Earlier this month, a team of talented physics students from Tucson’s Gregory School placed fourth in the world in the April 5-6 International Shalhevet Freier Physics Tournament at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, where they displayed their outstanding skills in high-tech safecracking.
Israel is an international leader in scientific innovation and the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science is committed to advancing science education worldwide. The Gregory School team — consisting of juniors Elaine Wright, Jaiveer Katariya, Tianyi Zhu, Daniel Leighou and senior Moritz Gloesslein, none of whom are Jewish, accompanied by chemistry teacher Colleen Kelley, Ph.D., physics teacher Dennis Conner and Head of School Julie Sherrill, Ph.D. — was one of only five physics teams in the U.S. and 30 in the world invited to participate in the competition, out of a pool of 133 teams from 15 countries.
An Israel Discovery Fund grant from the Jewish Community Foundation helped make the 10-day trip possible, providing 50 percent funding for two of the five students who could not otherwise participate.
Lock design, physics-style
In preparation for the tournament, each team was asked to propose, design and build a safe with a unique locking device based on physics principles, which other teams would attempt to break into. As the only Arizona school with a membership in MIT’s international Fab Lab network, the Gregory School was a strong candidate. Beginning last November, the team spent 250-300 hours working on their design in the school’s Fab Lab, equipped to MIT specifications with industrial-grade fabrication and electronics tools including a laser cutter and 3-D printer.
“We just installed the Fab Lab last August,” says Sherrill. The equipment allowed the students to prototype in an expedited fashion — they made iteration after iteration.”
Once the team arrived in Rehovot, problem-solving on the physics aspects of the design continued in an effort that went literally down to the wire. “The first two nights, we stayed up till 1 and 2 a.m.,” says Jaiveer. Success hung in the balance as they desperately searched for copper wire needed to modify their mechanism. In a frantic hunt that included trash cans, the physics teacher located what they sought. Finally, “Everything worked together and the door opened.”
Their safe, a wooden box with a transparent door, used a two-step electromagnetic opening mechanism based on the principle of magnetic induction. First, to complete an electrical circuit, a pendulum attached to a magnet had to be moved, using the electromagnetic properties of a copper bar. Then, in a second chamber, three rotors secured by a string held by magnets had to be released. To achieve success, would-be safecrackers needed to apply heat, as certain materials lose their magnetic property when heated to a given temperature, called the Curie point. Once the rotors were released, a rod pushed through all three completed a second circuit, allowing the door to open.
“Nine teams tried to open our safe, and two were successful,” says Moritz. “We attempted six and opened two.” Theirs was the only mechanism to use magnetic induction, he adds.
First place went to a team from the United Kingdom, with Slovenia and Israel taking second and third. The Gregory School team was the only one to place in the top five who hadn’t previously competed in the tournament.
Creating intercultural synergy
As part of their trip, the team and faculty toured cultural and historic sites in and around Tel Aviv, Rehovot and Jerusalem. Their visit to a Bedouin community was enlivened by sightings of wandering camels, goats and other local fauna. A tasting tour of the Jerusalem market yielded delights ranging from exotic spices to a gelato store featuring wasabi ice cream.
Swimming in the Dead Sea brought physics exuberantly to life. “It was awesome,” says Tianyi. “Because there’s 33 percent sodium in the water, it has buoyant force. You can roll up or stand, and your head and shoulders stay above the water.”
A Jewish member of the Gregory School community, Naomi Weiner, connected the group with family living in Israel, who welcomed them to their homes. They shared a traditional Shabbat dinner and heard about impressions of everyday life in Israel versus the United States. “Israel is more conducive to living a Jewish lifestyle,” says Jaiveer. “In the U.S., they had to come home at five, with no time to prepare for Shabbat. In Israel, the work week ends at three [on Friday], and some people work Sunday through Thursday.”
Impressed at the sight of a home bomb shelter, with “concrete walls a foot thick,” Jaiveer was struck by their hostess’ matter-of-fact attitude to possible bombings and her concerns for safety in America. “She was more afraid of shootings in the U.S.”
For each of the visitors, the immense sense of history that permeates Israel made a deep and lasting impression. Kelley, the chemistry teacher, was moved by their visit to Constitution Hall, where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent nation.
“It was really amazing to be exposed to all that history, and be in the room where it happened,” agrees Jaiveer. “So many lives were changed, and the course of world history.”
“My favorite was the Western Wall,” says Daniel. For a moment he looks far away. “Seeing how many people revered it as a powerful place …. I could feel all their energy.”
Back in Tucson, Kelley reflects on the aims of the JCF’s Israel Discovery Fund: to encourage building positive experiences and relationships between Jews and non-Jews, and promote positive relations with Israel. She smiles.
“They’ve certainly done that.”
“It was an exceptional chance for the students to meet others from so many countries,” says Sherrill. “The TGS team played table tennis with members of the Slovenia team. It was an opportunity to appreciate how similar we all are.”
Elaine, who studies Spanish, French and Latin, hopes to double major in engineering and languages. Visiting the Weizmann Institute showed her how science and foreign languages can meet and connect. “Engineering is practical,” she says. “But I want my languages to be a tool.”
All of the participants agreed that the educational value of the trip went far beyond physics.
“It was just a fantastic opportunity, says Elaine. “We were so grateful.”
Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.