councilor (AZC) Representative, Northeastern University 

Hundreds of physicists from around the world gather in Turin, Italy, for the 2017 International Conference of Physics Students. Photo courtesy of Marianna D’Amato.

Maybe you’ve calculated a Lagrangian, but have you ever walked in Lagrange’s shoes? You know how a rocket flies, but do you know how to fly it? You’ve fantasized about superpowers, but have you proved you could have one? This summer, hundreds of physics students from across the world gathered in Turin, Italy, for the 2017 International Conference of Physics Students. In addition to touring the city Lagrange called home, reliving an astronaut’s tale of piloting the space shuttle, and deducing the electromagnetism in Electro and Magneto’s superpowers, the multinational assembly of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students broadened their understanding of the physics community they are a part of through the friendships they made and the issues they united behind.

If you’ve been to a two-day professional conference, you might expect to find yourself with a few hours of free time in between events. This conference was nothing like that. Seven days of back-to-back events began with an early welcome and training for the delegates representing several dozen countries. As the United States delegate and a first-time attendee, my initial insecurity was displaced by warm welcomes.

The conference officially opened on the campus of the University of Torino. Greetings from various officials of the European science agencies were followed by an anxiously anticipated lecture from the author of The Physics of Superheroes: Professor James Kakalios. After the lively presentation, we recessed into the classically ornate courtyard of the Palazzo dell’Università, where food, conversation, and dancing progressed long into the night.

In the following days, we would be treated to six more lectures, two poster sessions, a series of workshops, multiple rounds of oral presentations, and a physics scavenger hunt through the city. No topics were off limits in the great sea of knowledge spanning from condensed matter to high energy, including discussions of science outreach, the present scientific climate, and even the history of the conference itself (as presented by an 11-time conference veteran). Numerous coffee breaks kept the events in motion and morale high. After each long day of proceedings was an opportunity to bond with the other attendees and share experiences. A costume party honored the opening lecture, the “That’s Amore” party honored our Italian hosts, and, most moving of all, the Nation’s Party offered each delegation the opportunity to share the cuisine and culture of their home country with the other participants.

Of course, there was business to be done as well, at the Annual General Meeting, where student delegates elect new leadership of the organization, decide on the locations of future conferences, and work to solve issues facing the physics student community. I was warned going in that this infamous event had lasted as long as 8 hours in recent years. Our meeting ran 13 hours!

In the course of attending this conference, I learned that not all problems in our field are technical—some are social, some are a consequence of external political agendas, and others become apparent when practices normal to one culture are interpreted in the context of another. This conference also made clear just how limited are my means, or the means of any individual. There is an immense amount of knowledge locked away in the works of other languages I will never learn, and modes of thought contained within cultures I may never experience. Surely then, working with a diverse collection of people, each person possessing partial access to these realms of understanding, is absolutely necessary if we hope to answer the most difficult questions. 

International Conference of Physics Students organizers meet with participants to get them registered for a fun-filled seven-day conference. Photo courtesy of Marianna D’Amato.

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Meeting Notes - SPS Reporters at Science Conferences