Passion plus persistence pays off in math competition.
The largest gathering of mathematicians on Earth convened in Seattle for several days last week, and I figured that would be worth a visit. I didn’t check to see if it was actually the largest, but you have to trust the American Mathematical Society to count accurately.
More than 6,000 mathematicians signed up for the meetings at the Washington State Convention Center.
Part of the draw for me was a contest called “Who Wants to Be a Mathematician,” which is run like a TV game show, with contestants hitting buzzers when they arrive at an answer.
The contestants were high-school students from across the country, and one of the 10 finalists was a local student you may have read about in December, Abishek Hariharan, a junior at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond.
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The question-writers included references to Seattle in some of their problems. If you add five to the fifth power to five squared and divide by five, you get what? Yes, the number of home runs Ken Griffey Jr. hit over the course of his career, 630.
That was a softball question. The problems got much harder, but the contest was still as much about fun as it was about math. And along the way there was some educational content that went beyond working math problems.
The students competed five at a time in two preliminary rounds, then the three with the highest scores competed in the final. In the last round, the first to buzz in and answer a question correctly took all the points for that question.
Ankan Bhattacharya, the eventual winner, was especially fast, answering sometimes before I’d finished reading the question. Afterward I asked him how he was able to do that.
Ankan is a junior at International Academy East in Troy, Mich. He said, “I don’t read the whole question. I just scan enough to identify the important part.” Of course, that strategy works only if you’ve put in the kind of hours it takes to really know your math. He has.
He’s been preparing since he was a little kid. Ankan said that when he was 3 or 4 he would open one of his dad’s giant books and flip through, just looking at the page numbers. His dad, by the way, is an engineer with Ford.
And the local favorite’s dad is an engineer, too, at Microsoft. Abishek has been immersed in math since he was quite young and told me, “I just like solving problems. When I solve problems, it’s just a good feeling. That’s what I like.”
He finished fifth, but that was enough to earn $2,000 in prize money. The students, who all made it to the finals by doing better than thousands of other students on a qualifying test, get to keep half of what they win, and the other half goes to their schools.
But the biggest reward is doing what they like and doing it well. I picked up some math history at the event, and it emphasized the passion people can have for math and the benefits of continuing to expand the demographics of those who pursue math careers.
This year, seven contestants were guys, and three were women, one of whom, Kelly Zhang from the North Carolina School of Science and Math, would become the first young woman to make it to the final round.
Before that round, host Mike Breen showed a video about the career of Katherine G. Johnson, who in 1953 joined the agency that would become NASA as part of a group of women referred to as women computers. Her work was so valued that once, after NASA had come to rely on mechanical computers, the astronaut John Glenn insisted that she be brought in to double-check a computer’s calculations before a launch. At the time, it was a rare privilege for a woman and an African American.
Science writer Simon Singh spoke after the contest and showed a video of the mathematician Andrew Wiles weeping as he recalled solving a problem he’d worked on for seven years. Not any problem. He proved Fermat’s last theorem related to positive integers, which had eluded solution for more than three centuries.
Passion plus persistence is the best formula for success, whether your talent is hitting balls or working equations.