The past month, I had the honor and privilege of attending the International Summer School for Young Physicists (ISSYP) run by the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. ISSYP is a two-week program for high school students interested in theoretical physics. Each year, Perimeter invites 40 students – 20 students from Canada and 20 from around the world – to attend ISSYP. Although the two weeks seemed to pass by quickly, my experience at ISSYP was magical.
After an arduous 23 hours long journey to Waterloo from Bangalore, I met students from diverse parts of the world – from Ecuador to Singapore, from Brazil to Malaysia, and from Ghana to Switzerland. When one of the chaperones opened the program by telling us all “the physics will be fun, but you will learn all that in university. The real highlight of ISSYP will be the friends you make” I did not realize how true it was until after the program ended.
The program consisted of mini-lectures, “reflect and review” sessions, keynotes, mentoring sessions, fun visits to IQC and SNOLAB, and lots of social activities. The lectures covered many interesting topics like quantum mechanics, special and general relativity, cosmology, and Hawking radiation. After each lecture, we were handed out a “reflect and review” worksheet to supplement our understanding in a said topic. We had “reflect and review” sessions every evening after supper, where we would sit in groups and try to work through the engaging (and sometimes challenging!) questions. Some student volunteers – mostly undergraduate or graduate students – would drop by to help us navigate through and solve these questions.
There were several keynote sessions given by Perimeter Institute physicists and researchers in their fields of work/research. My top 2 keynote presentations were “Cosmos, the beginnings” by Prof. Ghazal Geshnizjani of the University of Waterloo and on the late physicist Stephen Hawking by Raymond Laflamme. Raymond Laflamme was a doctoral student under Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge and now is the founder of The Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo. As Stephen Hawking’s student, he convinced Hawking that time can not reverse in a contracting universe or a black hole.
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
Further, one of my students, Raymond Laflamme, found that in a slightly more complicated model, the collapse of the universe was very different from the expansion. I realized that I had made a mistake: the no boundary condition implied that disorder would in fact continue to increase during the contraction. The thermodynamic and psychological arrows of time would not reverse when the universe begins to recontract, or inside black holes.
Furthermore, we had visits to IQC and SNOLAB. At IQC, we learned about quantum mechanics and cryptography, did some hands-on-experiments with superconductors and liquid nitrogen, and even sent an encrypted message using lasers!
SNOLAB is the shortened form of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Laboratory located in Sudbury, nicknamed the “Nickel City”, around 500 kilometers from Waterloo. SNOLAB is an underground laboratory located 2 km underground that mainly focuses on subatomic physics, namely dark matter physics and neutrinos. Fun fact: Sir Arthur McDonald (jointly) received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics for showing that neutrinos have mass after running an experiment at SNOLAB that showed electron neutrinos from the Sun were changing flavors – which meant that neutrinos had mass.
We had mentoring sessions where each student was teamed up with four other students and a mentor on a specialized topic. I was in the Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation group mentored by Jamie Sikora, a postdoc researcher at Perimeter Institute. We started off by learning basic mathematical concepts in quantum mechanics like matrices, eigenvalues and eigenvectors, and quantum measurement and then dived into more intriguing topics like quantum entanglement and teleportation. Towards the end of the mentorship, we learned some interesting techniques in cryptography before it became a bit too math-y (we were being taught a graduate-level course!). After learning as much as we could in 4 days with an awesome mentor, we presented a poster to display the knowledge we had gained over the session.
And now comes my favorite highlight of the program – the social activities! In the first week, we visited St. Jacob’s farmers market and uptown Waterloo. Later that week, we had an intense game of LaserQuest! It was an amazing first experience attacking people with laser beams even though I ended up sixth (from the bottom!). The second week, we had a beautiful trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It was magnificent, literally.
My 2 weeks at ISSYP were nothing short of extraordinary and amazing and one article won’t do justice to all the memories I have of it. Although I might not remember all the physics I learned, I will never forget all the fun times I had, the laughter I shared, and the memories I made with some of the most exceptional minds in physics.
If you are a physics nerd like me with a passion for physics and are aged between 16-18 (don’t worry if you don’t fall into this age range!), you should consider applying to ISSYP. You will love it, I promise.