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From Y11 Physics to NASA’s Next Moon Landing Mission

To my surprise, everything I learned in HSC Physics was directly applicable...

Sepehr Saryazdi Physics Tutor at Project Academy | ANU Insitute of Space

To my surprise, everything I learned in Prelim and HSC Physics was directly applicable to solving the problems I was working on in Canberra. From difficult topics such as the Doppler Effect, to Maxwell’s equations, and Einstein’s special relativity, here is my journey as an average Y11 Physics student, to working on NASA’s next moon landing mission.

Introduction

My name is Sepehr Saryazdi, a Physics, Mathematics, and Data Science tutor at the University of Sydney (USYD), and a Physics teacher at Project Academy. I was very fortunate to work on the space lasers that will be involved in NASA’s new Orion Spacecraft for the first human moon landing since Apollo 11.

I have a Bachelors of Science (Physics & Maths), and am studying a Masters of Mathematics. I am currently solving numerous problems in robotics engineering, machine learning, and pure mathematics. I have received multiple scholarships at USYD for my work, and am planning to work as a scientist and engineer to help solve the world’s biggest problems that humanity faces today.

Despite all my achievements, I actually had a very humble beginning and was nowhere near a child prodigy. In fact, I felt very average throughout my high school years. Rewinding the clock, my journey actually started when I randomly chose Prelim Physics in Year 11.

Beginnings

I went to an average non-selective school, and in Year 10, my interests were in the arts, languages, and acting. I was keen to pick French for my HSC subject selection, but to my surprise, it was not offered at school! From the ‘leftover’ subjects, I ended up choosing a weird subject called Physics.

What an uninteresting start to my HSC!

The Spark

Like most students, my interest in Physics only grew after learning about its relevance to the everyday world. In my readings, I came across topics such as Quantum Weirdness which was absolutely mind boggling, yet strangely wonderful, and kept me wanting to learn more.

One night upon thinking about my ATAR, I thought it was a bit crazy to choose this random subject on a whim. I doubted my chance of actually doing well in the subject, and certainly hadn’t thought about working on Physics or Engineering problems in the future. Despite this, it was my growing fascination that kept me here.

I thought to myself, why not work through it, give it my best shot, and see what comes of it?

Despite this optimism, my Year 11 Physics marks were not great. To make matters worse, I had decided to join 3U Maths (from 2U Maths) because of its relevance to Physics, while also juggling a Shakespeare play I was acting in at the time. None of my teachers had thought it was a good idea, but a part of me compelled me to take up the challenge. I persevered, driven not by my marks but by a drive to learn more about these intriguing, interrelated subjects.

Out of possible young naivety, I took up a challenge that would definitely test my determination and grit.

Quantum weirndess is indeed really wierd!

Overcoming Challenges

Committing to Physics and 3U Maths, two subjects I was completely late into learning, proved to be very difficult. Everyone seemed to be miles ahead already - they always knew something I didn’t, and it just seemed like I was falling behind.

I didn’t let this affect me. I felt very dumb and below average most of the time but I kept trying. I even began waking up earlier during the week to work on some problems before school in order to avoid looking dumb in front of my teachers and peers!

To my surprise, I came out with a 97.3 ATAR. This was certainly not a 99+ ATAR that some of you may dream for, but the whole process taught me something very profound. I learned that, despite always feeling behind, or feeling like you don’t have a shot because you aren’t in the right environment, like I was not in a selective or private school; it is a beautiful thing to persevere through what you find interesting.

Of course, some of you are fortunate enough to know what you want to achieve out of Prelim and HSC. In this case, I hope my story still inspires you to persevere through the challenges you may face; don’t feel like you’re not enough just because of some marks on some paper!

So how does HSC Physics apply to Space Lasers for NASA?

To my surprise, almost everything I learned in HSC Physics was directly applicable to solving the problems I was working on in Canberra. I had to figure out how far ahead the laser should point in order to hit NASA’s Orion, and calculate the laser’s wavelength shifts from the relativistic Doppler effect. These are consequences of Maxwell’s electromagnetism and Einstein’s special relativity.

Maxwell proved that light (an electromagnetic wave) travels at a fixed finite speed c = 299 792 458 m / s, which means that the laser needs to point ahead by some angle in order to hit the Orion spacecraft by the time the light arrives there! Einstein also showed that space itself expands and contracts when an observer moves through it, so this means that space shrinks or stretches the light waves as they come towards us!

