Quest for the Gold

September 26, 2004

Book Review
Joel Spencer

Count Down. By Steve Olson, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2004, 256 pages, $24.00.

There is something special about kids, adolescents, who have great mathematical talent. Their enthusiasms, and not just for mathematics, fill us with hope. Here we meet six of the very best, America's team in the 2001 International Mathematical Olympiad. The story of their quest for the gold makes an enjoyable book, but perhaps even more a joyous book.

The Olympiad consists of six challenging mathematical problems, split among morning and afternoon sessions, with three problems each. The sessions are four and a half hours long. The Olympiad is at heart an individual competition. No collaboration is allowed among the members of a team, and each team member is given the same six problems. (The problems are translated into the native language of each contestant.) The raw scores on each problem are added to give an individual's total score. The top twelfth of the finishers go home with the gold. The individual scores of a country's team members are added to determine the team ranking. As with the competition's more celebrated sports counterpart, a strong final team ranking is, for many, a major goal. I won't spoil the ending, except to say that we can all be proud of America's 2001 team.

Olson follows an unusual and, on the whole, successful format for the book. He has matched the six team members---Tiankai Liu, Reid Burton, David Shin, Gabriel Carroll, Oaz Nir, and Ian Le---with the six problems from the competition. As the students struggle with the problems, Olson gives us their backgrounds, their personalities, their passions. We learn that Reid Burton is an accomplished pianist and cellist and that Gabriel Carroll is a master of mirror writing. All love Ultimate Frisbee. We read about their development and their training. Along with the problems themselves, Olson gives the method of attack and the solution. It is such a treat to see real mathematics in a book aimed for the general public.

Olson interleaves general discussions on matters mathematicians and non-mathematicians can discuss and debate: What is the nature of mathematical talent? Of creativity? Of genius? Are genius and madness correlated? Can we detect and nourish talent at an early age? Why are so many of the team members Asian? Why are so few (none in 2001 and only one in the history of the U.S. team) female? Why are so many from immigrant families? Why does the U.S. lag (or does it?) so far behind most countries in mathematical and scientific training? We learn of the Lewis Terman study of academically advanced children, of an examination of visualization (how mathematicians "see" problems) by Beth Casey, the anti-competitiveness doctrine of Alfie Kohn, investigations of creativity by Dean Keith Simonton, and much, much more. Perhaps too much more. Readers searching for the deep insights of Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind (the book, not the movie!) or Robert Kanigel's brilliant dual biography of Hardy and Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, will be disappointed. That said, Olson's work will certainly spark spirited conversations.

From Mozart to Erdös, those prodigies who have gone on to great success are rightly prized. Less spoken about, and then often in whispers, are those whose youthful promise has not been met. Olson, too, shies away somewhat from the dark side of youthful precociousness. He discusses Eric Lander and Peter Shor, two members of previous Olympiad teams. Both Lander and Shor have moved from success to greater success and are now recognized world leaders in genomics and quantum computation, respectively. The trajectory of some others, however, can best be described as from "count down" to "melt down." Great youthful success is a sharply double-edged sword. Where does one go after reaching the pinnacle? One reaches a crux when presented with a problem whose solution will not set the world on fire. Will the former prize winner decide that the problem is beneath him or her? Will he or she not attack it with full body and soul? If so, the game is lost.

What are the qualities that lead to a successful career in the world of science and mathematics? Three qualities are critical. First, definitely, is talent. Science is no place for charlatans. These young stars are for real; their talent is abundantly clear. The second requirement is drive. Certainly the Olympiad teammates have great drive; their love for mathematics and for solving mathematical problems shines through the entire book. But drive, unlike talent, is not innate. Drive can be lost, and when it is, the chance of great mathematical work drops to near zero.

The third requirement is a scientific gregariousness. Mathematics is an exceedingly social profession. We meet, we talk, we broadcast our results and listen to those of others, we work together in small, intense groups. Paul Erdös was often lampooned in the popular press for his eccentricities, but in the mathematical world he was the most gregarious person I have ever known. His problems were so often seductive. In speaking to a young researcher, he would give those problems most likely to intrigue and tantalize that individual. He would celebrate successes of his colleagues. These are leadership qualities (there are, of course, a variety of successful styles) that are not yet visible in the young. It is most difficult to predict which young stars will attract a circle of devoted followers to their theorems and conjectures.

It is through the prism of the immigrant experience that America's success at the top levels of scientific achievement can best be explained. America is nearly unique in being a wealthy nation that attracts people from all over the world and a heterogeneous culture that, far more than most, accepts and encourages talented new blood. From Moscow to Mexico City, from Beijing to Budapest, from Hyderabad to Hong Kong, we have drawn some of the very best in a reverse brain drain of monumental importance. Members of the 2001 team had families from China, Vietnam, Korea, and Israel. This is not "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . ."---these team members were from accomplished professional families who had come to America in search of a better life. Here we can speak generally about one of the quintessential American stories. The parents often have a difficult adjustment. But the children! No group is better motivated than second-generation Americans. A frequent path to success is through mathematics and science. The talent and the drive combine, and the result is a continuing rejuvenation of America's leadership in the scientific world.

This reviewer has had the privilege of judging the Siemens Westinghouse Competition. In 2003 Yan Li was the individual winner, with a project on nerve cells and memory. In 2002 Steven Byrnes took the top prize, with an analysis of the mathematical game Chomp. Both seem sure to go on to great success in their respective fields. Most notable was the buzz, the excitement, that permeated the entire competition. All of us, judges, staff, parents, visitors, were caught in the energy field created by this collection of youthful talent. Olson, writing of a similar venue, has managed to capture some of this energy and allow us all to savor it.

Joel Spencer is a professor in the Departments of Mathematics and Computer Science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University.


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