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At the Weizmann Institute students get a chance to break into safes

At the Weizmann Institute, students get a chance to break into safes — legally — showing that deep science has practical uses, after all.

Just what are kids learning in schools these days? If they are one of 200 students from Israel, Europe, and Canada, it could be a skill they may find useful later in life: safecracking.

Useful, that is, if they can avoid prison.

Actually, it’s all in good fun, and in the interests of furthering students’ education.The safecracking contest was part of the 18th annual Shalheveth Freier Physics Tournament, and the physics students who participated are learning numerous skills that will ensure they remain gainfully employed and avoid a life of crime. The Tournament, sponsored by the Weizmann Institute, is a test of students’ ability to apply the principles of physics to the real world — by building an “uncrackable” safe.

The winning safecrackers in this year's Shalheveth Freier Physics Tournament
(photo credit: Courtesy Education Ministry)

The Tournament requires high school students to design and build a safe with a locking mechanism based on principles of physics and physical phenomena, topping it off with a physics riddle. Teams that succeed in building a safe are invited to the Davidson Institute at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where they try to break open as many of the other teams’ safes as possible in a limited amount of time.

Entries receive points from a panel of Weizmann Institute scientists, not only for being pick-proof but also for aesthetics and originality. And, teams get extra points if they succeed in breaking into a safe.

Each group is rated for teamwork, alacrity, creativity, and “style” — and the winner of this year’s contest was an Israeli team, from a high school in Ein Harod in northern Israel. The Amal high school team broke into more of the safes faster than any other group (without using explosives, of course). Four of the top five teams were Israeli, with a team from Montreal coming in fourth.

The safes are rather complicated affairs; for example, the winning safe (i.e. the hardest one to crack) in 2012 utilized the Doppler effect and the Bernoulli law, using signal frequencies to keep the safe’s lock closed, forcing a burglar to try numerous frequencies to crack the safe – sort of like picking a lock by trial and error, but a lot noisier, increasing the possibility that they will be caught.

The contest included 40 five-member teams, who, a Weizmann spokesperson said, demonstrated their knowledge of the principles of physics in the construction of their safe. The locks used in the safes, according to the rules, must be based on high school physics, and be able to resist picking by other teams. “This is the best opportunity in the world to put physical principles and imagination into practice and win awards and recognition in a challenging tournament,” the spokesperson said.

By David Shamah