Okay, but what’s the point of space lasers?

You might be familiar with the electromagnetic spectrum from Prelim and HSC Physics. Your phones and computers talk to each other using microwaves, which is between 1GHz to 300GHz frequency. This is also how your phone’s GPS (Global Positioning System) works; it’s actually transmitting microwaves to your nearby radio tower and this radio tower transmits microwaves to satellites in space that figure out where you are!

This is great for transmitting data to and from space, but it’s really low quality if you want to livestream videos. However, lasers can actually go up to 200THz in frequency! This means you can pack much more data and even watch 4K videos that are transmitted straight from space! NASA recently managed to do this, they used lasers to stream a HD cat video from deep space: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/19/science/nasa-cat-video.html

Back to Earth - so how can I become better at Prelim or HSC Physics?

My advice, from truly living it, is to just keep asking questions and keep solving problems from your own perspective. Don’t accept anything blindly and pretend you understand it. Really try to test the theory you’re learning, find counterexamples and try to break the laws of physics. No question is too dumb, no question is useless. You will feel dumb most of the time, I still do today; that’s perfectly fine and actually a necessary step for learning and becoming great at what you do.

The greatest physicists and engineers were the ones who stood their ground and questioned everything; Michelson and Morley questioned the ancient Greeks who believed that light travels at different speeds in different directions (spoilers: it doesn’t!), Einstein questioned whether the fabric of space or the flow of time is the same for all observers (spoilers: it isn’t!), de Broglie questioned whether everything is a particle (spoilers: everything is also a wave!, and more recent physics developments have questioned whether dark matter is real (spoilers: we don’t know yet).

I like Physics. Should I pursue Physics after finishing high school?

If you asked me this two years ago, I would’ve said it’s better to study computer science because big tech is a hot industry right now and there is more stability in these jobs. However, the world is extremely connected and any discipline you choose will likely get you where you want to go; you just have to be willing to work really hard to do well in your field.

With something like Physics, if you work really hard on solving the problems, then you may eventually see yourself contributing to exciting research that is important for advancing humankind. For myself, I find this to be my main drive; working on the hard problems that are important for helping the world. With something like computer science, you will likely find getting jobs easier, and will work on something more robust and well-understood, which gives you greater long-term security.

I was also fortunate to start working as a robotics engineer despite being a physics graduate. However, keep in mind that my work is more related to research and development of new technology, which is less stable as a career path. If you are truly passionate about physics, I would say go for it; but be ready for many challenges.

For example, a challenge I faced was when I had to convince my parents to allow me to study physics at uni, because they didn’t think it would get me anywhere. However, by being super passionate, I managed to pull through the degree much easier during hard times in comparison to those who chose a major that they weren’t passionate about because they thought it would make them a lot of money.

Even if you are still worried about not being able to make money with a physics degree, I would say don’t worry; R&D engineering companies and banks are always very eager to hire physicists. However, this usually means you are expected to learn how to code as well, so I would recommend learning this in your spare time. I’ve met many physics graduates who also became great programmers and problem solvers even if they didn’t directly work in physics; some who started working at Google, some that now work in robotics and some who are now working at banks.

So what’s the next step for future Physicists?

Serious and difficult problems lie before us and it’s up to the future generations of scientists and engineers to solve them. Problems like climate change, renewable energy and poverty are becoming issues that will likely affect billions of people within the next century. Scientists are to test and explore all the possible solutions to these big questions, and engineers are to robustly manufacture and distribute these solutions.

In the field of physics, many problems lie ahead for us to guarantee the prolonging of humankind. For example, it’s becoming a bigger question of how we could produce renewable energy at an efficient rate to stop climate change, while ensuring that the prices are affordable for the average person to live with. Some have begun investing into the space industry, as something like the Wall-E movie may be our last resort, if climate change is not solved. However, it doesn’t have to end up this way! If those who are truly passionate work towards these bigger goals, then as a collective group, we may be able to change the course of history.

So, if you are truly passionate, this could be your opportunity to put in your hard work now and make a real impact towards the future for humanity.

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Guides / hsc success stories

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Maximise Your Chances Of Coming First At School

Trial any Project Academy course for 3 weeks.

NSW's Top 1% Tutors

Unlimited Tutorials

NSW's Most Effective Courses

Access to Project's iPad

Access to Exclusive Resources

Access to Project's Study Space