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Interview with Mikhail Goryaev and Sergei Sokolin on Physics Fights in 1960s

Historical IYPT interviews — ilyamartch @ 11:35 am

>New evidence is found that the Physics Fights (fizboi) existed in the Soviet Union as early as in 1965. They already relied on defending reports before opponents and jurors, but still had theoretical tasks to be solved immediately and no long-term research problems. Details on organization and highlights of these events are unveiled by participant Mikhail Goryaev and history amateur Sergei Sokolin.

Mikhail Goryaev (b. 1949 in Arkhangelsk) graduated in 1972 from the Department of Physics at Leningrad State University, defended a PhD in technical sciences at the Vavilov State Optical Institute in 1977 and a Russian habilitation degree of doktor nauk in technical sciences in 2000. He is now a professor at the division of Physical Electronics at the State Russian Herzen Pedagogical University in St Petersburg.

Sergei Sokolin (b. 1952) graduated in 1975 from the Department of Mathematics at Leningrad State University. He works now in the computer games industry and has published a detailed research survey on developments of science competitions for secondary school students, focusing on Olympiads and Mathematics Fights.

S. S. I read your message with much interest. As an author, I am very pleased that my note on Olympiads is of interest for someone. It would be my pleasure to help you more, but I always liked mathematics, never understood physics and never took part in physics competitions, with almost no relevant memories left after graduation from Physico-Mathematical School 45 in 1970.

My note on competitions in the SPbGU magazine was born quite occasionally. When visiting the Akademicheskaya Gimnaziya building on Kakhovskogo in early 2008 to meet my teacher Nina Kirovna Gutkova (who teaches there since 1964!), I visited the school museum, which is now run by Nina Kirovna.

I noticed mistakes in the list of winners of International Olympiads on one of the posters in the museum (after moving to Peterhof in early 1980s, after many teachers leaving the school, changing the focus to humanities, passing though the time of troubles in 1990s when no one took care of anything, it ended up that full materials on winners at Olympiads were missing.) “It would be nice to recover these materials”, Nina Kirovna said. It was the 45th anniversary of the school, and I wanted to help Nina Kirovna, because her museum work in collecting materials on the school’s history does not meet much encouragement from the principals. So I agreed.

I must note that I never was active with Olympiads after school, and unfortunately said farewell to mathematics a long ago, so I had to start from the very beginning. I looked through Kvant publications, but it has been issued since 1970, with no information on 1963-1970. I started searching graduates and inquire them. Kvant was sufficient to complete lists of our winners at international Olympiads in physics and mathematics, but I became more motivated and found memories from “old” Olympians… Meantime, a group of graduates led by Mikhail Alexandrovich Goryaev (gold medalist in 1966 who taught physics for 12 years in the Internat, now a professor at Herzen University) decided to prepare a small book of materials on the Internat’s history. I was planning to write a note for this book, relying on the collected materials. The note was written, but no book was published on time (to the Anniversary), so Nina Kirovna promoted the note to be published in the Anniversary issue of SPbGU magazine, which you have read.

I. M. Could you recall any details from the Physics Fights that you attended in 1960s?

S. S. I can vaguely recall a single Physics Fight, among teams of classes 8a and 8b in the school year 1967-68 at the Internat 45. I was there as an observer.

There were exactly two teams, and no problems were known in advance. The teams challenged each other to present the solutions, in turn. The “challenging” team was nominating a participant who reviewed the presentation, and could have earned points only if he found drawbacks in the solution of opponent. The same participant presented their solution and earned points if the “challenged” team had no solution. The “challenging” team could easily lose points, if they were found to have no solution (I remember a similar case at the Mathematics Fight among the same classes. The “challenged” team did not solve the problem, so the representative of “challengers” had to present their solution, but his solution was erroneous. )

The problems were not research-oriented, but normal, typical at written Olympiads. Quite strangely, I can approximately recall one of these problems,

“There are two identical steel balls. One of them is suspended on inextensible rope, and the second is placed on a stand. Both balls have the same temperature. They are heated up to the same temperature. Are the amounts of heat transferred to the balls also the same?”

The 8b class challenged. The representative was Sergei Kuchinsky (now a physicist, a PhD and a collaborator at one of the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences.) The reporter from 8a was Boris Petrov (now also a physicist, head of a division at Rosatom and a PhD.) The 8a did not solve the problem. Boris tried to solve the problem impromptu, but with no success. His considerations were wrong (due to lack of other ideas, he suggested that the amounts of heat would be the same in both cases.)

Sergei Kuchinsky presented a correct solution and his class earned the deserved points (I do not remember the solution, but it was related to changes in potential energy of the balls, as the center of the suspended ball was descending, and the center of the ball on a stand was lifting.)

Here is clearly visible the specifics of a team competition: as an Olympiad participant, Boris Petrov was much stronger than Sergei Kuchinsky. Boris was a triple winner at all-Soviet Olympiads and a first-position winner at IPhO 1979. Meantime, Sergei has never participated even at the all-Soviet Olympiad. Most probably, during this Fight, Boris was occupied with solving different problems from the list.

