Physics in the pandemic: “Moving the International Physicists’ Tournament online was challenging” – Physics World


David Collomb is a PhD student at the University of Bath, UK, and is organiser of the International Physicists’ Tournament

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at

The International Physicists’ Tournament (IPT) is a global competition designed to test the problem-solving and presentation skills of undergraduate students interested in physics. Following the same format as the International Young Physicists’ Tournament (IYPT) for secondary schools, the IPT involves teams of up to six undergraduates spending nine months solving up to 17 challenging, open-ended and unsolved problems in physics.

The tournament winner is traditionally crowned at a week-long event that takes place at a different location each year. Previous hosts have included famous institutions such as the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) in Russia, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. This year, however, which was meant to be the twelfth ever final, things panned out rather differently.

Online challenge

As with many scientific events, conferences, seminars and trade fairs, it was increasingly looking likely that the IPT would have to moved online due to global restrictions designed to combat the spread of COVID-19. And so it was, that after much deliberation on how the pandemic will evolve, the executive team of the IPT decided to replace the physical event with a two-day, online tournament on the weekend of 26-27 September 2020.

The tournament usually consists of a series of “physics fights”.

The tournament usually consists of a series of “physics fights”. At the start of each, one team serves as “reporter”, with an other as “opponent”, and a third holds acting as “reviewer”. The reporter is challenged by the opponent to present their work on one of the problems. Once presented, the opponent then has to constructively critique the reporter’s work.

A debate ensues in which the two teams, with guidance from the reviewer, aim to improve upon the approach proposed by the reporter. After the first round, the roles switch and the process repeats until each team has held all roles. A panel of judges grades each role, giving marks out of 10. After a series of fights, the top three teams proceed to a final.

A tense affair

Moving the tournament online was challenging. Time zones were the first major hurdle, with participants stretching from Columbia to China (a huge 13-hour difference). We ended up altering the rules to ensure all teams could participate at reasonable times. We did this by removing the reviewer role for all qualifying fights (apart from the final), which drastically cut the times of each fight.

To allow students from across the world to mingle and mix — one of the unique features of the tournament — we also introduced extra activities and opportunities, including the IPT’s first-ever photo competition. It allowed participants to share their creativity and team comradery through submitted photos on social media.

A total of 10 teams took part in the tournament this year, each taking part in three qualifying fights. After the first two, the race looked close with just eight points separating all teams in the top half of the table. It was only after the final fight that the top three teams – MIPT (Russia), Kharkiv Karazin National University (Ukraine) and Rice University (US) – emerged. Rice was one of two teams to appear for the first time in the tournament, the other being from SNS NUST in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The final itself, which you can watch on You Tube, was a tense affair between the teams from Russia and the Ukraine, with only three points out of a total possible 60 separating them after the three rounds. Viewers were treated to a presentation by the You Tube science communicator Bruce Yeany, who gave his thoughts on some of the problems he had presented and investigated himself in the past. In a tense final few moments, the Russian team emerged as the overall winner.

Don’t stop us now

The tournament, however, didn’t end on the Sunday. Recognising that some teams hadn’t been able to hunt for solutions since March due to COVID-19, the executive committee decided to hold three days of presentations in a traditional conference format. This allowed teams to present solutions that hadn’t been challenged in the tournament, while also giving an opportunity to teams that hadn’t been able to take part at all, such as those from Brazil and Poland, to show the fruits of their labours.

The pandemic is one of the strongest challenges faced so far in many of our lives, with much of our ordinary day-to-day happenings being rattled and our future placed on shaky grounds. However, the online IPT revealed the strengths of our ability to innovate and bring people together in the midst of isolation, adding much welcome streams of positivity for physics students across the world.

I would like to give special thanks on behalf of the executive committee to all the participants who took part and presented high quality solutions, and to our jury who volunteered their weekend to provide valuable feedback to the students. Anyone interested in taking part in future events is welcome to contact the executive committee via this link.

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