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Everyday science

Olympian physicists compete in Japan, test your knowledge of the physics of the decathlon 

30 Jul 2021 Hamish Johnston

Fancy doing a PhD in physics while training for the Olympics? I can’t imagine how much hard work and commitment is involved, but the Irish runner Louise Shanahan knows. She is doing a PhD in atomic, mesoscopic and optical physics and competed today in the 800 m race in Tokyo. Sadly, Shanahan was eliminated in the first heat but she can still look forward to completing her PhD – a task that she describes as “much more manageable” than training while studying for her bachelor’s degree.

You can watch an interview with Shanahan in the above video.

Also competing in Tokyo is mathematician Anna Kiesenhofer, who works on partial differential equations that are used in theoretical physics — so she’s a physicist in my books. As well as doing a postdoc at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, she is a world-class cyclist who has won gold in the road race in Tokyo.

A quick scan of Kiesenhofer’s publication list doesn’t reveal any papers about the mathematics of bicycle racing, but I wonder if she looks at all the variables associated with cycling in terms of partial differential equations. Perhaps that was the secret to her spectacular performance in Japan, where she single-handedly outpaced a legendary Dutch team.

If you can’t get enough of the Olympics, we have put together a fun “Physics of the decathlon quiz” that looks at some of the science behind this classic Olympic event. The Physics World editor-in-chief took the quiz in our weekly podcast. Have a listen and see if you can do better than him.

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