17-year-old Pakistani student's physics paper surprises older scientist

Published: October 5, 2017


A Pakistani high school students’ physics paper has managed to stun an older scientist at the International Young Physicists’ Tournament.

When certain kinds of electrically charged particles travel between a pointy electrode and a flat one, but bump into a puddle of oil along the way, they form an electric honeycomb.

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Physicists knew of this phenomenon decades before Muhammad Shaheer Niazi, a 17-year-old high school student from Pakistan met the electric honeycomb.

In 2016, as one of the first Pakistani participants in the International Young Physicists’ Tournament, he replicated the phenomenon and presented his work as any professional scientist would. But he also developed photographic evidence of charged ions creating the honeycomb, and published his work Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, The NewYork Times reported.

Almost every electronic device in your home contains capacitors, which store electricity, a bit like a battery. Electricity travels from the top electrode, through the insulator, to the bottom, or ground electrode.

An electric honeycomb behaves like a capacitor. In this case, the top electrode is a needle that delivers high voltage to the air just a few centimeters above a thin layer of oil on the other flat, grounded surface electrode.

The high voltage strips molecules in the air of their electrons, and creates what’s called a corona discharge, pouring down these electrically charged particles, or ions, like water from a fountain, onto the surface of the oil. Just as lightning strives to strike the ground, these ions want to hit their ground electrode. But because oil is an inefficient conductor, they can’t get through it.

“We can say this is frustrated lightning,” said Alberto T Pérez Izquierdo, a physicist at the University of Seville in Spain whose 1997 work on the subject inspired Niazi’s project.

The ions start accumulating on top of the oil until their force is too much. They sink down, forming a dimple in the oil that exposes the bottom electrode, allowing them to find their ground.

But now, the surface of the oil is no longer even. Within milliseconds, dozens of hexagonal shapes form in the layer that help maintain the equilibrium nature demands. The polygons keep the amount of energy flowing into and out of the system equal, and balance two forces — gravity, which keeps the oil’s surface horizontal, and the electric field pushing down on top of it.

To prove that the ions were moving, Niazi photographed images of the shadows formed by their wind as they exited the needle and recorded the heat presumed to come from the friction of their travel through the oil. Heat appeared to originate at the needle, and dissipate outward, increasing with time — even five minutes after the honeycomb formed.

The thermal images puzzled Dr Pérez Izquierdo. Neither he nor others had previously explored temperature changes on the oil’s surface, and he would have expected a smaller and more even heating effect than Niazi observed. Determining the heat’s origin is an interesting question that requires more study, he said, while also praising Niazi’s experimental skill.

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“I think it’s outstanding for so young a scientist to reproduce these results,” Dr Pérez Izquierdo said.

Niazi also hopes to further explore the mathematics of the electric honeycomb, and in the future, dreams of earning a Nobel Prize. In nature — and in the electric honeycomb — Niazi points out, “nothing wants to do excess work,” but he’s getting started early anyway.

This article originally appeared on The New York Times.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • BHuman
    Oct 5, 2017 - 1:38PM

    Pretty good! These kinds of efforts need to be applauded as it shows passion in science more than anything else. Good effort!Recommend

  • SZH
    Oct 5, 2017 - 2:34PM

    Proud of you young man. We need more stories like yours to tell the world about our true potential. Recommend

  • Syed
    Oct 5, 2017 - 3:18PM

    Amazing stuff. Just to read the whole thing brings back memories of Physics :)
    Great job done Niazi. However, I would like you to set the goal much higher than earning an award. I would like you to produce technology which will help humanity.
    Money comes my friend. Recommend

  • Ahmed Farooqi
    Oct 5, 2017 - 3:31PM

    Dear Niazi
    Congratulation ! You have made us Pakistani very proud. Now that you have already selected Physics as you career I wish you inshAllah good Luck.
    Who knows someday you might share the Nobel Prize.

    Ahmed Farooqi
    Riyadh Saudi ArabiaRecommend

    Oct 5, 2017 - 3:46PM

    Proud of you!

    You are the future of Pakistan…. and its looking bright. Recommend

  • Dove
    Oct 5, 2017 - 4:10PM

    Pakistan’s pride bravoRecommend

  • Kamal
    Oct 5, 2017 - 4:16PM

    Great achievement at a young age. Keep this momentum going through rest of your life and wish you all the best in achieving Nobel prize with your dedication and hard work. Well done. My admiration for you and your parents, who supported you all the way.Recommend

  • MS
    Oct 5, 2017 - 5:17PM

    One of the only few kids who use information revolution and internet for positive purposes. Majority are wasting time and ruining their own future on social media. Recommend

  • Raj - USA
    Oct 5, 2017 - 7:50PM

    Very much impressed reading this article and learning about the achievements of this kid. He is great, has huge potentials and excellent prospects. Recommend

  • Viraf Mehta
    Oct 5, 2017 - 8:21PM

    Another Abdus Salam in the making. Please give all the encouragement he deserves so that his talents are harnessed.Recommend

  • Sm
    Oct 5, 2017 - 9:53PM

    Cool. Keep it up.Recommend

  • Ejaz Siddiqui
    Oct 6, 2017 - 3:23PM

    Well done boy. Thats the type of people of we need. He should have been the headline of media.Recommend

  • tobefactual
    Oct 7, 2017 - 4:29AM

    Congratulations for the budding scientist. Pakistani Establishment should encourage scientific education to the young minds instead of teaching them false history, bigotry and religious chauvinism through the Pakistani Studies.Recommend

  • Kamran
    Oct 7, 2017 - 2:59PM

    All credit goes to Dr. Farida Tahir, Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Comsats University, who personally took the initiative and attracted bright students from different schools of Pakistan and mentored them to participate in these events for the third time this year. Hats off to the Iron LadyRecommend

  • Chengez k
    Oct 8, 2017 - 3:36PM

    Excellent !!!Recommend

  • Aish
    Nov 12, 2017 - 8:07AM

    It is an tremendeous and meritorious work you did man! Well doneRecommend

  • Mohammad
    Nov 20, 2017 - 9:34PM

    Good luck great young man. Pray for u to get Nobel prize. U deserve it. U will get it inshallah. Recommend

  • Faisal
    Nov 21, 2017 - 5:48PM

    proud to be Pakistani
    and best wishes
    and pray one day you will get Noble prizeRecommend

  • Shaheen Inamullah
    Nov 21, 2017 - 10:51PM

    I pray for your long and healthy life so that you can get us this honour.Recommend

  • Fauzia Zubair
    Nov 25, 2017 - 8:19AM

    Good luck. May you be blessed with a life of successful study and contribution to humanity. Proud of you already.Recommend

  • Qazi Iftikhar Ahmad
    Dec 10, 2017 - 10:52PM

    Thank you very much Shaheer Niazi for making all of us proud. Jeetay rho and keep moving forwardRecommend

  • Mohammadgul
    Dec 21, 2017 - 11:34AM

    good luck for you and your family who supports you every time. Recommend

  • Munir ahmad
    Jan 10, 2018 - 10:12PM

    MashaAllah.wonderful.keep it up n be a prideRecommend

  • Shakeel
    Jan 17, 2018 - 12:46PM

    Intelligent guy..All the Best onward Recommend

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