International Conference of Physics Students (ICPS) 2016, Malta.

Old streets of Valetta, Malta.

Sometimes, just sometimes, an unmissable opportunity comes along. You take it. You end up spending a fantastic week in the vicinity of people who happen to operate on the same wavelength as you, congregating from all over the world on this tiny but charming island of Malta. I am writing this on my homebound plane, knackered but content with the world and with a bucketload of memories freshly baked at this year’s International Conference of Physics Students (ICPS). As this is an annual affair, there is almost no way in the world that I would not be attending this next summer, this time in Torino. Or maybe even Helsinki, in 2018. I can only be amazed at not having heard of it before, which is why I am so keen on spreading the word out to anyone who wants to:

  1. Experience a truly international event, with a plethora of exchanged ideas, knowledge, and stories;
  2. Attend lectures by some pretty huge guest speakers;
  3. TRAVEL. Travel travel travel;
  4. Meet a wacky bunch of 300+ students from the likes of Malta of course, Croatia, Germany, Hungary,  Poland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, America, India, Mexico…. Just a sample of the variety of people I’ve met this week!
  5. Be young and be inspired and learn and teach and have fun and and and….

This is an event organised by the International Association of Physics Students (IAPS), of which the Executive Committee changes yearly at the AGM – admittedly the longest meeting I’ve ever attended, but one which laid out on the table exactly what it is that IAPS really does for students, by students. Financial grants, academic support, trips, conferences, competitions (watch this space for call for teams to PLANCKS 2017!) and so much more. I am so proud to be part of this and the UK’s National Committee.

photo credit: ICPS 2016
photo credit: ICPS 2016

Student lectures were given by BSc, Masters and PhD candidates and graduates, spanning the entire spectrum of physics at a great range of levels, meaning that every single attendee surely learnt something throughout their stay! There were presentations about Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs); Jupiter’s red spot; trapping light in organic solar cells; nuclear reactors and nondestructive testing; a lot of quantum… so much variety in one place.  But I also learnt one vital thing for when my time comes to present a lecture: for the sake of everybody’s sanity…. do NOT. Ever. Insert. A billion. Equations. Onto. A single. Slide.

Additionally to  the student lectures, guest speakers included the likes of:

  • Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, former president of both the Royal Astronomical Society (2002 – 04) and the IOP (2008 – 10), who talked about all the different ways of discovering new, twinkling and dark objects in the universe. I cannot help but also mention that she was the one to make the initial telescope observations in the 70’s which led to the discovery of radio pulsars. It was an honour to attend her lecture, shake her hand and even grab a smiley photo with some of our IOP University Student Network committee:
photo credit: Benjie Cowan (left). Then: Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Danielle Harper (USN president) and myself (right).
  • Dr. Anthony Galeawho managed to revive my love for Fluid Dynamics after the atrocity of my finals. He only had to talk about vortices and I was sold!
  • Dr. Alessio Magro,who detailed out the process of constructing a telescope such as the radio Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an instrument which will be 50 times as sensitive as anything else currently out there operating at radio frequency! To achieve this, it will need processing power equalling 100 million PCs to churn through the heaps upon HEAPS of incoming data. Why all this? Because… the universe is big. But only a little bit big.
  • Prof. Mark McCaughrean (muh-CORK-run), only the senior science advisor for the ESA Rosetta mission which landed Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (see this post!). He spoke for over 2 hours, but not a single moment of boredom or waning concentration was to be found. It left me reeling in excitement like a hyperactive child for the future of research. Humans have done some terrible things in the past; today is no different. But it seems that with these vast international collaborations, as witnessed especially in space science, humankind’s inherent thirst for knowledge about our place in the universe can be satisfied. And through this, we can do just a little bit of good in an otherwise ugly world of war, conflict and greed.

Aside from all the intellectual learning, we had some spiritual learning in the form of none other than international cuisine and booze, of course. The so-called ‘Nations Evening‘ brought the spirit of the conference together, with every nation presenting a piece of their traditional food and drink (mostly the latter….). There was the Austrian ‘Stroh’ 80% rum, homemade German beer, Finnish Minttu liquor, Polish Soplica, so on and so forth! Tiramisu, pasta, Nachos, Norwegian bread and chocolate, Danish apple pie, kapusta, Ptasie Mleczko, just…an endless exhibition of yumminess. The following evening continued in this line with Lejla Maltija – Maltese night, with samples of pastizzi, snails, bean paste made at a workshop earlier that day and pink liquor (EDIT: made from prickly pears, I am told!). Not necessarily in order of my personal preference.

Most students experienced a fun day at the beach and had the opportunity to swim in the sea (whilst some of us had much more fun at the air-conditioned AGM, of course….) – but a BBQ and a beach evening awaited. There’s very little that would beat sitting around a table of cocktails and Cisk beer by the ocean, with people whom you had no idea even existed only a few days beforehand, learning about their interests, research, experiences and just their personalities. Who said physicists fit only one stereotype?

One student lecture in particular stood out from all the others – not only to me, but to everyone else too, it seems. Markkus spoke of his experiences over the last 11 years of ICPS, inspiring us all to do one, important thing: enjoy ourselves. Which is why the next day, a small bunch of us decided to battle the midday sun and venture out into the beautiful, beige city of Valetta, overlooking the harbour and generating a view to capture in your photographic memory for years to come. A day  of climbing the hilly city streets was followed by an evening of running around the otherwise silent, historic city of Mdina contained within walls. A scavenger hunt with a twist! We named ourselves The Holy Fail; luckily, our charming rendition of ‘Let It Go’ in St. Paul’s square and the speechless reinactment of the Big Bang helped us rise to our name and placed us 7th out of 8 teams.

But let me just latch on to the fact that at least one of these guys has attended this annual event for over a decade. Others had been returning for eight, five, three years… Of course there were also plenty of first-timers like myself, but not at any one moment did I feel like I didn’t belong. Not even once. Students meet each other here for the first time, then return to their home countries and not see each other until next year, and keep coming back year after year after year… Even I had a pleasant surprise of reuniting with a couple of guys I first met at UK’s CAPS from 2014. It took us all the way to Malta to meet again, but I guess that’s how these things work in an international community of research!

Torino, wait for me.

Closing ceremony :(
Closing ceremony 😦


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