In mid-February I participated in an online team-based physics challenge called PLANCKS. If you ever did the UKMT Maths Challenge in school it was kind of like that, but for Physics- the questions were very “out there”- for example, one had us find the area of a mirror that was being used to move a star at a certain sped by sending photons back towards it, and another required dimensional analysis to find a formula involving the surface tension on a liquid droplet. The questions were more accessible to a first-year than I thought they would be, which was a pleasant surprise- though to be blunt my friend and I did need our teammate from an older year (and different university) to carry us through some of the questions.

Working with a physics student from outside of Durham was pretty fun, though the online environment did limit the interaction we could actually have- I think if I were to participate again under similar circumstances I’d put in a bit more effort in getting to know students from other universities. There were a lot of online activities (quizzes, games, even a minecraft server) running throughout the weekend. I don’t think an online event can ever really replace a face-to-face meeting, but there was quite a lot put on to maximise the social aspect which I appreciated, even if I didn’t find the time to do much of it.

A variety of speakers gave Physics talks which were interesting- I listened to one given by Dr Sam Carr on the history and depth behind Ohm’s law, and one by Dr Francesca Chadha-Day (who is an assistant professor at Durham!) on dark matter and creativity in physics. It felt very novel being given a talk from somone who is part of Durham university; it’s a weird jump going from a sixth form which is totally unknown on a national scale to studying at a fairly well known institution.

There was also the chance to talk to some PhD students about their research online which I’m a total sucker for- I really like hearing how different people end up in their respective fields as well as what they actually do in their PhD. I even got the chance to interview one PhD student, Victoria Fawcett, afterwards- you can find the interview on the first episode of my podcast!

I’m definitely going to participate again next year- it was worthwhile even online, and I imagine it would be more fun actually working with a team in person instead of over Zoom- one team was working on a whiteboard outside in the snow which must have made the exam more exciting.

As great as the Zoom setup was, actual human interaction would probably make solving the questions easier.

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