Harvey Mudd Sophomores Earn Gold in International Physics Competition

Harvey Mudd College sophomores Kevin Kim and Lucien Tsai competed with international teams in the 12th annual University Physics Competition and were named Gold Medal Winners for their paper describing the potential damage of an asteroid on a coastal city. Among the six teams winning top honors, the Harvey Mudd team was the smallest (others had three members) and the only team from the United States (Polish and Chinese teams also won gold).

The University Physics Competition is an international contest for undergraduate students. Over a weekend in November, students worked in teams of up to three at their home colleges and universities, analyzing a real-world scenario using the principles of physics. Teams may use books, journals, computers, the internet, programs that they write or any other nonliving resources, but they may not consult with any people outside of their team. They then write and submit a paper describing their work. Of the 324 papers submitted in this year’s competition, six teams (1.9%) were ranked as Gold Medal Winners, 60 teams (19%) were ranked as Silver Medal Winners, 85 teams (26%) were ranked as Bronze Medal Winners and 173 teams (53%) were ranked as Accomplished Competitors.

Teams could select either problem A: “A Thicker Martian Atmosphere” or problem B: “Asteroid Ocean Impact.” Kim and Tsai, who were sponsored by physics professor Theresa Lynn, selected the asteroid problem: “Consider the impact of an asteroid in the ocean, 1,000 km from a coastal city. What is the minimum mass the asteroid would require in order to cause substantial damage to this city?”

Tsai says, “We chose problem B because it seemed to be more challenging in the sense that the physics is more involved with different physical principles employed from the asteroid entering the atmosphere to the resulting oceanic waves that reach the coastal city.

“Strategy-wise, we split the problem into three different parts: the asteroid coming from space to the oceanic surface, the impact crater created and the propagation of oceanic waves to the coastal city 1,000 km away. Within each of these parts, there is a main constitutive method to model the system; for example, in the first part, it is a problem of Newton’s second law and arriving at the differential equation to be numerically solved.”

Tsai adds, “As for the contest, it was very fun and exciting. Every second during the 48 hours, at least one of us was thinking of the dinosaurs.”