How many coffee cups fit in an Olympic-size swimming pool?  

This and other seemingly simple questions are among the ones tackled by Politecnico students in the International Physicists Tournament competition

Straddling Europe, the Americas, Oceania and Asia, physics students meet to battle it out on the field of the International Physicists Tournament (IPT), an experimental physics competition organised and run by university students.

The problems to be solved are practical and difficult, fun and a little absurd. A few examples:

– Building the tallest Lego brick tower... But beware: the bricks are made of food jelly 

– Understanding when honey is completely dissolved in hot tea 

– Building models of maple seeds out of paper, ie the ones that fall in a spiral flight thanks to a special propeller 

– Recreating the Northern Lights in a glass ball 

– Placing graphite in a microwave and bringing it to the right temperature for it to glow 

– Building a lighter out of things a Bronze Age man had at his disposal 

The Politecnico team has existed for five years thanks to a French Erasmus student in Milan. As Professor Giacomo Ghiringhelli of the Department of Physics explained, it was said student who introduced this competition to Politecnico. After all, this tournament originated in France. At the moment, the Politecnico team is the only Italian team taking part in the IPT. Professor Ghiringhelli put us in touch with three 23-year-old students who participated last year: Sophie Cavallini, Luca Perego and Dario Ventura.

The three explained how the competition works: "It lasts from October until spring, there are various stages to go through. The final is usually held in a different city: last year we were in Colombia, whereas this year it was held in Paris from 23 to 29 April", Sophie explained. The team in which Luca, Sophie and Dario were last year ranked 7th out of 15 participants worldwide. This year the Politecnico team ranked sixth: "The best result ever" - commented Professor Ghiringhelli. There is still a long way to go!

Each competition presents around fifteen different problems, proposed by the students themselves or by PhD students. Each team is composed of about 10-15 members. The teams have 10 minutes to present the solution to the problem and one hour to discuss it with the opposing team, while a third team (called the 'reviewer') monitors the situation and decides on conflicts, like a kind of referee. A committee of doctoral students assigns marks to the various teams. At the beginning the teams are divided into two groups. The best ones advance to the semifinals and from there the best two to the final.

Summing up why it is a must-do experience was an excellent statement from Dario: "Stimulating the scientific debate". "Participating" - added Luca - "proves useful because you do practical things and also learn how to make presentations". And what’s the prize to be won? "Nothing... Or rather, honour and glory!" - said Sophie, laughing. "However, this is a wonderful experience that allows us to get to know peers from all over the world who have the same interests as us".