Jul 30 2004

# e raised to the power of pi i equals -1

If you recognize that, you probably have at least a basic interest in mathematics. If so, Count Down : Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition is for you.

This is a fascinating book that combines the story of the American team for the 42nd International Mathematics Olympiad in 2001 with a set of well-written essays on human intelligence, creativity, talent, and competitiveness. Olson does a great job of combining the story of the Olympiad with basic math theory; math education in America; the emotional, intellectual, and social issues these kids face; and a few very clever math jokes.

In junior high and high school I was pretty good at math. The math club I belonged to was nerdily called Mu Alpha Theta; we competed in state wide math contests, and I remember proudly taking home the first place trophy for the Algebra section at a state wide competition at Rice University in Houston my junior year (that was the best I ever did.)

When I went to college at MIT, one of my friends suggested I take some serious math classes. In the first semester of my sophomore year, I took a course called 18.701 – Algebra 1. I figured – hey Algebra – how hard could it be. This was not the algebra of my high school – I knew I was in trouble when the professor would write a bunch of geometric equations on the board and then ask, “Now, pretend you were standing on the other side of the board, what would happen to …?” I was completely lost and had the typical humbling experience that most MIT students have at some point where they realize they aren’t going to make it in the class. After getting a 4 on my second test (yes – a FOUR out of 100 – that would be failing, even when graded on a curve – I must have gotten some credit for getting the course number correct), I dropped the class and decided that I wasn’t quite so good at math.

Fortunately, this book brought back mostly good math memories. Today, the most complex math I do is adding up a column of numbers or occassionally having to multiply two numbers together, so it was fun to puzzle through the problems (which I could at least understand, although I had no clue how to begin to solve them.)