MIT team wins International Theoretical Physics Olympiad
Xie and Raman participated in the high school International Physics Olympiad while Cuozzo and Smith had no physics competition experience prior to MIT
The Spherical Cows, a team composed of MIT students William Cuozzo ’22, Lay Jain ’22, Sanjay Raman ’23, Alexander Smith ’22, and YuQing Xie ’22, won the 2020 International Theoretical Physics Olympiad (ITPO) held Jan. 25-26.
The MIT team scored 67 points, 24 points higher than the second-place team. The exam included questions such as generating gravitational waves from boiling water and developing multi-center black hole geometries.
According to emails to The Tech, Xie and Raman participated in the high school International Physics Olympiad while Cuozzo and Smith had never done physics competitions prior to attending MIT. Cuozzo and Smith also competed in the 2019 ITPO under the same team name.
Raman, Smith, and Xie major in physics. Cuozzo and Jain double major in physics and computer science.
Smith wrote in an email to The Tech that the team prepared by looking over “the problems and solutions of previous” competitions. Xie wrote in an email to The Tech that the team also “checked the backgrounds of the problem writers to try to guess what types of problems would appear.”
Smith wrote that the greatest challenge was “understanding what each question was asking” and determining “what variables and equations are relevant” before “even try[ing] to solve anything.”
Raman wrote in an email to The Tech that it was challenging to find out how “to most efficiently collaborate” and divide the work. “I think we ended up figuring out a pretty good system,” Raman wrote.
Cuozzo wrote in an email to The Tech that continuing “to think critically later in the competition became increasingly difficult,” especially in developing “new and worthwhile thoughts.” The ITPO “is much more about how you react” to the problems “than anything you’ve done previously,” Cuozzo wrote.
Cuozzo and Raman both wrote that the team worked well together. “On top of being absolutely brilliant they are all wonderful people to work with,” Cuozzo wrote.
Xie wrote that participating in the ITPO allowed him to meet Cuozzo and Smith, praising the team’s “diversity of expertise.”
Smith wrote that he is “always surprised by just how many complicated physical phenomena can be explained by undergraduate physics.”
“I’d like to acknowledge the ITPO organizers who took the time to create a unique and interesting competition for undergrads,” Cuozzo wrote.
The ITPO’s website writes that the problems are written by PhD students and postdocs. The exams allow students to “play with non-trivial questions and to learn through competition,” the website writes.
Jain did not respond to The Tech’s request for comment.
Update 6/4/2020: This article was corrected to state that the MIT team scored 67 points. A previous version stated that the team scored 63 points.