I. M. Do you have any detailed information on how the Mathematics Fights were held in 1960s?

S. S. I can say that the journal paper was published in a shortened way (11 pages left out of 19), and the editor made these revisions without me. Here I can share a section on Mathematics Fights, not included into the paper, but published in the book.

“The competition among Leningrad and Moscow university schools has been traditionally held even at a formal level. A Mathematics Fight, among these strongest schools nationwide, was annually held during the all-Soviet Olympiad. [...] The Mathematics Fight is a different form of competition, a team-based one. Several teams (most often, two teams) were offered with tasks to solve, and all participants within the teams were solving them together. Afterwards, teams in turn presented the solutions before jurors, all team members and observers. A correct solution was graded with points, which were then summed up to determine the winner. These unusual competitions involved a tactical strategy, in comparison to “individual” Olympiad. For example, if both competitors had solved exactly three identical problems, a team was losing if they were challenging competitors first! I personally remembered two Mathematics Fights.

One, in 1969, involved my team of 10a class and the famous team of “Alexei Alexandrov’s class” (9a at the time.) We won with a narrow margin, while it was later known that the competitors solved more problems! The strategical nature of a Fight and deducing points by the strict jury (led by Yu. I. Ionin) for “non-ethical remarks” contributed to that.

The second one, among teachers and students, was held seemingly in 1968. The juror, invited on purpose of the event, was professor Garald Isidorovich Natanson from the Department of Mathematics. Yu. I. Ionin, A. V. Yakovlev, L. D. Kurlyandchik, Yu. V. Matiyasevich, G. Rosenblum were certainly in the team of teachers. I recall S. Semenkov, A. Berzinsh, P. Suvorov in the team of students. The conference room in Internat, where the competition was held, was filled with people. I recall a funny episode when Anatoly Vladimirovich Yakovlev, who reported one of the problems, presented it “orally” with no formulas written on blackboard. In result, the audience consisting mostly of non-mathematicians (almost all school gathered there) ceased understanding anything at the first minute of the presentation. Murmuring, laugh and remarks “Whom are you speaking to?” spread across the room, and the kindest physics teacher, adored by all students, Viktor Kirillovich Kobushkin, experienced an emotional excess: he started laughing and could not stop. Yakovlev made a pause and pointed to Viktor Kirillovich, saying, “He makes me laugh.” The jury had difficulties calming down the audience.

Cold-blooded remained, however, professor G. I. Natanson and Pavel Suvorov who opposed on behalf of the team of students. When Yakovlev finished his presentation, Pavel imperturbably pointed to a mistake in the solution. [...]

Yu. I. Ionin, however, filled entire blackboard with his solution and explained everything very clearly, in his usual manner. I recall that teachers won at the event. [...]“

I. M. Can you possibly advice who may recall details on Physics Fights held earlier than in 1967-1968?

S. S. I will try to figure out who can preserve the information that you need, among people I know, and I will transfer the questions. My little experience evidences that everyone has forgotten everything.

I. M. Thank you.

M. G. I have received your inquiry about the history of Physics Fights from Sergei Sokolin.

The first Physics Fight in Leningrad was held in Spring 1965 between the teams of Physico-Mathematical Schools 38, 239 and 45. The key organizer of the event was Viktor Kirillovich Kobushkin, who initiated the name of the competition as such.

This Physics Fight was held at the Pioneer’s Palace and the jury chair was the professor at Leningrad University Nikita Alexeevich Tolstoi.

The problems were not distributed in advance and they implied not a fixed solution, but carrying out some investigation (although with no experiment) and specifying the task.

All the three teams took part in solving and discussing every problem and got specific points for their performance.

The next year, there were already several Fights, but mostly among Schools 45 and 239, because the School 38 (which had a strong team) soon ceased to exist as one specializing in physics.

Afterwards, due to tremendous activities of Alexander Alexandrovich Bykov, the Physics Fights were regularly held at the Internat 45 among classes of students. Viktor Maximovich Terekhov could tell about this period in more details.

I. M. Do you possibly know any publications concerning these early Physics Fights? Did you have an overall impression that the Physics Fights in 1965 were in fact the first ever of this kind? I will certainly try to contact Terekhov who seemingly works now in Lyceum 239.

M. G. I understand that my information is limited and poorly structured, but I have no possibilities to investigate seriously into the topic. I will try to find out if any publications existed. Bykov could have published something, and Terekhov (who indeed works at 239) could know about that.

Kobushkin could have effectively been the initiator of these events, as he was an extraordinary person and very motivated in his activities and in students. Moreover, he was among first university-based teachers at both Schools 239 and 45.

I. M. Thank you.

The interview with Sergei Sokolin was primarily taken between February 11 and February 14, 2010. The interview with Mikhail Goryaev was primarily taken between April 8 and April 9, 2010.

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