"Physics can be simple and beautiful"
Chenkai Mao from China won first place and a gold medal at the International Physics Olympiad held in Zurich in July 2016. This 19-year-old son of a nurse and a doctor of traditional medicine came first out of 400 participants from 86 countries.
(From "Horizons" no. 110 September 2016)
How did you prepare for the Olympiad?
These kinds of competition play an important role in China, as they are related to university entrance exams. I started physics at high school three years ago, then went through four competitions before my national selection. I prepared for a couple of months. We've helped each other in the team, but at the end you stand on your own!
Why did you participate?
First, because of my passion for physics. At my age it's the perfect choice, and an honour to represent my country.
The hardest part of the test?
To be honest, the theory part was challenging but not so hard for the Chinese team. It was more difficult to manage the available time to carry out all the experiments, about five hours. You have to prioritise – should you take extra time for more precise measurements, or carry on instead?
Apart from your medal, what will you take back home?
It was a most inspiring experience, an unforgettable one! It was great to meet so many participants from around the world.
You want to become a researcher?
Physics is a fundamental subject that can lead to many different things – maths, chemistry. It's hard to say what will happen in ten years, but my dream would be to become a university professor or to work in a research institute.
What does physics represent for you?
It changed my view of the world. It describes it using universal principles – and, above all, accurate principles. Physics can be simple and beautiful. In China, most people think that it is not so practical and too far removed from society. They have their own experiences and reasons for their opinion, but I think it's important to inspire the younger generation.