Abishek Hariharan and nine other stellar students will compete in a game- show-style contest before a big audience of mathematicians, including some of the world’s best. This is his first national competition, and it will be in Seattle.
When 6,500 mathematicians converge on Seattle for a convention early next year, a Redmond 11th-grader will be a star of their show.
Abishek Hariharan, a 16-year-old junior at Tesla STEM High School, will compete against nine other high-school students in a national contest called “Who Wants to Be a Mathematician.”
The event, staged like a game show, has become a highlight of the American Mathematical Society’s annual meeting, which the society claims is the largest gathering of mathematicians on Earth. Like fans at a football game, the crowd cheers on the youthful contestants as they compete for a $10,000 purse.
Hariharan’s march to mathematical fame and fortune began when he was just 5 years old. His father, a Microsoft engineer, sent him to Kumon, a local tutoring center, to practice his numbers. The boy’s talents emerged quickly.
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He competed in his first math contest at age of 8. To qualify for the upcoming competition, to be held at the Washington State Convention Center on Jan. 7, he had to beat out a field of more than 2,300 math students.
Previous qualifying tests were peppered with questions such as “How many zeros in a googol to the googol-nth power?”
A googol — which a famous search-engine company intentionally misspelled as Google — is the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. And the answer to that test question is: 100 googols.
The way some kids practice piano, Hariharan practices math. He tries to put in an hour a night, after he finishes his school homework.
“There’s a lot of creativity and problem-solving that you get out of it,” he said. “It’s really fun when you come up with an answer. You feel like you’ve discovered something. It’s just kind of a good feeling.”
In most math contests, contestants sit at a table and take a written exam, sometimes spending 90 minutes on their answers. In the Seattle contest, they will answer questions quickly, in three minutes or less, while standing on stage in front of a big crowd.
“It’s kind of like a football game, except it’s math,” said Mike Breen, a spokesman for the American Mathematical Society. “And we want people to come out and root for these mathematicians just as they would come out and root for high-school football players.”
Breen, who is a math Ph.D., has competed on “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” (He cut his hand while spinning the show’s famous wheel.) He and another math geek, Bill Butterworth, who was a math consultant for “The Price Is Right,” came up with the idea of a television-style math contest.
They modeled “Who Wants To Be A Mathematician” after “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” a popular TV show originally hosted in the U.S. by Regis Philbin that gives contestants a chance to strike it rich by answering multiple-choice questions.
The triumphant mathematician splits the $10,000 prize with his or her school math department. If Hariharan takes the crown, he intends to save his share of the money for college. He hopes to attend MIT or an Ivy League school. (He might spend a small portion on a new game for his Xbox.)
When Hariharan takes the stage in Room 6A of the Washington State Convention Center, his colleagues from the Tesla high-school math team, on which Hariharan is a standout, will be rooting for him.
“Even starting out as a freshman, he’s been consistently one of our top performers in pretty much every competition we’ve been a part of,” said Kyle Ostlie, the team coach and Hariharan’s calculus teacher. “We’ll be cheering him on. We’re all excited about it.”
Win or lose, Hariharan and other contestants will get to hobnob with some of the world’s leading mathematicians and attend lectures on a variety of challenging topics, including:
• Pre-strained Elasticity: Curvature Constraints and Differential Geometry with Low Regularity
• Quasi-random Sets, Quasi-random Graphs and Applications
• The Fractal Geometry of the Mandelbrot Set
“Who Wants To Be A Mathematician” will be streamed live from 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Jan. 7. It can be seen at original.livestream.com/wwtbam2015.