University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

Paper on physics of extraterrestrial life lands students silver medal at international competition

Students ponder physiological and environmental impact of hypergravity and extreme temperatures on alien animal life
January 22, 2014
Undergraduate students Luis Welbanks, Robert Ridgway and Brian Andrade had 48 hours to develop a physics-based approach for explaining what animal life would resemble on a planet with eight times the Earth's gravity and temperatures reaching 250 Kelvin.

Undergraduate students Luis Welbanks, Robert Ridgway and Brian Andrade had 48 hours to develop a physics-based approach for explaining what animal life would resemble on a planet with eight times the Earth's gravity and temperatures reaching 250 Kelvin.

Undergraduate students Luis Welbanks, Robert Ridgway and Brian Andrade from the Department of Physics and Astronomy learned on Jan. 15 that they won a silver medal at the fourth University Physics Competition held by Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

The University Physics Competition is an international contest whereby students must work in teams of three at their home university to analyze a real-world scenario using the principles of physics. Each team has 48 hours to write a formal paper describing their work.

This year’s participants were given the choice between two questions including gravitationally assisted Jupiter orbital entry and extraterrestrial lives and their physical description. The contest started on Friday, Nov. 13, 2013.

Supported by Prof. Jo-Anne Brown, the University of Calgary team chose to model a quadruped life form living on a super-Earth with twice our gravity and an average temperature of 250 Kelvin.

This problem involved considering the physiological and environmental effects of gravity and temperature on alien life forms.

“In considering this extraterrestrial animal and extreme living conditions, we developed a systematic and rational way for determining its potential size, shape and structure,” explains Welbanks, a third-year and double honours major in physics and astrophysics.

“More specifically, our paper provided a physics-based analysis of how such a tetrapod, a four-legged animal, would be on a hypothetical planet with eight times the mass of the Earth, twice our planet’s radius and very high average temperatures.”

Through an analysis of blood pressure and compressive strength on the bones, the team found that an animal on such a planet would be smaller than a similar tetrapod on Earth and that it would have stronger muscles to provide greater support against gravitational forces.

The group’s inquiry also led them to reflect upon potential shape, senses and temperature adaptations for this alien animal on the theoretical planet.

“We found that it would be desirable for such an animal to have a better sense of physical orientation since a fall on a planet with greater gravity could cause increased damage to its body,” states Welbanks.

Throughout their reflection and analysis process, the group found plenty of research on the effects of microgravity on animals but relatively little on the effects of hypergravity.

A total of 120 teams representing universities from all over the world took part in the competition. Of those, two teams were ranked as gold medal winners, 21 teams silver medal winners, 32 teams bronze medal winners, and 65 teams as accomplished competitors.

“The fact that we did so well just goes to show that we have a top edge education,” adds Welbanks, who hopes to complete a master’s degree in high energy astrophysics and cosmology, and later a PhD. “It is a great step towards research and grad school preparation.”

This event marked the University of Calgary’s first participation in the competition.