Sebastian Bürger from Beckwitz near Torgau is a real whiz kid at maths and physics. The 16-year-old is one of nine pupils from Saxony to have reached the third selection round of the 45th International Physics Olympiad, held in Göttingen’s prestigious German Aerospace Center in early February 2014. Saxony has produced many researchers and inventors, and the region has always had a strong focus on providing an excellent education in the natural sciences. In fact, Saxony recently took the top position in Germany’s PISA ranking. So it’s hardly surprising that attendees from Saxony formed the biggest single group of pupils in Göttingen. The International Physics Olympiad – or IPhO – nurtures especially talented young physicists at an early stage and stimulates their interest in science. Sebastian is one of them.

Sums and experiments beat computer games. Really

The red-haired youngster is in Year 10 at the Johann-Walter-Gymnasium secondary school in Torgau. “My interest in maths comes from my older brother,” he says. “He’s really good at science too and has taken part in various competitions. I saw how much fun it was.” He says his own biggest success so far was when he represented Saxony in the German Mathematics Olympiad last year. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking Sebastian must be some kind of lonely nerd. He plays table tennis for a local club, is interested in history and has lots of friends. So how does he cope with his packed schedule? “Good organisation! I get my homework done as fast as I can and read on the train on the way to my maths club in Leipzig. There are some things you have to give up, though. I haven’t played on the computer for a long time.”

Teachers with dedication, humour and passion

Sebastian is supported by headteacher Peter Nowack and his staff. Nowack believes it is important for his most talented pupils to take part in at least one competition a year. “It gives them an incentive to practise and sharpen their abilities,” he says. “It also lets teachers identify the best pupils and support them individually.” Nowack has taught maths and physics for 30 years. “I love what I do and I still really enjoy being in the classroom,” says the 52-year-old, himself a former pupil of Johann-Walter-Gymnasium. The headteacher puts his heart and soul into his job. “It’s not enough just to manage a school,” he says, and he’s happy to take on extra work. “That sometimes also means more work for my colleagues,” he says, with a grin. Johann-Walter-Gymnasium used to be a Franciscan monastery with a history stretching back as far as the 13th century. Situated in a rural area, the school is careful to maintain the right balance between arts and sciences. Peter Nowack is proud that Sebastian Bürger competed in Göttingen alongside pupils from secondary schools that specialise in science, including the Nexö-Gymnasium in Dresden and Leipzig’s Ostwald-Gymnasium. But first and foremost, it’s about taking part. “The journey is the reward, isn’t it?” says Nowack, winking at Sebastian. If Sebastian has anything to do with it, the journey will culminate in him studying for a maths degree – preferably at the highly regarded Institute of Mathematics at Leipzig University.

Update: In February 2016 Sebastian has become seventh best in the International Physics Olympiad. Among the ten best young German physicists are five saxons. A young fellow from Leipzig has made the 1st place.