Good Life

State High student to train for International Physics Olympiad

Vincent Liu writes Maxwell’s Equations on a white board, though you usually can think them through in his head. Liu is a student at State High who was selected for the 2016 U.S. Physics Team.
Vincent Liu writes Maxwell’s Equations on a white board, though you usually can think them through in his head. Liu is a student at State High who was selected for the 2016 U.S. Physics Team. adrey@centredaily.com

Odds are that you and Vincent Liu have something in common.

Liu is a senior at State College Area High School — a slender, bespectacled young man who was recently identified as one of 20 students out 4,300 to be named to the 2016 U.S. Physics Team.

This means that at the end of the month, Liu and other survivors of the Fnet=ma exam will gather at the University of Maryland, where they will attempt to cram two years worth of university-level physics into two weeks.

And he’s very much looking forward to this.

“Really what drives me to keep exploring is the fundamental nature of the world,” Liu said.

It’s like looking in a mirror, no?

I really like to find out how the world works. That’s conducive to studying physics.

Vincent Liu

Maybe it would help if we leveled the playing field a bit by backing up to early childhood, a time of peak curiosity where questions have yet to take on the sarcastic inflection that is a mainstay of both the early teens and ’90s-era sitcoms.

Like most children, one of the first mysteries of the universe that Liu tried to unravel was flight. When he looked at an airplane he saw two wings, a fuselage and couple of engines, but how those things came together to defy gravity was a puzzle.

He had a few theories, mind you, but Liu is careful to stress that these were just the work of a kid — one without a background in physics, no less — and not the young man who will attend Penn State as an undergraduate in the fall.

So sure, he’s refined some of his ideas, but his natural curiosity remains more or less unbridled, something Liu seems unlikely to outgrow any time soon.

“I really like to find out how the world works. That’s conducive to studying physics,” Liu said.

Bob White, an Advanced Placement physics teacher at State High, said that he typically administers the screening test for the U.S. Physics Team to between 10 and 20 student volunteers a year.

Liu is only the second student in State High history to qualify for the training camp, an accomplishment that White attributes in part to his student’s uncanny ability to sift through the multiple solutions that can obscure a single problem.

“He has a very mature intellect, and he has a rigorous ability to synthesize and apply knowledge,” White said.

Liu and physics began as a summer fling, a fun way to fritter away the time between his sophomore and junior year.

Once the fall hit, they started seeing each other all the time in class and things got more serious from there.

He has a very mature intellect and he has a rigorous ability to synthesize and apply knowledge.

Bob White, AP physics teacher

This is the second time he’s taken the Fnet=ma test. Last year he received an honorable mention. Later this month, he’ll be packing for Maryland.

At the end of the camp, five students will be selected to compete in the 47th International Physics Olympiad in Switzerland and Liechtenstein this July.

Liu is working hard to make sure that he’s one of those five.

He’s studying up on electromagnetism, retaking older versions of the test and reading lectures by renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

“It’s just like homework,” Liu said.

Attending the olympiad would certainly be nice, but he says that’s not what he’s after.

Much like when he was a kid looking up at an airplane, he just wants a tighter grasp on the bigger principles at play in the universe.

“It’s my goal to really understand what’s going on,” Liu said.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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