History of the
First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics


About 15 years ago the Institute of Physics, Polish Academy of Sciences, in co-operation with the Polish Children's Fund started to organise the so-called Research Workshop on Physics. During the Workshop pupils selected by the Fund partook in various "adult" research projects being carried out at the Institute. Some results obtained by the Workshop participants were extremely valuable and were later published [e.g.: K. Giaro, et al., A Correct Description of the Interaction between a Magnetic Moment and Its Image, Physica C, 168 (1990) 479 - 481; M. Braun, et al., Vibration Frequency and Height of a Magnet Levitating over a Type-II Superconductor, Physica C, 171 (1990) 537 - 542].

National Competition

Many scientists employed in the Institute of Physics are involved in both national and international Physics Olympiads since their beginnings and are in permanent touch with pupils and teachers. During our time with the pupils at both the Workshop and the Physics Olympiads we discovered that some of the high school pupils tried to carry out physical research by themselves - at schools, in some laboratories and even at home. It was then - under permission of the Authorities of the Institute of Physics - that I decided to organise the National Competition in Research Projects on Physics for High School Students. The aims of the competition were obvious. We wanted to recognise pupils’ efforts and provide them with an opportunity to compare their own achievements with those of their colleagues. The first competition of this type started in 1991/2. The number of papers submitted was 59 with many of them being of a surprisingly high level. In this first competition 7 papers won prizes and 19 received honourable mentions. Given the difficulty in comparing papers on, for example, chaotic behaviour with the papers on theory of networks, all prizes were deemed to be of equivalent value. The honourable mentions were divided into two categories: research papers and contributions. Similarly, inside each category the honourable mentions were considered equivalent as well. The prizes in our competition were not typical. Instead of buying items for our winners, such as cameras, computers, sport equipment, etc., we decided to invite them to our Institute for a two-week long research stay. It was felt that in the case of those whose main hobby is physics such a prize is more valuable and more instructive than anything else.

Since the first competition was a success we decided to repeat the national competition every year. The second competition was organised in 1992/3. Its level was also very high, perhaps even higher than the previous year. The number of participants and winners increased also: 81 papers, 8 winners, 21 honourable mentions in two categories.
Table 1 presents a statistics of the first six national competitions.

Table 1. National competition - statistics
No. No. of
Awards Number of Honourable mentions
Contributions Didactic
I 59(66) 7(7) 8(8) 11(13) (*)
II 81(94) 8(10) 8(9) 13(16) (*)
III 88(106) 10(14) 5(6) 9(14) (*)
IV 86(108) 10(11) 6(8) 24(28) (*)
V 98(113) 8(9) 8(9) 24(25) (*)
VI 141(168) 6(9) 16(18) 21(26) 6(11)
Total 553(655) 49(60) 51(58) 102(122) 6(11)
Without brackets: numbers of papers; in brackets: numbers of authors (in the national competition the papers may be prepared by several authors). (*) - honourable mentions in category "Didactic aids" were introduced at the VI competition.

Every year the information on the national competition is published in the brochure with the problems of the Polish Physics Olympiads. The brochure is disseminated to all the high schools in Poland. Additionally, the information on the competition is disseminated by the Polish Children's Fund and published in three very popular journals: Fizyka w Szkole, Wiedza i Życie and Świat Nauki. Due to these actions high school students know about the competition. On behalf of the Organising Committee I would like to express our deep thanks to all the institutions and people who help us in distributing information about the competition. Without this help any efficient work would certainly be impossible.

It is, however, quite obvious that only a small part of the total number of high school students is interested in conducting their own research and has appropriate conditions for that. It is proper to mention here that conducting research needs a special kind of talent, different than talent to solve well formulated by other people Olympic problems with known solutions. In the national competition in research projects the participants have to formulate the topic of investigation by themselves, they have to create appropriate research workshop, choose methods, collect literature etc. The participants work for a long time but without any time limit, characteristic for the Olympiads. Due to that the work does not cause as big stress as participation in the Olympiads. For these differences the national competition in research papers and the Olympiads are not rivals. They are complementary to each other as they involve different kinds of talents.

What are criteria applied when evaluating the papers? First of all we look for new, original and own achievements of the participants. The papers without any new elements have no chance to be awarded. In the first turn essays, philosophical dissertations on different aspects of physics, descriptive papers, papers popularising physics etc. are rejected. The competition is in research and it is quite natural that we look for new results. The papers may be of theoretical or experimental character. Also papers devoted to constructing some new interesting and original devices are recognised. All the achievements of the authors should be presented in an appropriate way characteristic for research papers (including literature). We do not apply any discount for young age of the authors.

International competition: First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics

Analysis of the papers submitted to the first national competition stimulated me to organise a similar competition in an international scale. Taking into account that the projects should be real research papers we named it First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics. Due to kindness and assistance of the Director of the Institute of Physics and the Scientific Council of the Institute of Physics the international competition has started in 1992/1993. Like the national competition the international one is growing up very quickly and becomes to be more and more popular.

The First Step, like the national competition, belongs to the out-of-school education. Participation in the competition does not need any agreement from the school or educational authorities. The pupils conduct their research in the way and conditions, which are the most convenient to them.

Characteristic features of the First Step are:

  1. The criteria used when evaluating the papers are quite adult - we do not apply any discounts for the young age of the participants.
  2. There are no prizes such as cameras, video, etc. Also there are no financial prizes. Instead the winners are invited to our Institute for one month for research stays (usually in November). During the stays they are involved into real research works going on in the Institute.
  3. Every year the proceedings with all the awarded papers are published.

The competition is guided by the Organising Committee and consists of all the members of the Scientific Council of the Institute. The papers are evaluated by the Evaluating Committee, which is nominated by the Organising Committee. In the first two competitions only Polish physicists participated in the Evaluation Committee. In the third competition one foreigner took part in evaluation of the papers. In the fourth competition the number of physicists from foreign countries was 10. In the fifth competition number of foreigners in the Evaluating Committee was 14, etc... In the future we are still going to enlarge the number of foreign physicists in the Evaluation Committee. Two years ago an International Advisory Committee (IAC) has been established. At present if consists of 25 physicists from different countries.

The materials on the competition are disseminated to all the countries via diplomatic channels. The competition is also advertised in different physics magazines for pupils and teachers. (Every year about 30 articles on the First Step are published in different countries). Also different private channels are used. In the first eight competitions the pupils from 67 countries participated.

The First Step (as far as we know) is the only competition that publishes proceedings with practically all the awarded papers. Due to that all our most important decisions may be verified.

The main aims of the competition are:

  1. Promotion of scientific interests among young pupils;
  2. Selection of outstanding pupils (this point is especially important in case of pupils from countries or regions in which access to science is difficult) and their promotion (very often our winners enter better universities and receive appropriate financial help from the local authorities);
  3. Enhancing motivation of pupils to scientific work;
  4. Stimulation of the schools, parents, local educational centres, etc. for greater activity in work with pupils interested in research (we know that in some countries, some regions and even in some schools a preliminary local selection in organised, sometime such selections involve great numbers of participants);
  5. Establishing friendly relations between young physicists (recently all the winners are invited to the Institute in the same time, they are accommodated in the same place, they cooperate with each other, etc.).

Waldemar Gorzkowski   

Warsaw, in August 2000