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Students compete in physics competition

Meredith Mc Linn conducts research for the University Physics Competition.

How would volcanic activity on other Earth-like planets, with a mass up to three times as much as Earth, vary over time? Three MSUM students tackled that problem in the 2012 University Physics Competition.

Meredith Mc Linn, a junior physics major with an emphasis in astronomy and a minor in computer science, along with seniors Shouvik Bhattacharya, a double major in mathematics and physics with an emphasis in astronomy, and Pragalv Karki, a physics major and mathematics minor, spent nearly 20 hours trying to come up with a plausible solution.

The nation-wide competition, which took place Nov. 16 to 18, consists of teams of three students. The teams have 48 hours, 7 p.m. on Friday to 7 p.m. on Sunday, to pick a problem, conduct research, write a paper summarizing their findings and submit it to the competition.

The competition first started in 2010 where 58 teams participated. In 2011, 77 teams participated. The competition’s popularity is continuing to grow and more than 1,000 students will participate this year.

Both Mc Linn and Bhattacharya participated in the competition last year, and Mc Linn plans to compete yet again next year.

The teams are able to pick from two different problems. This year, the MSUM team chose to study volcanic activity over what size Ping-Pong ball would make the sport most enjoyable to watch.

“The volcanic activity problem seemed like the most fun,” Bhattacharya said.

The project was not a cakewalk for the students. The team was able to use any non-human resource. A lot of the research and solutions were based off previous theories, and sometimes assumptions had to be made.

“We used the concept of thermal diffusivity,” Karki said. “Heat lost due to convection of magma and Newton’s law of cooling to model the number of active volcanoes as a function of time.”

Karki, along with his teammates, worked diligently on the equations and process of the problem. Bhattacharya handled a lot of the technical aspects and Mc Linn wrote the concept paper and helped the team stay on track.

“I helped conceptually keep things straight forward,” Mc Linn said. “Sometimes what can happen is the questions are kind of vague and are dealing with things we haven’t yet touched. This year we wanted to keep things very straightforward.”

The competition results for 2012 will be released and posted on The University Physics Competition website, www.uphysicsc.com, on Dec. 21.

“It was difficult to come up with a solution that satisfied all three of us, but in general we all had fun and worked efficiently as a team,” Karki said.

PHOTO AND STORY BY MEREDITH WATHNE
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